My Fellow White People: This Is What’s Meant By ‘White Privilege’
Why we’re so resistant to it, and why we should definitely “check it”
A label that’s accused of being insulting, trivializing, and condescending, “white privilege” is possibly one of the most polarizing terms across mainstream white America. Only, it’s not a slur; it’s simply a fact. To think of it otherwise is to vastly misunderstand and outright dismiss a huge opportunity to foster empathy and build a bridge.
“What more is it going to take? What more do we have to do to make up for what our ancestors did decades ago? Slavery is over! We all have the same opportunities now. People just need to quit complaining and pull themselves up by the bootstraps!”
This sentiment (among many other variations) is just one example of a common misconception that’s perpetuated and echoed every day in white mainstream America. Good, decent, upstanding Christian people with good hearts, who all look something like me, spend some amount of time wondering what it is that black people want from them, while at the same time, claiming to not have a racist bone in their bodies. And for those who don’t yet understand the concept of systemic racism and white privilege in the United States, it’s a fair question.
Oftentimes, calling white folk on the carpet for naively brandishing our white privilege gets met with the pushback cries of “not all white people…!” And yes, it’s correct that “not all white people” participated directly in the historic or enduring mistreatment of people of color. But our learned biases — whether conscious or subconscious — and our relative insulation from such mistreatments often work in tandem, motivating us to execute the most potent, most damaging act of white privilege: silence.
As in, silence when we need to be vocal, and vocal when we need to silent.
Many “fine” folks — moral pillars of their communities, friendly, respectful, law-abiding, all-American, sports-loving white people — have been upset and as a result, very vocal in their complaints about what they perceive as the burden of “politics” infiltrating their Sunday night football games when players take a knee, while at the same time forgetting that politics already has a long-established place in American sports: the forced complicity of standing for the national anthem.
Before anyone jumps down my throat for that last statement, let me clarify that most people don’t mind, of course, and many people are happy and proud to stand for the national anthem; it’s a symbolic, patriotic gesture of American respect. Morevoer, standing for the national anthem is about honoring those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. And this is all neatly packaged up and tied into the best quality of athletics — sportsmanship. We stand out of respect and solidarity, and as a salute to sportsmanship. Because no matter our team (or religion, or origin, or race), we’re all Americans first. That’s why we always stand.
However, in the comfort of their own homes, these same, good-hearted, patriotic folks watching Sunday night football may not bother to rise up out of their recliners when it’s time to salute the flag on TV. They may even go grab a beer or take a pee break while Gladys Knight belts out the beloved American anthem. In their minds, that’s okay, but they’re sure pissed if they happen to see the audacity of “unappreciative” black players who elect to take a knee for their fallen black brothers instead of standing.
Many of these good white folks may not stand or salute in the privacy of their own homes, they may even lambaste whoever is singing the anthem for being “too stylized,” and “why can’t somebody just sing it straight, without all the runs?” rather than showing quiet respect for the symbolism, yet we don’t question their patriotism or respect for the fallen.
Still, somehow many of them find justification in calling question to the respect and patriotism of black football players, who they often portray as “ungrateful, spoiled, rich, guys” who “sow discord by kneeling,” and who “should just stick to what they do best — playing football.” Which, you know, sort of sounds a lot like a white master ordering his black slave to “do as told, or else,” expecting in return a reverential bow of the head and a hearty “yessuh.”
But don’t anyone dare to call any of these white folks “racist.”
It’s enough to make me wonder who the actual special snowflakes are (not that being one’s a bad thing, in my opinion).
On the surface, it may be very true that they aren’t racist. These folks probably do treat everyone equally, so long as there’s mutual respect and no one’s being a jerk. I hear white people across every possible profession speak of how “we all bleed the same color,” and how they would never treat someone differently or less than because of their skin color. I think most of us truly believe that about ourselves.
But the thing about racism in 2019 is that it doesn’t always look the way we think it does. It doesn’t have the exact flavor of the antebellum days, where an entire race of people were literally owned and sold as plantation property, controlled by violence, torture, and rape, forced to work in lethal conditions like rice fields, where they’d stand for days on end in the sweltering summer sun and filthy water rampant with malaria. Nor does it exactly mirror the overt intimidation tactics, threats, and violence heralding the KKK resurgence of the roaring twenties, or following the sixties’ civil rights movement.
