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White privilege, or white skin privilege, is the societal privilege that benefits white people over non-white people in some societies, particularly if they are otherwise under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. With roots in European colonialism and imperialism, and the Atlantic slave trade, white privilege has developed in circumstances that have broadly sought to protect white racial privileges, various national citizenships and other rights or special benefits.
In the study of white privilege and its broader field of whiteness studies, both pioneered in the United States, academic perspectives such as critical race theory use the concept to analyze how racism and racialized societies affect the lives of white or white-skinned people. For example, American academic Peggy McIntosh described the advantages that whites in Western societies enjoy and non-whites do not experience, as “an invisible package of unearned assets”. White privilege denotes both obvious and less obvious passive advantages that white people may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice. These include cultural affirmations of one’s own worth; presumed greater social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely. The effects can be seen in professional, educational, and personal contexts. The concept of white privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one’s own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal.
Some scholars say that the term uses the concept of “whiteness” as a proxy for class or other social privilege or as a distraction from deeper underlying problems of inequality. Others state that it is not that whiteness is a proxy but that many other social privileges are interconnected with it, requiring complex and careful analysis to identify how whiteness contributes to privilege. Other commentators propose alternative definitions of whiteness and exceptions to or limits of white identity, arguing that the concept of white privilege ignores important differences between white subpopulations and individuals and suggesting that the notion of whiteness cannot be inclusive of all white people. They note the problem of acknowledging the diversity of people of color and ethnicity within these groups.
Some commentators have observed that the “academic-sounding concept of white privilege” sometimes elicits defensiveness and misunderstanding among white people, in part due to how the concept of white privilege was rapidly brought into the mainstream spotlight through social media campaigns such as Black Lives Matter. As an academic concept that was only recently brought into the mainstream, the concept of white privilege is frequently misinterpreted by non-academics; some academics, having studied white privilege undisturbed for decades, have been surprised by the seemingly sudden hostility from right-wing critics since approximately 2014.
White privilege is a social phenomenon. Although the definition of “white privilege” has been somewhat fluid, it is generally agreed to refer to the implicit or systemic advantages that people who are deemed white have relative to people who are not deemed white; it is the absence of suspicion and other negative reactions that white people experience.
The term is used in discussions focused on the mostly hidden benefits that white people possess in a society where racism is prevalent and whiteness is considered normal, rather than on the detriments to people who are the objects of racism. As such, most definitions and discussions of the concept use as a starting point McIntosh’s metaphor of the “invisible backpack” that white people unconsciously “wear” in a society where racism is prevalent.
Main article: European colonialism
European colonialism, involving some of the earliest significant contacts of Europeans with indigenous peoples, was crucial in the foundation and development of white privilege. Academics, such as Charles V. Hamilton, have explored how modern-era European-organized slavery, beginning with Portugal in the 15th century and culminating in the British Empire and slavery in the United States, began a centuries-long progression of white privilege, and non-white subjugation. Sociologist Bob Blauner has proposed that this era of European colonialism was the height, or most extreme version, of white privilege in history.
In British abolitionist and MP James Stephen‘s 1824 The Slavery of the British West Indies, while examining the racist colonial laws denying African slaves the ability to give evidence in West Indian jury trials; Stephen makes a clarifying distinction between masters, slaves and “free persons not possessing the privilege of a white skin”.
In historian William Miller Macmillan‘s 1929 The Frontier and the Kaffir Wars, 1792–1836, he describes the motivations of Afrikaner settlers to embark upon the Great Trek as an attempt to preserve their racial privilege over indigenous Khoisan people; “It was primarily land hunger and a determination to uphold white privilege that drove the Trekkers out of the colony in their hundreds”. Cape Colony was administered by the British Empire and their increasingly anti-slavery policies were seen as a threat by the Dutch-speaking settlers, who were afraid of losing their African and Asian slaves, as well as their superior status as people of European descent. In 1932, Zaire Church News, a missionary publication in the Zaire area, confronted white privilege’s impact from the European colonization of central and southern Africa, and its impact on black people‘s progress in the region:
In these respects the ambitions of profit-seeking Europeans, individually and especially corporately, may become prejudicial to the educational advance of the Congo people, just as white privilege and ambition have militated against Bantu progress on more than one occasion in South Africa.
