Unpacking White Privilege: Scholars, Writers, and Statistics Explain What It Is

Updated 02/28/18
White Privilege
Original Illustration by Viviana Duron

There aren't a lot of opportunities that force white people to be aware of race and the privileges that accompany it. That's where the term white privilege comes in. We've been seeing it in mainstream news headlines more and more lately, but the concept isn't exactly new. In fact, it dates even further back than the Civil Rights era and gained more traction when women's studies scholar Peggy McIntosh wrote about in the 1980s in the seminal paper "White Privilege and Male Privilege." And then, in the abridged version, McIntosh distilled the concept down to a checklist of sorts called "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."

In this piece, she unpacks the metaphorical backpack by defining White Privilege as a series of unearned advantages, listing a plethora of concrete examples that often go unnoticed by those who reap the benefits since they're so deeply ingrained as normal. In addressing and understanding the details of these privileges, we get a little closer to dismantling the ideologies that perpetuate this form of social inequity.

And of course, before we can do that, it's important to understand how each of these privileges actually works and where it comes from. So to clarify what exactly White Privilege is and examine how it operates, we're breaking down some of the specific examples from McIntosh's checklist by looking at statistics and experiences. Read through some of the examples below to get a better sense of the unearned advantages that accompany being white in America, from the structural, everyday, and personal facets of our lives to representational and political issues, and how we can move toward a more tolerant and equal future.

THE EXAMPLE: "I can turn on the television or open the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely and positively represented."

What It Means: This refers to the recycled controlling images we see in all media, from television to magazines, blogs, movies, billboards, and more. It's not only about representing more people of color in media, but thinking about how they're represented. These images shape the way we perceive things, so if they're subordinated or absent, that has real-life consequences. 

By the Numbers: For example, in a study from Minnesota State University about the representation of women of color on magazine covers, "the findings revealed that of the 278 magazine covers reviewed, 52 covers displayed women of color," and of that small percentage, "90% of the magazine covers with WOC had hypersexual images, contextual cues, and content," as well as exoticizing attributes. 

THE EXAMPLE: "I can choose blemish cover or bandages in 'flesh' color and have them more or less match my skin."

What It Means: When we use the words nude, flesh, and buff to describe a color, it's often associated with lighter skin, which ostracizes a huge group of people. Yet it's so normalized that many people often just accept it as "the way things are" rather than acknowledging it as an unearned, unfair privilege. And the consequences can play out in everything from undergarments to Crayons, shades of makeup, and bandages.

Where We're Headed: A lot of mainstream companies are starting to shift this practice by offering a wider range of shades for a range of skin tones. There are also some individuals taking change into their own hands, like a father who decided to launch his own bandages called Tru-Colour Bandages. And while shades of makeup are still predominantly defaulted white, some lines have expanded their range, like Make Up For Ever, Becca, and Iman.

THE EXAMPLE: "I did not have to educate our children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection."

What It Means: While white people may choose to educate their children about racial identity and racism in the U.S., the conversation is more of a choice than it is a necessity to keep them safe. And while the conversation should definitely still be had, it's important to think about the ways it will look different depending on your racial identity.

By the Numbers: To understand how safety itself is an unearned privilege, let's consider police brutality against people of color. According to Mapping Police Violence, "black people were 25% of those killed [in 2017] despite being only 13% of the population." This speaks to the state-sanctioned violence against people of color, primarily black Americans.

THE EXAMPLE: "I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children's magazines featuring people of my race."

What It Means: Similar to the first point on the checklist, a huge majority of children's books represent the experience of whiteness. And this may not be something you notice unless you aren't white and looking for a picture book that your own children will be able to identify with.

By the Numbers: In a study from the University of Madison-Wisconsin, "3200 children's books were published in 2013, and only 93 of them were about black people. "

THE EXAMPLE: "I can be fairly sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race."

What it Means: This example has a few main takeaways. First and foremost, it speaks to the issue of numbers—that the majority of people in privileged spaces, like higher education, corporate boardrooms, and positions of power—are overwhelmingly white. Second, it speaks to the idea of tokenism. In other words, the misinformed "solution" that because there are fewer people of color in a given setting, they are expected to represent their entire race. As Reni Eddo-Lodge explains, "it is the obsession with bodies in the room" for the sake of diversity quotas and perception, "rather than recruiting the right people who will work in the interests of the marginalized."

BEYOND THE CHECKLIST: How and why is white privilege invisible?

The examples above help us see where white privilege exists, but sometimes, even once we do see these unearned advantages in writing, there's still an unwillingness to take responsibility for their existence. One reason is that people do not feel like they are active agents in exercising the privileges they inherit as white people. So while there may be a difference between displays of overt racism and passive, unconscious oppression, they both ultimately contribute to the perpetuation of social inequity.

As Eddo-Lodge explains, we often confuse the word privilege with "luxury." She distinguishes the difference, saying that we "don't mean white people have it easy, that they've never struggled or never lived in poverty. But white privilege is the fact that if you're white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life's trajectory in some way. And you probably won't even notice it."

BEYOND THE CHECKLIST: How can we rethink meritocracy?

An essential step in understanding white privilege is thinking about the ways in which other cornerstones of American culture create other—seemingly unrelated—problematic ideologies. McIntosh focuses on busting the American belief in meritocracy, which is essentially the narrative of the American Dream, the idea that if someone works hard enough and follows the rules, they will eventually achieve their goal. She explains that "the pressure to avoid [white privilege] is great, for in facing it, I must give up the myth of meritocracy. … Obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all."

In other words, the freedom to achieve our goals and dreams is not always true because there are systemic barriers that inhibit certain groups from gaining access to those opportunities. And this isn't only based in a contemporary moment of inequality; it's about a deeply ingrained, long-standing culture of racial hierarchies. The institution of slavery, Jim Crow laws, naturalization policies that racialized American citizenship, and more, which hardened the lines between race and the notion of freedom.

BEYOND THE CHECKLIST: What about an intersectional framework?

To end, we wanted to bring up the importance of intersectionality, too. Developed out of feminist theory, intersectionality speaks to the ways in which movements have become so niche and focused on one facet of identity that they don't consider the ways in which other aspects of who we are can inform experience. And when they're too focused, they become isolating, which is the opposite of the goal. The framework of intersectionality can also help us understand intragroup differences while grappling with questions of identity and injustice.

So when we're reading through the list of examples of white privilege, other facets of our identity may complicate how much we do or don't resonate with something—for example, our gender, religious affiliation, sexuality, citizenship, and social strata can all play a part, and that's where an intersectional framework comes in handy.

For the full white privilege checklist and more reading materials about how to take action to dismantle it from here, take a look at this list of action items from Racial Equity Tools.

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