Racism in 2019 doesn’t always show up in the dark of night, announcing its presence from under a white hood, carrying a burning cross. In fact, there’s an even more insidious kind of racism today — insidious because you don’t even know you’re infected with it. It’s covert, and it’s largely invisible to white people. It’s unchecked. This is the kind of racism we have to reckon with. And this kind of racism has been so meticulously sculpted and embedded into every aspect of American culture and daily life that we refer to it as systemic racism.
Not being able to see this, not being willing to see this, or to even acknowledge that it exists even though you don’t see it personally is precisely what’s meant by having “unchecked white privilege.”
It’s no one’s fault if they don’t inherently know this. How can they be expected to? Everything we’ve been taught all our lives —contained in the pages of our history books and other texts throughout our education, portrayed in our cultural stories, news, films, and more — has whitewashed American history into a convenient, comfortable truth for white people, at the expense of native Americans and other people of color.
In America, we have public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and more, already established which work to reinforce and perpetuate racial group inequity. And these things are so well-run in the background that us white folks usually aren’t even aware they exist, or that they benefit us without our knowing.
One difference now, unlike in my childhood, is that we’re living in the age of internet enlightenment. Google exists for a reason. There’s not much you can’t find if you care enough to look it up, especially if you have an open mind and a non-biased approach, and you do some basic (but thorough) fact-checking. The onus falls on us now — not on minority groups who are already oppressed in ways we don’t see — to educate ourselves on how this all works, what we do going forward, how we fix things, and how we reconcile our guilt, anger, or hurt feelings. It’s never the job of the oppressed to enlighten their oppressors.
That said, it’s still of utmost importance that us white people seek out, read, and digest the work of people of color. As a white person myself, I don’t write frequently about racism, because I don’t want to be just another white voice taking up space where a black voice would be much better suited, and much more deserving of being heard. In other words, it’s not my story to tell.
However, since we’re not yet at the point where masses of white people are seeking out black writers to learn about systemic racism, and since my audience tends to be primarily white American people of intersectional privilege, I write about it sometimes, in the hopes that it may resonate with even one person. (Aww, shoot. I’ll just go ahead and predict that eventually, it’ll be evident in the comments section at the bottom of this piece just exactly how far we still have to go in the U.S. *See the angry comments left on my last piece on racism from 2017 to see this evidence immediately.)
For all those folks who complain about, say, Colin Kaepernick and the #TakeAKnee movement —I wonder how many actually understand why the movement exists? How many know the backstory — that it was a veteran, retired Army Green Beret Nate Boyer, who was the man to convince Colin Kaepernick to kneel instead of sitting out during the national anthem?
How many of those people realize that kneeling during the anthem is a protected right which falls under the category of peaceful protest? That there’s nothing disrespectful in kneeling? Or, as Boyer pointed out, that “people kneel when they get knighted. You kneel to propose to your wife, and you take a knee to pray. And soldiers often take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave to pay respects.”
It’s a studied and proven fact that when looking at the average state rates of incarceration, overall, black people are incarcerated at a rate of 1,408 per 100,000, while white people are incarcerated at a rate of 275 per 100,000. This means that black people are incarcerated at a rate that is 5.1 times that of white people. It’s a studied and proven fact that in eleven states, at least 1 in 20 adult black males is in prison; And its not because they’re committing more crimes than white people.
It’s also a studied and proven fact that black people are 7 times more likely than white people to be wrongly convicted of murder. And that black people are disproportionately arrested for drugs even though black people are not more likely to use or sell drugs.
In 2017, police killed 1,147 people. Black people were 25% of those killed despite being only 13% of the population. Of the total killed, 149 were unarmed, and the majority of those unarmed people killed by police were people of color. Of those cases, only 13 officers were charged with a crime, accounting for only one percent of all killings by police. These are just statistics and facts — publicly available — that many white people will deny to the grave. And for what reason?
