White Privilege

White Privilege/White-Skin Privilege

Sometimes, referring to others as "white" or self-identifying as "white," may feel a little like we are reinforcing the problematic categories of "race" we are trying to deconstruct. At the same time, we want to signal that we recognize that even as race categories are a problematic social construction, racism, and the benefits that white-skinned people experience, are very real (for example, it might mean the difference between getting a lease on an apartment or not). One way to live with, or move through, this problem is to refer to white-skin privilege, or to white privilege—the unearned privileges that white people experience (often unconsciously) because they are not subjected to racism.

White Privilege, or White-Skinned Privilege is usefully defined this way:

“The unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits and choices bestowed upon people solely because they are white. Generally white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it. Examples of privilege might be: ‘I can walk around a department store without being followed'; ‘I can come to a meeting late and not have my lateness attributed to my race'; ‘I can turn on the television or look to the front page and see people of my ethnic and racial background represented" (Peggy McIntosh. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women Studies,” qtd. in Racial Equity Resource Guide).

Several years ago, Peggy McIntosh published an article entitled "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," which names, in very clear ways, how, every day, having white skin confers benefit and privileges that white people often do not realize. On the other hand, many people of colour and Indigenous people (particularly those who do not "pass" as white) are likely acutely aware of these privileges—which they are denied on a daily basis. Examples of McIntosh's "White Privileges" checklist include answering yes or no to statements like the following:

  • I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children's magazines featuring people of my race.

  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to "the person in charge," I will be facing a person of my race.

  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live. 

  • I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed. 

  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented. 

  • When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is. 

  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability. 

  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection. 

  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race. 

  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race. 

  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider. 

  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race.

  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared. 

  • If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones. 

To read the full list, see McIntosh's article below. 

Click here to see our glossary definitions of White FragilityWhitenessWhite Privilege/White Skin Privilege and White Supremacy 

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