What everyone needs to know about white privilege and its connection to white supremacy

Jewel Wicker
·6 min read

White privilege encompasses inherent advantages a white person has based on their race. An extension of that is white supremacy, which is the belief that white people are superior to other races, leading to the practice of fixing systems and policies to benefit the white race, while disenfranchising or oppressing Black people and other people of color.

And as political activist, social critic and author Cornel West, says, it can take many forms. “We’re talking about various subtle ways in which white supremacy operates. Even among the well intended and the do-gooders.”

How white privilege and white supremacy exist today, and what to do about it.
How white privilege and white supremacy exist today, and what to do about it.

I would define ‘white privilege’[as] having something that you didn't earn. It’s being born into an identity that gives you access to a world in which no one else has access to. Jamira Burley, activist and Head of Youth Engagement and Skills at the Global Business Coalition for Education

What is white privilege?

Following a year of civil unrest, Yahoo’s Allyship Pledge program — a group of influential experts, activists and creators — came together recently to explore the subtle and overt ways that white privilege continues to impact the lives of Black Americans by discussing urgent social justice issues involving race in America and creating actionable tools for allyship.

Throughout the conversation, activists and scholars also discussed the impact of gentrification.

“What we're seeing is time and time again, Black people across America have been displaced,” educator, author and curriculum advisor Erica Buddington says. “Not just because they're poor, but also because when this wealthier cohort comes in, they have made the decision that they don't want people that don't look like them, and that don't have money on the scale that they have in their particular space.” This has occurred in historically Black neighborhoods across the country, including in places with rich Black histories such as Harlem, Washington D.C. and Atlanta.

“I would define ‘white privilege’[as] having something that you didn't earn. It’s being born into an identity that gives you access to a world in which no one else has access to,” Jamira Burley, activist and Head of Youth Engagement and Skills at the Global Business Coalition for Education, says.

Tulsa Race Massacre

Fredrick Joseph, author of The Black Friend, On Being a Better White Person says every student in the country needs to learn more about the Tulsa Race Massacre, which occurred nearly a century ago, in 1921. Sparked by the arrest of a young Black man, white mobs burned a section of Greenwood in Tulsa known as Black Wall Street.

An African American couple walking across a street with smoke rising in the distance after the Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. (Photo: Getty Images)
An African American couple walking across a street with smoke rising in the distance after the Tulsa Race Massacre, Tulsa, Oklahoma, June 1921. (Photo: Getty Images)

Historians believe as many as 300 Black people were killed during the massacre, though many of their bodies have never been found. Greenwood was home to about 1,200 Black residents and hundreds of Black-owned businesses, and 35 city blocks were burned by white mobs during the massacre. Joseph says he feels like the event, which started as a dispute between Black and white residents over the alleged assault of a white girl and the subsequent arrest of a Black teen, was a display of white Americans desire to remind Black people that they’re not allowed to thrive in this country.

“They blew up stores, shot people on the street, hung people from statues, pulled people out of their homes, burned people alive in their homes... to make a statement. Not a statement of ‘we hate Black people,’ a statement of, ‘we don't want Black people to have anything close to or more than we will ever have. And don't you dare think about doing it again.’”

Today, experts are still discovering unmarked graves in Tulsa and attempting to discover if the deceased are tied to the event.

Co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement

Sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and others, cities throughout the country experienced large-scale protests against police brutality amid the COVID-19 pandemic, creating what may be the largest movement in U.S. history, with an estimated 15 to 26 million people participating in Black Lives Matter protests since July.

But even with the high, diverse turnout to protests throughout the year, some activists have questioned the long-term impact these events will have in dismantling white supremacy and police brutality in America.

Joseph says he worries that companies co-opted the movement and ultimately benefited from the uprising more than Black people. “The people who benefited were the brands, and who is behind the brands? It’s typically white people,” he says. “All in all, you didn't just appropriate it and just like take parts of the movement, you literally moved us out of the movement, took the movement over and built a metaphoric Starbucks in the movement.”

As activists increasingly call for reform like “defunding the police,” or reallocating police budgets to other social services such as housing, education and healthcare, they’ve also reminded the general public that it's a privilege to view police as a source of protection.

"Black people have been carrying this burden for generations when it comes to anti-Blackness in America,” Nicole Cardoza, social entrepreneur, investor and founder of the newsletter Anti-racism Daily says. “And it's time for more people to join our conversation.”

What is Allyship?

Allyship is a consistent and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, where a person holding privilege and power actively seeks to be anti-racist and to end oppression in solidarity with those who are systemically marginalized. Key components of Allyship include: acknowledging the reality of white privilege and the challenges that this creates as understanding how it impacts inequities and inequalities that affect Black Americans. Another key component is to self-educate on the issue.

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Resources to learn more about white privilege:

ALLYSHIP QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF AROUND WHITE PRIVILEGE:

  • Is there a particular sector or industry that you’d like to impact in support of the Black community?

  • What specific impact would you like to make? What specific actions can support that impact?

  • How can you use your privilege to share information in support of the Black community?

  • What are some things in your life that are White-centered, and how can you make change in that area?

  • Think about the city you live in. Has that city—or parts of it—been gentrified, and how can you play a role in honoring the legacy of those who were forced out?