Everything You Need To Know About White Privilege

I think it’s hard to be a girl or young woman who spends a fair amount of time on the internet without coming across the term “white privilege.” But while its popularity as a term has undoubtedly grown thanks to woke Tumblr posts and nuggets of wisdom from Amandla Stenberg and Rowan Blanchard Instagram posts, it’s a phrase that is becoming more mainstream. I mean, Macklemore just came out with a song literally called “White Privilege” not too long ago. And yet, there’s still a lot of confusion over what exactly white privilege means. Hell, I–a black chick–have gotten into debates about the phrase with white friends, black friends, and every kind of friend in-between.

Whether you don’t really know what white privilege means or you hate the phrase with a passion, check out this post about everything you actually need to know about white privilege. Understanding white privilege isn’t about shame, it’s about knowing how the hell this whack world of ours operates.

Illustration by Sarah C. Wintner

Illustration by Sarah C. Wintner

 

What is white privilege?

White privilege is basically what it sounds like: privileges that come with being white.

Before I go any further, let’s get a few things out of the way. Thanks to a history of racism, imperialism, etc, it is very convenient to be white, especially in western countries. Can we all agree on that?

Can we all agree that white people are at the top of our society’s racial hierarchy, so being white in a place like the United States, Canada, the UK, France, etc, is a pretty damn good deal? I hope we’re all on the same page. You’d be hard pressed to find an honest white person who says that being white has made life harder for them. I’ve had plenty of conversations with my white boyfriend about this, and he’ll be the first to say that being white is pretty damn great and comes with very few, if any, downsides. As a black person, I don’t find that hard to believe, and I hope you guys don’t either!

dear-white-people-movie-racism-definition

Okay, but what are some actual example of white privilege?

White privilege covers a lot of ground, but here are just a few examples of it:

  • Being able to see people who look like you represented in the media (TV, movies, books, etc) all the time, not just some of the time.
  • Not wondering if something didn’t go your way because of your skin color.
  • Never feeling as if you’re a living, breathing, walking representation of your entire race.
  • Lack of fear during an interaction with a police officer.
  • The ability to easily find makeup in your skin color at both high end brands.
  • Not having to worry about your race working against you in a given situation
  • General obliviousness about race/being able to claim that you “don’t see race.”
  • Receiving a lighter punishment for the same wrongdoing as a non-white person
  • Getting praise and respect for something that non-white people have already done (without the praise and respect)

 

…So it’s basically a fancy way of saying white guilt?

susie rugrats blink unimpressed

The term white guilt is so weird and passive aggressive and always seems to accompany some sort of claim like, “My family didn’t own slaves! Why is racism my fault?” White privilege challenges that kind of sentiment by making it clear that being white comes with a lot of privileges and opportunities whether you want them or not. So, yeah, you might not own slaves, but you definitely benefit from the same racist system that allowed slavery to happen in the first place: White supremacy. Again, let’s go back to the point we were talking about earlier…being white comes with a lot of benefits. Being. White. Is. A Privilege. In. Racist. Societies. Period. If that fact makes you feel guilty, that’s on you, but there’s no point in ignoring facts.

I’m a girl/gay/trans/poor/etc. I haven’t had an easy life, so how can I be privileged?

This is actually a really good question! First of all, let’s take a minute to acknowledge that privilege isn’t just about race, it can cover all sorts of things. Someone can be have privilege with regards to gender (identifying as a man, not a woman). Someone can have privilege when it comes to sexuality (being straight rather than being gay). Someone can have class privilege (being middle or upper class as opposed to lower class or poor). Surprise! Privilege works in all sorts of ways!

Source: Giphy

Source: Giphy

Let me get personal for a minute. I’m a black woman, so I don’t exactly enjoy racial privilege or gender privilege. But I also grew up middle class and went to private school and college, I never had to worry about where my next meal would come from, and if I needed money from my parents, I could usually get it. I’m also straight. So I definitely am privileged when it comes to class, education, and sexuality. It would be silly of me to deny that! Similarly, somebody can be a white woman and not benefit from gender privilege, but still benefit from white privilege. Let’s look at a black gay man; he might benefit from being a man, but he doesn’t enjoy racial privilege or privilege when it comes to his sexuality. See? Things are nuanced!

The point is, having white privilege doesn’t negate other struggles in your life; it doesn’t mean you haven’t experienced sexism, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t had to deal with money struggles, etc. It simply acknowledges the fact that despite everything else going on, you’re still white, and being white comes with a lot of perks. Even people who are white and poor can receive better treatment systematically than people who are black and poor, for example. Just look at welfare: white people are on welfare more than any other demographic, but welfare still conjures up negative, stereotypical images of poor black people in the hood as opposed to white moms in rural Kansas.

Okay, but what about black privilege? They have special scholarships and Affirmative Action. What about Asian privilege? Why is all the focus on white people? Other groups experience privilege for their race, too!

