Updated: Dec 16, 2019
White privilege is one of those buzzword topics that everyone wants to talk about, but no one can seem to agree on. It’s a topic that commonly raises people’s self-defense mechanisms, regardless of their race. Despite all this, white privilege is a very real problem that has serious consequences for people of color, especially when we choose not to talk about it for fear of upsetting those we’re conversing with. Here at the National Association of Minority Speakers, we are dedicated to breaking that silence and educating people from all across the spectrum about white privilege, how it works, who it hurts, and what you can do about.
What White Privilege Isn’t
Because of the sensitivity some people can have in reaction to bringing up this topic, it can be helpful to first describe white privilege in terms of what it is not. The phrase “white privilege” is not meant to suggest that white people have not or do not struggle. There are millions of white people across the world who do not have access to the luxuries that generally come with affluence, such as food security or access to healthcare.
White privilege also does not assume that if a white person has success and accomplishments, they did not earn them. Plenty of white people have achieved success through hard work and dedication. White privilege also does not guarantee good outcomes for white people and bad outcomes for everyone else. Pretty much no one -- a white person or a non-white person -- is asking to be privileged or oppressed. And yet, there are systems at play in our society that allow white people privileges that they do not allow non-white people. Understanding white privilege in the context of systemic racism can help us better interpret the ways in which white privilege is at work in our lives.
Defining Racism to Define White Privilege
Now that we’ve defined what white privilege isn’t, we can dive into defining it. It’s impossible to understand what white privilege is or how it exists without understanding racism, as white privilege is both a product of and a catalyst for racism. White privilege would not exist without the legacy of racism and enduring biases, while white privilege allows for the constant recreation of racial inequality. White privilege would not have its power if racism hadn’t come first, and systemic racism cannot continue without the power of white privilege. Think of it kind of like the old chicken and egg conundrum.
So what is racism and how does it both contribute to and thrive off of white privilege? Understanding racism is a bit like unnesting Russian Nesting Dolls: the smallest, innermost doll is bias. Bias can be defined as “a conscious or unconscious prejudice against an individual or group based on their identity.” Biases are the beliefs that lead to racism, such as the belief that people of color are more likely to be dangerous or violent. To continue our metaphor, the doll in the middle, squished in between the outer and inner dolls, is racism. In their essay “Sociology on Racism,” Matthew Clair and Jeffrey Denis define racism as “individual and group-level processes and structures that are implicated in the reproduction of racial inequality.” To simplify that, what Clair and Denis are saying is that while biases are simply the racial beliefs, racism occurs when those beliefs translate into an action.
The biggest, outermost doll in our metaphor is systemic racism, what happens when the aforementioned structures and processes are carried out by powerful groups, such as governments, corporations, or schools. I know what you’re thinking: how does this play out in the real world? Let’s take, for example, the belief that people of color are more likely to be violent or commit crimes. This bias can manifest as racism through a number of actions, some as benign as crossing to the other side of the street and some as serious as pulling a weapon on an approaching person of color. When a large number of people in a society exhibit these biases through racism, it allows systemic racism to occur; in our example, this manifested as the fact that in 2017, unarmed people of color who were not attacking anyone were more likely to be killed by the police.
So, What is White Privilege?
In order to define white privilege, it is important to remember that without racism, white privilege would not exist or be able to thrive. In our racist society, white skin grants those who live in such a society an extensive array of unearned privileges that non-white people do not have access to. To further understand this, let’s look at a few definitions of white privilege.
A Google search for “define white privilege” yields the definition of “inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice.” Because our society functions to oppress non-white people in a way that it does not oppress white people, white people have privileges and opportunities that people of color do not. This can be seen in programs like New York City’s now defunct “Stop and Frisk” policy that disproportionately targeted black and Latinx people; white people are less likely to be followed, searched, or interrogated by law enforcement, so they are able to move through life more freely.
In “Diversity in the Classroom and Understanding White Privilege,” Francis E. Kendall defines white privilege this way: “having greater access to power and resources than people of color [in the same situation] do.” This is an important distinction to make: the term “white privilege” applies in situations where everything else being equal, a judgment is made purely based on someone’s race. For example, a University of Wisconsin study found that while 17% of white job applicants with a criminal history got a call back from an employer, only five percent of black applicants with a criminal history received calls.
For the website Teaching Tolerance, Cory Collins describes white privilege as “the legal and systemic advantages given to white people...such as citizenship, the right to vote or the right to buy a house in the neighborhood of their choice.” In attempting to define and understand white privilege, it is important to remember that the term extends beyond whether people in your day-to-day life will judge you for the color of your skin. Legislative groups, corporate leaders, and educators are all still disproportionately white and these groups often make conscious choices (laws, hiring practices, standardized tests) that keep this cycle of racial inequality on repeat.