This is why Kaepernick decided to take a knee. Because freedoms are not just won by historical white figures on the battlefield, in the government, or commemorated on coins, whether or not they died for the cause. Freedoms are also won by black people who dare to take a stand — the majority of whom have also lost their lives to the cause, and most especially, our fallen black brothers and sisters who’ve lost their lives unjustly, because black people are disproportionately killed at higher rates than white people at the hands of police who have unchecked white privilege, and unchecked racial bias, which each work together to translate into harmful action.
Look, I’m not saying “all cops are bad.” I’m not even saying “all cops.” One of my own, closest family members started out as a Corrections Officer, quickly moved up the ranks to Police Officer, then worked her tail off and earned the role of Sergeant — the sole female who outpaced every male officer from near and far who also applied for the job, far surpassing them on all the various demanding physical and mental agility tests that Officers endure to prove themselves worthy. She has more strength in her pinky finger than I have in my whole body.
She bravely puts her life on the line every day for what she considers the honor to protect and to serve. She has a heart-of-gold despite her intimidating strength (albeit packed into a tiny body), and she’s about as non-biased as they come. I admire her and look up to her, and I’m pretty damn proud of her, too. But that doesn’t negate the sheer fact that black people are disproportionately killed by police officers in general. Just like in any profession, there are good people and bad people, biased and least biased, corrupt and pure, power-hungry and humble servants.
This is ultimately why Kaepernick decided to kneel once he had the nation’s attention, in order to shed light on a huge social injustice. But also, because Boyer (who always stands for the national anthem) had helped him to see how kneeling was a more respectful, more powerful way to demonstrate his right to protest a flag (and a society) that he felt wasn’t upholding the same values for black lives that it upholds for white ones.
I wonder how many people see the power of this dialogue between Kaepernick and Boyer, and understand that this whole exchange was actually a perfect example of two polar opposite sides coming together, seeing eye-to-eye without resorting to name-calling, and finding a satisfying compromise so that all voices could be heard? If someone has a beef with that, I’m going to have to suggest they check their white privilege.
What Is Meant By ‘White Privilege?’
Peggy McIntosh, Ph.D., former women’s studies scholar and founder of the National SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity), wrote several papers during the late 1980s: White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work on Women’s Studies, and White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
Although the term ‘white privilege’ was already established and used before McIntosh’s work, it became more mainstream with the publication of her papers. (Any of my fellow white people unfamiliar with these important works: I’d highly recommend dropping everything and reading them right now.)
Privilege, as used by McIntosh, is a word that refers to the notion that society grants unearned rewards or benefits to certain people, based on fixed aspects of individuals such as race, sex, gender, and sexuality. “Checking your privilege” simply means acknowledging the role those unearned rewards have played in your life, especially in comparison to how they’ve played (or not played) in the lives of the less privileged.
Common (faulty) notions that many of us white folks have about the concept of privilege are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what privilege means in the first place. Here’s one of those misunderstandings, (with several examples all rolled into one):
“But I’m white and I grew up dirt poor, in a trailer park, with a drug-addicted mom. I raised my siblings all by myself. I dropped out of school. I never had a father. It was hardship after hardship. We scraped and dug through trash cans to survive. We dealt with obstacles every day. Privilege? What privilege? I never had any kind of privilege. And furthermore, it’s insulting to imply that I did. I worked my ass off to get where I am right now in life.”
The thing is, no one is denying that there are many white people who grew up (or currently live) in poverty, neglect, abuse, and/or many other devastating economic, psychological, or physical situations that can break the spirit. No one is saying that white people were born with a silver spoon, or that they didn’t work their asses off to get wherever they are in life. Thinking this way is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to have white privilege.
Some concrete examples of having white privilege:
- I have the privilege of automatically learning all about the history of my race in school; I consistently see my race represented in all my textbooks.
- I have the privilege of not having to look too hard to find numerous examples where my race is historically represented as hard-working, courageous, or heroic; there are plenty of examples to choose from.
- I have the privilege of going to the library and finding children’s books (or teen novels, or young adult books) that overwhelmingly represent my race.
- I have the privilege of frequently seeing/hearing my race speaking as a voice of authority.
