This Is What White Privilege Looks Like

A lot of well-intentioned white people are walking around not clear on how white privilege has shaped their lives, and by extension, how they benefit from systemic racism. Understanding these things on a personal level is necessary to start resisting that system. So I’ll explain how white privilege has shaped my life as an example, to help you see how it’s shaped yours. The key here is that privilege begets privilege: it builds up over time as each experience it touches leads to new possibilities.

In my first elementary school, my teachers were mostly white even though the students were mostly not white. This has multiple effects.

  1. I learned from people who looked like me and shared my own culture.
  2. My teachers had reasonable expectations of me because I was white, rather than expecting low performance or behavioral problems. (Multiple studies show that teachers expect less of black children and are more likely to see behavior problems in them.)

In my second elementary school, I was placed in a gifted and talented program. Had I been black, this might not have happened. (See the study above about how teachers have lower educational expectations for black students.)

I went to a private school starting in 7th grade. I was admitted partly as a result of my teachers expecting me to do well and placing me in a gifted and talented program, which gave me opportunities to be the kind of student a private school wanted to admit.

I got a large scholarship to a private university. This happened partly because I went to the private school and partly because white students are more likely to get scholarships. (75% of scholarships go to white students even though we make up only 62% of the student population.) My high SAT scores played a part, too; there’s some evidence that the SAT is inherently racially biased.

I got a degree from a private university, which meant I was better positioned to get a well-paying job. Also helping me in that corner was my name; hiring professionals are 50% less likely to contact someone with a black-sounding name.

Having low school loans because of that scholarship and a well-paying job because of that degree has multiple effects:

  1. I wasn’t in debt from student loans for very long.
  2. I haven’t built up credit card debt because I have savings to cover the emergencies or unplanned expenses that come up from time to time for all of us.
  3. I can put money into an IRA, which builds wealth over time with no effort from me.

Do you see the pattern? It started in grade school. (Well, it started even earlier than that, because my parents are white. Privilege is intergenerational.)

I’m not saying I didn’t deserve any of those opportunities. I’m pretty competent and when I care about something I work hard. I’m saying that black and Hispanic and Native and Asian kids deserve those opportunities, too.*

This is a tricky thing about white privilege. It’s selective. Giving it up doesn’t mean we should stop having access to the opportunities we do; it means we should create systems in which POC have the same access to the same opportunities.

[Author’s note: This is a blog about undoing racism and white people’s accountability. See the resources post for definitions and further reading.]

*And affirmative action, while it’s a start, is not enough.