Scholar João Ferreira Duarte, in his jointedly written Europe in Black and White, has examined colonialism in relation to white privilege, suggesting its legacy continues “to imprint the privilege of whiteness onto the new map of Europe”, but also “sustain the political fortification of Europe as a hegemonic white space”.
A nicer water fountain for whites next to one for colored people in North Carolina (exhibited in Levine Museum of the New South).
An address on Social Equities, from a 1910 National Council of the Congregational Churches of the United States publication, demonstrates some of the earliest terminology developing in the concept of white skin privilege:
What infinite cruelties and injustices have been practiced by men who believed that to have a white skin constituted special privilege and who reckoned along with the divine rights of kings the divine rights of the white! We are all glad to take up the white man’s burden if that burden carries with it the privilege of asserting the white man’s superiority, of exploiting the man of lesser breed, and making him know and keep his place.
In his 1935 Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois introduced the concept of a “psychological wage” for white laborers. This special status, he wrote, divided the labor movement by leading low-wage white workers to feel superior to low-wage black workers. Du Bois identified white supremacy as a global phenomenon, affecting the social conditions across the world by means of colonialism. For instance, Du Bois wrote:
It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.
In a 1942 edition of Modern Review magazine, Ramananda Chatterjee accused Winston Churchill of hypocritical policy positions, in his support, as Chatterjee viewed it, of racial equality in the UK and US but not in British India; “Mr Churchill can support white privilege and monopoly in India whilst opposing privilege and monopoly on both sides of the Atlantic.” In 1943, during World War II, sociologist Alfred McClung Lee‘s Race Riot, Detroit 1943 addressed the “Nazi-like guarantee of white privilege” in American society:
White Americans might well ask themselves: Why do whites need so many special advantages in their competition with Negroes? Similar tactics for the elimination of Jewish competition in Nazi Germany brought the shocked condemnation of the civilized world.
US civil rights movement
Main article: US civil rights movement
In the United States, inspired by the civil rights movement, Theodore W. Allen began a 40-year analysis of “white skin privilege”, “white race” privilege, and “white” privilege in a call he drafted for a “John Brown Commemoration Committee” that urged “White Americans who want government of the people” and “by the people” to “begin by first repudiating their white skin privileges”. The pamphlet “White Blindspot”, containing one essay by Allen and one by historian Noel Ignatiev, was published in the late 1960s. It focused on the struggle against “white skin privilege” and significantly influenced the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and sectors of the New Left. By June 15, 1969, the New York Times was reporting that the National Office of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was calling “for an all-out fight against ‘white skin privileges'”. From 1974 to 1975, Allen extended his analysis to the colonial period, leading to the publication of “Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race” (1975), which ultimately grew into his two-volume The Invention of the White Race in 1994 and 1997.
In his work, Allen maintained several points: that the “white race” was invented as a ruling class social control formation in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century Anglo-American plantation colonies (principally Virginia and Maryland); that central to this process was the ruling-class plantation bourgeoisie conferring “white race” privileges on European-American working people; that these privileges were not only against the interests of African-Americans, they were also “poison”, “ruinous”, a baited hook, to the class interests of working people; that white supremacy, reinforced by the “white skin privilege”, has been the main retardant of working-class consciousness in the US; and that struggle for radical social change should direct principal efforts at challenging white supremacy and “white skin privileges”. Though Allen’s work influenced Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and sectors of the “new left” and paved the way for “white privilege” and “race as social construct” study, and though he appreciated much of the work that followed, he also raised important questions about developments in those areas.
In newspapers and public discourse across the United States in the 1960s, the term “white privilege” was often used to describe white areas under conditions of residential segregation. These and other uses grew out of the era of legal discrimination against Black Americans, and reflected the idea that white status could continue despite formal equality. In the 1990s, the term came back into public discourse, such as in Robert Jensen‘s 1998 opinion piece in the Baltimore Sun, titled “White privilege shapes the U.S.”
Study of the concept
Main article: Study of white privilege
The concept of white privilege also came to be used within radical circles for purposes of self-criticism by anti-racist whites. For instance, a 1975 article in Lesbian Tide criticized the American feminist movement for exhibiting “class privilege” and “white privilege”. Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn, in a 1977 Lesbian Tide article, wrote: “… by assuming that I was beyond white privilege or allying with male privilege because I understood it, I prepared and led the way for a totally opportunist direction which infected all of our work and betrayed revolutionary principles.”
