Understanding and Defining White Privilege

Understanding and Defining White Privilege

White privilege refers to the collection of benefits that white people receive in a racially structured society in which they are at the top of the racial hierarchy. Made famous by scholar and activist Peggy McIntosh in 1988, the concept includes everything from whiteness being equated with being normal and native to the U.S. to being represented in the media, being trusted, and easily finding makeup products for one's skin tone. While some might view some of these privileges as trivial, it's important to recognize that no form of privilege comes without its counterpart: oppression.

White Privilege According to Peggy McIntosh

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh, a women's studies scholar with sociological inclinations, penned an essay and cemented a concept that has become a mainstay for the sociology of race and ethnicity. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” provided real-world, tangible examples of a concept and social fact that had been acknowledged and discussed by others, but never before in such a compelling way.

At the heart of the concept is the assertion that, in a racist society, white skin confers on those who live in it an extensive array of unearned privileges not available to people of color. White privilege is for the most part invisible to those who have it and unacknowledged by them.

McIntosh's list of fifty privileges includes things like regularly being surrounded - in everyday life and in media representations - by people who look like you, and the ability to avoid those who do not; not being interpersonally or institutionally discriminated against on the basis of race; never feeling afraid to defend oneself or speak out against injustice for fear of racially motivated retaliation; and, being viewed as normal and belonging, among others. The key point made by McIntosh's list of privileges is that they are not typically available to or experienced by people of color in the U.S. In other words, they experience racial oppression and white people benefit from this.

By illuminating the many forms that white privilege takes, McIntosh urges readers to exercise a sociological imagination. She asks us to consider how our individual life experiences are connected to and situated within large-scale patterns and trends in society. In this sense, seeing and understanding white privilege is not about blaming white people for having unearned advantages. Rather, the point of reflecting on one's white privilege is to recognize that the social relations of race and the racial structure of society have created conditions in which one race has been advantaged over others, and that many aspects of everyday life that white people take for granted are not even available to people of color. Further, McIntosh suggests that white people have a responsibility to be conscious of their privileges and a responsibility to reject and diminish them as much as possible.

Understanding Privilege in the Greater Sense

Since McIntosh solidified this concept, social scientists and activists have expanded the conversation around privilege to include things like sex, gender, ability, culture, nationality, and class. This expanded understanding of privilege is premised on the concept of intersectionality popularized by black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins. This concept refers to the fact that individuals in society are simultaneously recognized as, classified by, and interacted with on the basis of a variety of social characteristics, including and not limited to race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and nationality. Thus, our everyday life experiences are shaped by all of these things. In terms of privilege, then, sociologists today consider a variety of social characteristics and classifications when determining the level of privilege one possesses at any given moment.

White Privilege Today

Yet, in societies fundamentally structured by race, understanding one's white privilege, regardless of other social characteristics or positions one embodies, is still deeply important. And, given that the meaning of race and the forms that racism takes are ever-evolving in the process of racial formation, it is important to update our sociological understanding of how white privilege has changed over time. While McIntosh's descriptions of white privilege are still perfectly relevant, there are some additional ways in which it manifests today, like:

  • The ability to speak and write from an unchallenged position of authority (see, for instance, commenters online);
  • The ability to hold onto wealth during economic crisis (Black and Latino families lost far more wealth during the home foreclosure crisis than did white families);
  • Protection from experiencing the brunt of negative implications of climate change (economically vulnerable and politically unstable populations, mostly people of color in the global south, are disproportionally affected);
  • Protection from the lowest wages and most dangerous labor conditions cultivated by the globalization of production;
  • Being able to deny that racism exists;
  • Believing in and cultivating sympathy from others for “reverse racism";
  • Being unconcerned with the racial implications of political candidates one supports;
  • Believing you worked hard for and earned everything you have without receiving any help or advantages;
  • Believing that people of color who have achieved success have been given racially motivated advantages;
  • The ability to adopt a victim status rather than engaging in critical self-reflection when accused of racism;
  • Believing it is acceptable to be “ironically” racist;
  • Believing that people need to “get over it” or “move on” when they point out racism; and,
  • The belief that cultural products and practices that come from communities of color are yours for the taking.

There are many other ways in which white privilege manifests today - take a moment to think about the forms of privilege you can see in your life or in the lives of those around you.