- I have the privilege of media saturation (film & images, movies, advertisements, billboards, magazines, etc.). This media saturation portrays my race, is biased in favor of my race, or represents my race as the normative, default race.
- I have the privilege of being largely shielded from the daily toll of racial microaggressions from both strangers and people in power.
- I have the privilege of generally being able to count on police protection in my community rather than police harassment.
- I have the privilege of knowing I can reasonably assume police will not be called on me for having a barbecue in a public park with my family.
- I have the privilege of not being under overt, judgmental surveillance in public while going about my daily business.
- I have the privilege of being able to reasonably presume I (or a family member) won’t be shot and killed during a “routine” traffic stop.
- I have the privilege of detaching from dangerous, violent stereotypes associated with my race; I can enjoy the privilege of knowing that just because Ted Bundy was a rapist and serial killer, other people won’t automatically assume that I and all my friends are as well.
- I have the privilege of choosing to be colorblind, i.e., choosing to “not see race,” (which also makes it virtually impossible to address racism on the whole, as a social inequality).
- I have the privilege of choosing to remain willfully ignorant of systemic racism, because it will never affect me personally in a negative way.
- I have the privilege of having grandparents or ancestors who were able to accumulate a nest egg of some type; I didn’t have ancestors in America who were considered property and not allowed to accumulate any independent wealth for themselves or their future generations.
- I have the privilege of having older family members who attended or graduated from a college or university; I have the privilege of “family legacy” at a state college or university.
- I have the privilege (depending on my financial situation) of choosing where I’m going to live, which is typically going to be a safe, clean neighborhood with low crime, and access to safe schools that generally perform well.
- While talking with peers, coworkers, or even strangers, I have the privilege of being given more attention, being taken more seriously, being more respected, more trusted, and actually being heard in conversations than people of color.
- I have the privilege of doing almost anything I desire without having to be limited, qualified, discredited, attitbuted to, or acclaimed because of my racial background.
- I have the privilege of being spared comments like, “he’s a credit to his race,” or “she’s so well-spoken” (in spite of her race).
- I have the privilege of generally being spared comments that automatically assign judgement on my race to confirm its perceived shortcomings or inferiority status.
- I have the privilege of knowing my ancestors weren’t forced into slave labor that built the infrastructure of this country, nor were they historically the low-wage-earning servants who handled most of society’s housecleaning, child care, cooking and maintenance.
- I have the privilege of knowing that when I go to the store, I can find cosmetics and other products in colors like “nude” or “flesh tone” that match or come close enough to matching my skin color.
- I have the privilege of knowing that when I travel, if I stay in a hotel that provides toiletries, I will get complimentary “white people’s” shampoo among other products typically used by white people.
All of these things (plus many, many more) have economically benefitted us as white people, by virtue of skin color alone, in ways that have not always benefitted people of color. These benefits have helped white people economically even if we’re poor, because white people earn $1.00 to every person of color’s $.60 for doing the same job.
Acknowledging that white privilege exists in no way minimizes the fact that white people in America have worked hard, invented, and built a lot of great things. But the playing field has not been equal for white people and people of color. In fact, there’s a widespread misconception that every American is afforded equal opportunities in life, and that we all start from a level playing field, at the same “go” space on the gameboard. But the truth is, as white people, we often don’t even see the benefits we have received from hundreds of years of systemic racism. Not only do we fail to see them, but we also claim they do not exist.
Why do white people generally hate the term ‘white privilege?’
Because the word ‘white’ creates discomfort among those who are not used to being defined or described by their race, and the word ‘privilege’ especially for poor, disenfranchised white people, on surface level seems to imply something unfitting their narrative — a word that suggests they have never struggled, earned, or worked hard to get where they are in life.
White people pushback against the term out of a primal instinct of defensiveness, without further examining what it actually means. Their defensiveness then derails the conversation, centering it back onto white voices, in need of reassurance that they are indeed understood as the good, hard-working people that they are.
Even when we sort of get it, why are so many of us resistant to acknowledge that white privilege exists? Mostly because the majority of us were taught, in McIntosh’s words, “to understand racism within the framework of individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on (our) group.”