In the late 1980s, the term gained new popularity in academic circles and public discourse after Peggy McIntosh‘s 1987 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“. In this essay, McIntosh described white privilege as “an invisible weightless knapsack of assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks”, and also discussed the relationships between different social hierarchies in which experiencing oppression in one hierarchy did not negate unearned privilege experienced in another. In later years, the theory of intersectionality also gained prominence, with black feminists like Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw arguing that black women experienced a different type of oppression from male privilege distinct from that experienced by white women because of white privilege. The essay is still routinely cited as a key influence by later generations of academics and journalists.
In 2003, Ella Bell and Stella Nkomo noted that “most scholars of race relations embrace the use of [the concept] white privilege”. The same year, sociologists in the American Mosaic Project at the University of Minnesota reported that in the United States there was a widespread belief that “prejudice and discrimination [in favor of whites] create a form of white privilege.” According to their poll, this view was affirmed by 59% of white respondents, 83% of Blacks, and 84% of Hispanics.
21st-century popular culture
White privilege as a concept marked its transition from academia to more mainstream prominence through social media in the early 2010s, especially in 2014, a year in which Black Lives Matter formed into a major movement and the word “hashtag” itself was added to Merriam-Webster. Brandt and Kizer, in their article “From Street to Tweet” (2015), discuss the American public’s perception of the concept of privilege in mainstream culture, including white privilege, as being influenced by social media.
Hua Hsu, a Vassar College professor of English, opened his The New Yorker review of the 2015 MTV film White People with the remark: “like the robot in a movie slowly discovering that it is, indeed, a robot, it feels as though we are living in the moment when white people, on a generational scale, have become self-aware”. Noting that “white people have begun to understand themselves in the explicit terms of identity politics, long the province of those on the margins”, Hsu ascribes this change in self-awareness to a generational change, “one of strange byproducts of the Obama era”. Hsu writes that discourse on the nature of whiteness “isn’t a new discussion, by any means, but it has never seemed quite so animated”.
The film White People itself, produced and directed by Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas, is a documentary that follows a variety of white teenagers who express their honest thoughts and feelings about their whiteness on-camera, as well as their opinions on white privilege. During one moment of the film, Vargas interviews a white community college student, Katy, who attributes her inability to land a college scholarship to reverse racism against white people, before Vargas points out that white students are “40 percent more likely to receive merit-based funding”. In one review of the film, a Daily Beast writer interviews Ronnie Cho, the head of MTV Public Affairs, who acknowledges “young people as the engine behind social change and awareness”, and therefore would be more likely to talk about white privilege, but also notes that at the same time, millennials (with some overlap with Generation Z) form “a generation that maybe were raised with noble aspirations to be color blind”. Ronnie Cho then asserts these aspirations “may not be very helpful if we ignore difference. The color of our skin does matter, and impacts how the world interacts with us.” Later in the same review, writer Amy Zimmerman notes that “white people often don’t feel a pressing need to talk about race, because they don’t experience it as racism and oppression, and therefore hardly experience it at all. Checking privilege is an act of self-policing for white Americans; comparatively, black Americans are routinely over-checked by the literal police.”
In January 2016, hip-hop group Macklemore and Ryan Lewis released “White Privilege II“, a single from their album This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, in which Macklemore raps about his struggle to find his place in the Black Lives Matter protest movement, conscious that his commercial success in hip hop is at least partially a product of white privilege, and his criticism of defensive responses to white privilege. He also says that other white performers have profited immensely from cultural appropriation of black culture, such as Iggy Azalea, though Forrest Wickman, writing for Slate, observes that the line supposedly accusing Azalea of “heisting the magic” is really a self-criticism: The Heist was Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ debut album. Wickman states that “White Privilege II” is not “a great song, but as a think piece it’s not terrible” and praises Macklemore for “giving Black Lives Matter protesters (along with up-and-coming singer Jamila Woods) the last word.” Spencer Kornhaber, a reviewer for The Atlantic, calls the song “brave” and “both a statement … and a demonstration” and writes that Macklemore “spotlights the voices of actual black activists”. He also criticizes the song for “forgoing metaphor or ambiguity or impressionism”. More critically, Kris Ex of Pitchfork Media called the song a “mess”, saying that it’s “too much to work as hit and not enough to work as a piece of agitprop.”