In her article “Understanding and Defining White Privilege,” Dr. Nicki Cole is careful to point out that white privilege exists because in racially structured societies, they are at the top of the racial hierarchy. This explains how white privilege can be found in not just day-to-day transactions, but also in white people’s ability to move through professional and personal worlds with relative ease. White people will most often find themselves in situations that position themselves for success despite their merits (or lack thereof) because society is set up that way.
Allan Johnson also points out in his article “What Is a System of Privilege?” that the advantages afforded to white people through white privilege are socially conferred; they are the result of a society that is structured to support white people and oppress non-white people. White people move through the world with the expectation that their needs will readily be met (because that’s what they’ve been taught to expect), whereas people of color go through life knowing that their needs are on the margins (as has been proven time and time again). While most white people haven’t asked for this, it is a built-in advantage in our society that allows them to receive these privileges as a byproduct of racism and bias.
White privilege loads the odds that the chance of bad things happening to white people as a group is much lower than for everyone else. While this is primarily a characteristic of the social system we live in, we all participate in it. White privilege is not just the power to find the products you want in a grocery store or the ability to move through the world without the color of your skin defining your interactions. White privilege is also the power to remain silent in the face of racism and bias. It’s the fact that white people have the choice to weigh the need for protest against the discomfort of speaking up. It’s the ability to choose when, where, and how you want to take a stand, a privilege that can be used to fight the very systems that allow for its existence.
White Privilege in the Workplace
Some of the most pervasive, and painful, examples of white privilege occur in the workplace, as the racial hierarchy of our culture also affects hiring practices and other decisions made by employers. For example, research by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan found that people with “white-sounding” names are 50% more likely to receive a call back for jobs than people with “black-sounding” names, despite equal resume quality. This reiterates the fact that oftentimes, all other factors being equal, white people have access to privileges and opportunities that non-white people do not, simply based on racial judgments.
However, white privilege in the workplace doesn’t end with prejudice in hiring practices. In her 2003 study “Race and the Invisible Hand: How White Networks Exclude Black Men from Blue-Collar Jobs,” sociologist Deirdre Royster compared black and white men who graduated from the same school with the same skills. In comparing their success with school-work transition and working experiences, Royster found that white graduates were more likely to be employed in skilled trades, earn more, hold higher status positions, receive more promotions and experience shorter periods of unemployment than their black counterparts.
Despite having nothing more to offer than their black counterparts, aside from the color of their skin, white people are offered significant privileges and opportunities in the workplace that are denied to non-white people. People of color in some of the most well-respected and highly-trained jobs such as lawyers, doctors, and politicians describe a constant checking of their credentials and repeatedly being mistaken for janitors or assistants, a situation in which white people rarely find themselves.
A study called “Discrimination and Worker Evaluation” by Costas Cavounidis and Kevin Lang found that black employees tend to receive more scrutiny from their bosses than their otherwise equal white counterparts, which leads to worse performance reviews and lower wages. White privilege in the workplace offers white people protection from the lowest wages and most dangerous labor conditions in today’s world of globalized production.
What Can White People Do About This?
If you’re a white person reading this and you’ve made it this far, chances are, you’re feeling pretty freaked out. For a lot of white people, they never stop to think about the ways in which the system benefits them, simply for being born white. Once you realize one instance in which you benefited from white privilege, you start to see it everywhere. This can be overwhelming, but the good news is that white people can use this societal power to fight back against white privilege.
The most important step in this process is to listen. For so long, minority voices and experiences have been silenced to allow the progression of white privilege. When white people stop to listen to people of color speak about their experiences of oppression, it’s important not to dominate the conversation or question those experiences. Rather, you should use your privilege to amplify those voices. Share the art and perspectives of non-white pepole on social media. Give credit to colleagues of color for their ideas. This not only helps stories of racial oppression to reach the right audience, but it also spreads messages of equality directly from the source, and not through the lens of white people.
While it is important to listen to your non-white counterparts, it’s also important to know when to speak up. If you hear racist remarks, say something. If you see opportunities to educate your white friends about racism and privilege, do so. Be sure that when you do speak up, you know what you’re talking about. It is equally as important for white people to educate themselves about these issues. Look for books and articles on racial topics written by people of color. Have critical conversations about documentaries on topics like slavery or the U.S. prison system. In the age of the internet, we have more access to content and stories created by people of color than ever before. Take advantage of these opportunities and then use what you know to speak up when you see racial injustice.
If you want to know more about what you can do to fight racism and white privilege, here’s an awesome source for further reading that even includes discussion questions!