It’s because when we hear a loaded work like racism, we immediately think of outwardly visible, terribly cruel acts, like a Jim Crow world full of racially segregated movie theatres, water fountains, and restrooms. We think of overt forms of discrimination that everyone can see and hear, and all reasonably conclude, “this is racism.”
When we hear ‘racist,’ we conjure horrific images and acts like the scare tactics used by the ku klux klan during the 1920s, or unimaginable violence like lynching and hanging. Or, more recently, we think of the out and proud, tiki torch-carrying, white supremacists who terrorized Charlottesville during the Unite the Right rally in 2017.
Most of us white folks can distance ourselves from these brands of racism because we unequivocally know, “I would never do that!” And indeed, the majority of us wouldn’t. The majority of us were haunted enough in public school just scratching the surface of learning about slavery in America, even though what we learned was a whitewashed version.
But my fellow white people, please understand this:
No one’s doubting you.
When you say “I’m not a racist,” we all know that what you really mean is “I would never intentionally treat a person of color differently than a white person,” that “I strive to treat all people equally,” and certainly, “I would never harm a person of color.” But consider this:
Does the presence of a black man make you walk a little faster or lock the doors from the inside of your car? If a black teen is walking through your neighborhood at night, do you keep a watch on him for “suspicious activity?” Do you assume he’s a “thug” if he’s wearing droopy jeans and a hoodie? Have you ever used the phrase “playing the race card” in regard to a person of color? Do you say or do things behind closed doors that you’d never say directly to, or in the presence of your black friends (or gay, or trans, or feminist friends)?
A response I frequently hear is some variation of this: “yes, of course I lock the doors from the inside of my car — but I’d do that if any stranger was out there; not just a black man.”
Dig deeper. Is that really true? It’s my hunch that it may not always be, that maybe it’s more likely just our perception of what we do, or what we hope we’d do, but maybe — just maybe — it’s not an accurate perception. Are you willing to do a social experiment on yourself? Just to see if that’s what you actually do? Why or why not?
If you could count how many times you lock your car door from the inside (or walk a little faster in the presence of a man, or survey and interpret a kid who’s walking the neighborhood for suspicious activity, etc.) when that person is white versus when they’re a person of color, would you have any trend of bias one way or the other?
You may be more likely to “check yourself” going forward since the idea has been planted in your head. But if you could truly conduct a blind experiment on yourself, would you bet good money on yourself? Would you honestly find yourself more likely, less likely, or equal to presume suspicious activity on a white person walking through your neighborhood versus a black person? You may surprise yourself, and not necessarily in a good way.
And you know what? This part is really important:
It’s not your fault.
It’s not your fault, and there’s no need for “white guilt” because no one is asking you to do anything except just listen, and maybe, open your mind to the possibility that these things exist even if you don’t personally see them yourself.
And it’s not your fault because this is just what folks like me were taught growing up, especially in the south. And we were taught from well-meaning family looking out for our safety who also didn’t know any better, because they had grown up being modeled to and taught on the bedrock of racism — especially in the sense that media, advertising and images, history, and stories of their time helped perpetuate all the racist tropes during their formative years.
Think of the docile, wise but ill-speaking, “Mammy” archetype, or the carefree “Black Sambo,” the caricature that embodied the “lazy” black man stereotype. In reality, we know that under no circumstance could we accurately characterize an enslaved person who was forced (under threat of violence and abuse) to put in hard, manual labor in the blazing hot sun, daily, from sunrise to sunset, as ‘lazy.’ But it was done anyway. It was done intentionally. And we bought it. Laziness, as well as other negative characteristics like treachery and dishonesty, all became characteristic of the African American race in general.
Then, not so long ago, generations a little older than mine had to learn how to navigate the sudden desegregation of schools and public spaces. Which was especially complicated by factors like whether they were raised in a family that wholehearedly subscribed to the “Mammy” and “Sambo” tropes, who taught that black boys and girls were wanton, sexual perverts, and filthy with disease.
