What is “White Privilege?”
February 10, 2021 / By Georgia Whitney, Conference Commission on Religion & Race
Have you ever gone to a shopping mall and been followed or harassed by a security guard? Have you ever been refused a loan even when you had a strong credit rating? How about being assumed guilty when accused of a crime?
Me neither. That's because, as a white person, I have an unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits, and choices bestowed on me just because I'm white. I have white privilege.
The first time I heard this term, I have to admit I was uncomfortable. It felt like a personal criticism, implying I hadn't earned whatever I had, that I'd never had to struggle.
I've learned that's not what white privilege means—at all. It doesn’t mean my life has been easy, that I haven't struggled, or faced challenges. It doesn’t mean I haven't worked hard. It doesn't even mean that I haven't had to deal with sexism, classism, ageism, or any other form of systemic discrimination.
It does mean that my struggle has not been made harder because of my race. It means that the color of my skin is not the reason for my challenges—my skin color does not make the challenges I face even more difficult. I have white privilege simply by virtue of being born white. Because I'm white, I'm a member of the dominant culture, the culture that provides the norms for our society. That means my whiteness has opened doors for me rather than closed them.
The term "white privilege" was coined in 1988 by Peggy McIntosh, an activist, scholar, speaker, and Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Here are some examples of what white privilege looks like:
- I can be pretty sure that my neighbors will be neutral or pleasant to me.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color helped to make it what it is.
- Most of the time I can arrange to protect my children from people who might not like them.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- If a traffic cop pulls me over, or the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
- I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
- I can take a job without having my co-workers suspect that I got it because of race.
Some of the disadvantages incurred by People of Color may be relatively minor, like not being able to find Band-Aids or make-up in their skin tone. Why, after all, should white skin be the default shade for "flesh-toned" products? How insensitive to assume that only white skin matters!? One of my African American friends told me about finding dark-toned Band-Aids alongside the traditional soft-pink bandages in a store in Houston. She was thrilled, and bought out the stock.
Other disadvantages are far more serious—sometimes matters of life and death.
- Life expectancy. A 2015 study by the Social Science Research Council reported that the life expectancy of white people is 78.6 years. Native Americans can be expected to live 77.4 years. The projected lifespan of African Americans is a full three years shorter than that of whites: just 75.0 years.
- Income and wealth. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that in 2019, the median Black household earned just 61 cents for every dollar of income that the median white household earned, while the median Hispanic household earned 74 cents.
- Home ownership. Even after the 1968 passage of the Fair Housing Act, Black Americans and other minorities have continued to experience housing inequalities. In fact, in the first quarter of 2020, the Census Bureau reported that black households had the lowest home ownership rate, at 44%, nearly 30 percentage points behind white households. You can't build equity when you're paying rent.
- Employment. Last year, the Economic Policy Institute reported that Black workers are twice as likely to be unemployed as white workers overall. Even Black workers with college degrees are more likely to be unemployed than similarly educated white workers. When they are employed, Black workers with a college or advanced degree are more likely than their white counterparts to be underemployed when it comes to their skill level. Almost 40% are in a job that typically does not require a college degree, compared to 31% of white college grads.
If you think white privilege isn't the only kind of privilege, you're right. It comes in a variety of forms. Whether it's gender, age, religious, socio-economic, or white privilege, it's usually invisible to those who have it—because we are taught not to see it. The outcomes mentioned here are maintained in part by denying that the advantages and disadvantages exist in all levels of society, from individual through the institutions of our society.
In my next article, which will be published next week, I will discuss ways white people can recognize their privilege.