According to Fredrik deBoer, it is a popular trend for white people to willingly claim self-acknowledgement of their white privilege online. deBoer criticized this practice as promoting self-regard and not solving any actual inequalities. Michael J. Monahana argues that the rhetoric of privilege “obscures as much as it illuminates” and that we “would be better served by beginning with a more sophisticated understanding of racist oppression as systemic, and of individual agents as constitutively implicated in that system.”
Applications in critical theory
Critical race theory
Main article: Critical race theory
The concept of white privilege has been studied by theorists of whiteness studies seeking to examine the construction and moral implications of ‘whiteness’. There is often overlap between critical whiteness and race theories, as demonstrated by focus on the legal and historical construction of white identity, and the use of narratives (whether legal discourse, testimony or fiction) as a tool for exposing systems of racial power. Fields such as history and cultural studies are primarily responsible for the formative scholarship of critical whiteness studies.
Critical race theorists such as Cheryl Harris and George Lipsitz have said that “whiteness” has historically been treated more as a form of property than as a racial characteristic: in other words, as an object which has intrinsic value that must be protected by social and legal institutions. Laws and mores concerning race (from apartheid and Jim Crow constructions that legally separate different races to social prejudices against interracial relationships or mixed communities) serve the purpose of retaining certain advantages and privileges for whites. Because of this, academic and societal ideas about race have tended to focus solely on the disadvantages suffered by racial minorities, overlooking the advantageous effects that accrue to whites.
Eric Arnesen, an American labor historian, reviewed papers from a whiteness studies perspective published in his field in the 1990s, and found that the concept of whiteness was used so broadly during that time period that it wasn’t useful.
From another perspective, white privilege is a way of conceptualizing racial inequalities that focuses on advantages that white people accrue from their position in society as well as the disadvantages that non-white people experience. This same idea is brought to light by Peggy McIntosh, who wrote about white privilege from the perspective of a white individual. McIntosh states in her writing that, “as a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege which puts me at an advantage”. To back this assertion, McIntosh notes a myriad of conditions in her article in which racial inequalities occur to favor whites, from renting or buying a home in a given area without suspicion of one’s financial standing, to purchasing bandages in “flesh” color that closely matches a white person’s skin tone. She further asserts that she sees
a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways, and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.
Lawrence Blum refers to advantages for white people as “unjust enrichment” privileges, in which white people benefit from the injustices done to people of color, and he articulates that such privileges are deeply rooted in the U.S. culture and lifestyle:
When Blacks are denied access to desirable homes, for example, this is not just an injustice to Blacks but a positive benefit to Whites who now have a wider range of domicile options than they would have if Blacks had equal access to housing. When urban schools do a poor job of educating their Latino/a and Black students, this benefits Whites in the sense that it unjustly advantages them in the competition for higher levels of education and jobs. Whites in general cannot avoid benefiting from the historical legacy of racial discrimination and oppression. So unjust enrichment is almost never absent from the life situation of Whites.:311
A protester holds a sign reading “They don’t shoot white women like me” at a Black Lives Matter protest in the wake of the non-indictment of a New York City police officer for the death of Eric Garner
In Blum’s analysis of the underlying structure of white privilege, “spared injustice” is when a person of color suffers an unjust treatment while a white person does not. His example of this is when “a Black person is stopped by the police without due cause but a White person is not”.:311–312 He identifies “unjust enrichment” privileges as those for which whites are spared the injustice of a situation, and in turn, are benefiting from the injustice of others. For instance, “if police are too focused on looking for Black lawbreakers, they might be less vigilant toward White ones, conferring an unjust enrichment benefit on Whites who do break the laws but escape detection for this reason.”:311–312
Privileges not related to injustice
Blum describes “non-injustice-related” privileges as those which are not associated with injustices experienced by people of color, but relate to a majority group’s advantages over a minority group. Those who are in the majority, usually white people, gain “unearned privileges not founded on injustice.”:311–312 According to Blum, in workplace cultures there tends to be a partly ethnocultural character, so that some ethnic or racial groups’ members find them more comfortable than do others.:311–312
Framing racial inequality
Dan J. Pence and J. Arthur Fields have observed resistance in the context of education to the idea that white privilege of this type exists, and suggest this resistance stems from a tendency to see inequality as a black or Latino issue. One report noted that white students often react to in-class discussions about white privilege with a continuum of behaviors ranging from outright hostility to a “wall of silence”. A pair of studies on a broader population by Branscombe et al. found that framing racial issues in terms of white privilege as opposed to non-white disadvantages can produce a greater degree of racially biased responses from whites who have higher levels of racial identification. Branscombe et al. demonstrate that framing racial inequality in terms of the privileges of whites increased levels of white guilt among white respondents. Those with high racial identification were more likely to give responses which concurred with modern racist attitudes than those with low racial identification. According to the studies’ authors, these findings suggest that representing inequality in terms of outgroup disadvantage allows privileged group members to avoid the negative implications of inequality.