More recently, we have the late ’70s and early ’80s (my formative years) responsible for my generation’s understanding of black people: the concocted and exaggerated Ronald Reagan era urban legend that portrays the indolent welfare queen — along with the notion that we inhabited a world where most (if not all) black people took advantage of the system and freeloaded excessively off both the government and decent, honest taxpayers, and they did so by means of lying, cheating, stealing, and “playing the race card.” As recently as today, these mindsets are being taught and reinforced and handed down to the next generation.
The tale of Linda Taylor (the woman Reagan played up after The Chicago Tribune dubbed her the welfare queen) was a true ordeal, but her story was as rare as southern snow in summer. Also, Taylor was a true chameleon, known as many different races (not just black), and she stole her money from a whole host of government services, along with defrauding private individuals. Yet, critics of welfare all too often conjured that image to scare the rest of us and make us think it was much more common than it actually was.
I remember frequently hearing more and more tales that played out exactly like Linda Taylor’s: always black people bilking the system at the expense of white, honest taxpayers. For a while, I volunteered in a church pantry which was allotted to give food to those in need. Our most frequent visitors were people of color. The church made them provide all kinds of documentation — proof of residence, power bills, receipts, etc. — and basically had them sign their lives away, along with agreeing to all sorts of rules and regulations about how many and what kind of food items they were allowed to take, and when (or if) they could come back. It certainly wasn’t a free for all.
I remember on more than one occasion, a family would arrive in a seemingly brand new, shiny, expensive car with all the bells and whistles. “Christian” adults would stand around and pre-judge.
“Ugh. Here comes a Cadillac Escalade,” they’d gasp.
“Looks brand new! I’m sorry, but if they can afford that kind of car, then they can afford to trade it in for something smaller, cheaper, and probably have enough money left over to buy groceries for a year!”
These good Christian ladies were stopped dead in their tracks when they later learned that shiny black Escalade was this family of five’s home; they lived in that car, literally. They had no house.
As the predominant race in America, us white folks are also the loudest group to announce our complete innocence of racism, yet we’re also the most likely group of people to get angry over being associated with anything “racist.” Our anger is so extreme that it almost seems suspicious. If we aren’t the least bit guilty of even the invisible kind of systemic racism or white privilege that automatically benefits us over people of color, then why do we get so seething angry over the accusation?
Over and over again I hear the answer, “because it’s not true.” From people who comment or write to me to say that I’m dead wrong about systemic racism in America. That reverse racism is a thing. Some of the loudest pieces of hate mail I’ve received have been over this exact topic.
Folks, whether we see it or not, we cannot remain blind to the invisible system of privilege that we’re a part of, which benefits us as white folks (and/or straight/heterosexual, cisgender, Christian, and especially if we’re male) in the United States. Privilege is like a built-in advantage, one that’s separate from one’s level of income or effort. Privilege is something that we are given, and something we have no control over. It is completely and totally unearned, but that doesn’t mean there’s stigma assigned to it. It’s not a slur; it’s merely about the facts.
We must recognize the ways in which we are privileged before we can go any farther in the hard work of dismantling systems that have long oppressed too many minority groups of people.
Recognizing privilege is easy to do. For example, I’m white, cisgender, heterosexual, from a middle class family, and have a four year college degree. These are examples of ways I am privileged. I see others just like me represented almost everywhere I look. However, I’m also a woman, with various mental health issues like depression and anxiety, and various health challenges, some of which are severe. These are ways I’m not privileged; these are labels that earn me a certain level of stigma in American society.
Recognizing privilege is only the first step. And it’s the easiest part. Learning how to check it is the important, necessary, hard part. And unfortunately, that’s something every white person has to figure out on their own, and in their own time. I can’t read the books for you, just like you can’t do the work for me. But, I can and I will happily recommend a good place to start, right here: Books to Check Your White Privilege: ’cause it’s about time.
Martie sir-ROY (she/her) writes a variety of social commentary. She’s a top writer in both Culture and LGBTQ for Medium, editor of Gender From the Trenches, and has been a featured contributor for HuffPost, Scary Mommy, NPR affiliates, SiriusXM Insight, and others. A wife, proud mom of three teens, and trans advocate, Martie founded & facilitates S.E.A.R.CH., a program of her local LGBT Center for Trans and GNC youth & their parents. Connect with Martie on Twitter, Facebook, or follow her website & blog.