It’s a loaded phrase for most white people, particularly if they have a limited understanding of history. If a person in the United States is white, they were born with and benefit from white privilege. The phrase itself makes many white people anxious, and I believe that’s primarily coming from a place of fear: fear of the unknown, fear of being called a racist, and fear of how truth might impact our lives.
For those who’ve already bristled at the phrase: if you’re still reading, it’s a good sign that you’re willing to learn something. Stick with me, even when this gets uncomfortable. Particularly when it gets uncomfortable.
First, here is a typical disclaimer so that folks will keep reading and set aside their own defensiveness: white privilege does not mean that white people don’t struggle, that we don’t work hard, that we are rich, or that our lives are easy.
White privilege means that white people have advantages over people of color because we are white. These advantages are not necessarily consciously sought after by white people; often we aren’t aware of them, nor taught how to see them. Most of us aren’t aware of the benefits we receive from white privilege because our culture and education system rarely acknowledge their existence, let alone teach us how to identify them. We see our lives as “normal” without recognizing that white supremacy is what has defined white culture and existence as “normal.”
A seminal essay on white privilege, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh, lists 50 concise, unequivocal, and tangible examples of manifested white privilege in everyday life. If you only have a few minutes left in your day, stop reading this and read that instead.
Inspired by Ms. McIntosh’s list, I cataloged some specific benefits of white privilege in my own life that I recognized in recent weeks. There are many more than are listed here, and there are undoubtedly many more I’m not conscious of.
- I can easily find children’s books for the children in my life that consist of white characters. It takes substantially more time and effort to find age-appropriate books that include people of color – and then to find books that have characters of color AND where the book’s premise isn’t focused on race.
- Genealogy is one of my passions. I can easily spend hours searching through records, ship manifests, baptismal certificates, and census records to discover details on my ancestors – some dating back hundreds of years. That’s a luxury that many people of color don’t have because their American ancestor’s records either don’t exist or are extremely vague.
- I felt angry and self-righteous after witnessing a recent racist event. I quickly and publicly expressed my emotions without any concern of reinforcing stereotypes about white people, and with the subconscious knowledge that sharing my opinion likely wouldn’t make me a target of violence.
- I drive frequently on the thruway, and almost always set my cruise control to 8 miles above the speed limit. Cops at speed traps don’t seem to mind my 8 miles per hour speeding, but would they still ignore me if when I drove by, I had darker skin?
- A friend referred to me as “eloquent.” I accepted the compliment without any suspicion that she was implying that white people usually aren’t articulate.
- I walked into a bank recently, set up new checking and savings accounts, and applied for a sizable personal line of credit. Despite my financial record showing significant debt, the loan was approved within 48 hours without any additional questions. Would my friends of color had that same expedited process? Historically speaking, it’s unlikely.
- I made an inappropriate political comment (funny, but inappropriate) in a group of people I don’t know very well. Until I reread Ms. McIntosh’s list, I’d momentarily forgotten that I have the luxury of doing or saying inappropriate things without worrying that it will reflect on white people as a whole.
- I wore a large, puffy winter coat while I was shopping at a craft store. I was warm in the store, so I took the coat off and put it in my cart, over my purse. At the checkout, as I put my coat on, a tube of glue fell out that had been accidentally stuck in the coat. I handed it to the cashier, apologized that it had gotten caught in my coat, and her response was a smile and a kind “don’t worry, it happens.” At no point did I feel concerned or anxious that she might have mistakenly thought I was attempting to steal.
- While browsing Facebook and seeing photos of my friends and their children, I scrolled to a photo of a friend standing with her son who was wearing a hoodie, and not only did I notice what he was wearing, I was instantly concerned for his safety wearing a hoodie in public because he is black. It didn’t occur to me to be concerned about my white friends’ sons who were also wearing hoodies, because there is no danger for them.
- In a meeting, I firmly stated an observation that the person running the meeting did not want to hear. I was confident that I would be heard and taken seriously; at no point did I consider that my comments would be dismissed not only because they were unpopular, but because I had no power in the room.
My expectation is that these anecdotal examples will give white readers pause in examining their own white privilege in their daily activities. The next step is to learn and recognize other forms of structural and institutional racism that provide privileges that directly impact housing, education, employment, the criminal justice system, intergenerational wealth, and other injustices. When white people intentionally decide to confront their white privilege and actively learn more about the history of white supremacy, it is also time to become involved in local anti-racist action. In Rochester, here’s a place to find events and opportunities to join in anti-racist efforts.
Use Your White Privilege to Fight Racism by Renée Graham
From White Guilt to White Responsibility by Hannah Adair Bonner
Tim Wise: Colorblind Denial & White Privilege – YouTube video
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
70+ Race Resources for White People by Leslie Verner (note: I have not personally read, watched, or listened to all of these resources)
What is White Privilege, Really? by Cory Collins