A 2019 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology had socially liberal people read about white privilege, and then read about a poor person who was either black or white. They found that reading about white privilege did not increase empathy for either, and decreased it if the person was white. One of the study’s authors said that this demonstrates the importance of nuance, and recognizing individual differences, when teaching about white privilege.
White privilege pedagogy
White privilege pedagogy has been influential in multicultural education, teacher training, ethnic and gender studies, sociology, psychology, political science, American studies, and social work education.
Several scholars have raised questions about the focus on white privilege in efforts to combat racism in educational settings. Lawrence Blum says that the approach suffers from a failure to distinguish between factors such as “spared injustice” and “unjust enrichment”.
Main article: White defensiveness
Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” in the early 2010s, later releasing her 2018 book White Fragility. She has said that “white privilege can be thought of as unstable racial equilibrium”, and that when this equilibrium is challenged, the resulting racial stress can become intolerable and trigger a range of defensive responses. DiAngelo defines these behaviors as white fragility. For example, DiAngelo observed in her studies that some white people, when confronted with racial issues concerning white privilege, may respond with dismissal, distress, or other defensive responses because they may feel personally implicated in white supremacy. Elsewhere, it has been summarized as “the trademark inability of white Americans to meaningfully own their unearned privilege”.
DiAngelo also writes that white privilege is very rarely discussed and that even multicultural education courses tend to use vocabulary that further obfuscates racial privilege and defines race as something that only concerns blacks. She suggests using loaded terminology with negative connotations to people of color adds to the cycle of white privilege.
It is far more the norm for these courses and programs to use racially coded language such as ‘urban,’ ‘inner city,’ and ‘disadvantaged’ but to rarely use ‘white’ or ‘overadvantaged’ or ‘privileged.’ This racially coded language reproduces racist images and perspectives while it simultaneously reproduces the comfortable illusion that race and its problems are what ‘they’ have, not us.
She does say, however, that defensiveness and discomfort from white people in response to being confronted with racial issues is not irrational but rather is often driven by subconscious, sometimes even well-meaning, attitudes toward racism.
Main article: White backlash
White backlash, the negative reaction of some white people to the advancement of non-whites, has been described as a possible response to the societal examination of white privilege, or to the perceived actual or hypothetical loss of that racial privilege.
A 2015 Valparaiso University journal article by DePaul University professor Terry Smith titled “White Backlash in a Brown Country” suggests that backlash results from threats to white privilege: “White backlash—the adverse reaction of whites to the progress of members of a non-dominant group—is symptomatic of a condition created by the gestalt of white privilege”. Drawing on political scientist Danielle Allen‘s analysis that demographic shifts “provoke resistance from those whose well-being, status and self-esteem are connected to historical privileges of ‘whiteness'”, Smith explored the interconnectivity of the concepts:
The hallmark of addiction is “protection of one’s source.” The same is true of backlash. The linear model of equality drastically underestimates the lengths to which people accustomed to certain privileges will go to protect them. It assigns to white Americans a preternatural ability to adapt to change and see their fellow citizens of color as equal.
In Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America, philosopher George Yancy expands on the concept of white backlash as an extreme response to loss of privilege, suggesting that DiAngelo’s white fragility is a subtle form of defensiveness in comparison to the visceral racism and threats of violence that Yancy has examined.