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Aside from the fact that Affirmative Action actually benefits white women above all others,  or the myth of non-white people gobbling up all the scholarships, I think it’s a little sus when people take things like the existence of Black History Month or “smart Asian students” as proof that white privilege isn’t real. Besides, whatever alleged privileges that are given to non-white people out there haven’t really been doing that great of a job. I mean, black privilege didn’t stop Tamir Rice, an unarmed 12-year-old black boy, from being shot and killed by a police officer who thought he was a grown man with a gun. The model minority myth definitely isn’t helping Asian kids deal with depression. Is there some sort of Latino privilege that is helping prevent families from being ripped apart after a parent is deported? Is there some sort of privilege that African and Middle Eastern refugees in Europe are benefitting from to help prevent them from being the targets of violent scapegoating?

Whatever little privileges that marginalized groups might have doesn’t really compare to the privilege of just being a white person navigating the world.

Let’s say I acknowledge my white privilege…what do I do after that? 

This is another great question, because I think that a lot of people are stuck here.  It’s like…so you’ve read some great articles about white privilege, you understand how other races are crapped on in ways that you aren’t, you empathize with the struggles that your non-white friends have to deal with regarding race. What now? Unless you’re somebody who plans on basking in the pleasures of being white in a racist world, you probably want to do something positive to change that world.

If you ask me, just acknowledging it isn’t enough. It’s a good start, but it’s just that, a start. Don’t get complacent here. You can’t just do this and call it a day:

Source: Tumblr

Source: Tumblr

Nobody is expecting one white person to dismantle centuries worth of white supremacy (though that would be awesome), but you can still help make the world a less racist place in small ways. Listen to your non-white friends talk about racism, and take their word for it; you don’t need Macklemore to tell you what racism is like, you have friends who deal with it all the time who can do that. When you hear a friend or family member say something racially insensitive, don’t laugh it off or ignore it; confront them in some way, shape, or form (here are some tips on how to do that). Notice the lack of representation in the media you consume and get annoyed about it. If you ever slip up or say something racist or racially insensitive, own up to your screw up, learn from it, and keep it moving. Defend your non-white friends who are being treated unfairly; be an example. Question yourself more and challenge your thinking; acknowledge some of the embarrassing habits you might have; do you become more guarded when you see a black guy walking towards you? Ask yourself why and dismantle the stereotypes you’ve being brainwashed to uphold. Unlearning the racist BS that has been lodged in your brain for ages is so important (trust, I’ve had to do unlearn a lot of racist BS, too).

People act as if seemingly little things like this don’t really make a difference, but some kid that doesn’t get called out for stereotyping ends up becoming a cop who shoots an unarmed black teenager. Some woman who never had to think about white privilege ends up becoming a producer for a TV show or movie and doesn’t even notice the lack of non-white faces in her project. Some guy who gets away with thinking that Latino immigrants are ruining the country ends up becoming a politician. That’s why this matters. Acknowledging white privilege and understanding how racism works in our society is just the first step; make sure nobody else goes through their life without thinking just as critically about these issues.

Good luck!

What do you think about white privilege? What do you think is the best way that somebody with white privilege can combat racism? Do you Tell us in the comments!

You can follow the author, Ashley Reese, on Twitter or Instagram. Don’t worry, she doesn’t bite!

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  • stevenuwm

    Dear Ashley,

    Thank you for your thoughtful contribution on the topic of white privilege.
    You raise a number of good points. However, please consider how the white privilege paradigm is harmful:

    1. White privilege is a racial epithet against white people. It devalues white people and depersonalizes them. It’s a derogatory term that applies
    to all white people. Racism? How about using a less inflammatory term,
    like white perspective?

    2. White privilege is overly simplistic. It’s simply a hash tag synthesis for a complicated subject.

    3. White privilege is a race-baiting political tool. There are politicians and special interest groups that benefit from racial divides.

    4. White privilege unfairly blames white people for everything. We should not ignore historic indignities such as slavery. We should continue to
    identify modern inequalities such as poverty.

    That said, the state of our affairs is not a result of “white supremacy”. Also, it takes two to tango. Black Americans must shoulder some blame for problems in their community.

    5. All Americans (black and white) are racially indifferent. Where is the outrage over black-on-white crimes? How about black-on-black crimes?

    6. We should commend, not condemn “color-blind” Americans. These are people who made a conscience decision to not judge others by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

    7. White Americans have no privileges in regard to to racial discussions. Many white Americans want to engage in honest discussions about race. However, they can’t without fear of being labeled a racist.

    The real problem is not white privilege but rather cultural misunderstanding –both black and white. For example, Governor O’Malley’s presidential
    bid abruptly ended after he was asked, “Do you believe black lives
    matter?”? To which he replied, “All lives matter”. The black audience booed the would-be president. O’Malley quickly apologized and said, “Black lives matter”.

    The audience was offended because they felt O’Malley was disrespectful to their cause. Ironically, O’Malley also upset white folks. They were shocked to see the mostly black audience boo “all lives matter”.

    The outrage from both blacks and whites are misunderstandings of perspective.

    P.S. It’s mostly OK being white –not necessarily “great”.