Here's What White Privilege Actually Means, and How You Can Use Yours To Help Others

Photo credit: Ira L. Black - Corbis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ira L. Black - Corbis - Getty Images

From Woman's Day

As people in all 50 states protest racial injustice and police brutality in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, important conversations about racism, race, and white privilege have taken center stage in the country’s social discourse. But for those who are just realizing the real issues facing Black people and people of color; who are now doing the work of acknowledging the benefits of being white or white-passing, these conversations can be uncomfortable, painful, and confusing. But now is the time to embrace temporary discomfort, as these conversations and dialogues could lasting benefit of people of all races in society.

There are a thousand ways to begin educating yourself, whether you prefer to do so through articles, books about racism, documentaries about Black history, or other scholarly sources. Educating yourself will take time, and you will be imperfect in this pursuit, but it's a strong first step in getting involved in long-lasting, consistent activism and purposeful allyship.

Considering white privilege — what it is, the role that it plays in your life, and how you can use it to help others who aren't as privileged — is a great starting place to expand your understanding of bias, racism, social inequality, and how they function in society. It's also a great start on your journey to living an anti-racist life.

What is white privilege?

To start talking about white privilege, you first need to have a better hold of what the term really means, and also how initial reactions to hearing the term can interfere with one's ability to recognize it. For Teaching Tolerance magazine, Cory Collins points out how the two-word term can cause people at whom it's aimed to be instantly reactionary. The word "white" can feel off-putting to white people, who are often not used to being referred to and grouped based on their race. The word "privilege" can also carry a lot of baggage, especially when people automatically assume it means they haven't experienced hardship, trauma, or worked for what they have, be it a home, a career, or a family. Of course, that's not true. People of all races and ethnicities face economic hardship, a lack of health care and mental health resources, addiction and substance abuse issues, and other substantial difficulties.

White privilege is not the idea that white people don't have struggles of their own. Rather, Collins writes, "white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort." White privilege comes down to having greater access to resources and opportunity than Black people, Indigenous peoples, and other people of color in the same position do.

In 1989, Peggy McIntosh, an activist and associate director of the Wellesley Collage Center for Research on Women, published “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” The essay, Collins writes, “helps readers recognize white privilege by making its effects personal and tangible. For many people, white privilege was an invisible force that white people needed to recognize.” But that was just the start. White privilege is also perpetuated by white people in positions of power, who often hire people who look like them, pass laws that benefit people who look like them, and are more lenient on people who look like them.

What are some examples of white privilege?

White privilege can be really hard to conceptualize because its so ingrained in the way society functions. But there are instances of white privilege, both big and small, that impact daily life. Learning to recognize instances of white privilege, therefore is important Some instances of white privilege are, as described by Collins, include:

  • Cosmetic: Being able to find numerous shampoo options for your hair type and being able to easily buy "skin tone" nylons or bandages. Being able to easily find makeup that matches your skin color.

  • Representation: Seeing people who look like you in movies, TV shows, and advertisements, and seeing those people represent a range of characters and not just one "type" of person.

  • Implicit Trust: Being given the benefit of the doubt by people who don't know you when you've made a mistake or are in a tricky situation. For example, if you accidentally pick up somebody else's bag at the luggage carousel at the airport or getting pulled over for a simple traffic violation, people will assume the best in you and not approach you with aggression.

  • Safety and Trust in Institutions: Being able to exist in public spaces without fearing police violence. Being able to call 9-1-1 and trust that the officers who show up will help you, not automatically arrest and/or hurt you. Not needing to educate your young children on how to interact with the police to avoid an unfounded arrest or police brutality.

  • Avoiding Assumptions: Being able to avoid other's assumptions about what kind of person you are and how you will behave based solely on the color of your skin.

In her book White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, author Robin DiAngelo encourages readers to ask of themselves, "I am white and I have had X experience. How did X shape me as a result of also being white?" For example, you could think, "I am white and I have been pulled over for a traffic violation by police. How did my whiteness or white-passing privilege help shape this experience?" Perhaps you were approached in a kind and courteous way by the police officer, instead of guns drawn. Perhaps the officer let you off with a warning, or you weren't intensely questioned about where you were going and what you were doing. Maybe you felt safe and didn't fear for your life during the encounter. And maybe even in a "bad" case, you were given an expensive ticket but drove away from the scene physically unharmed.

What's the difference between white privilege and racism?

White privilege and racism refer to two different concepts that, while separate, are interwoven in practice. Oftentimes, racism is simplified to mean "racists are bad people who intentionally dislike other people because of their race." But it's more complicated than that. The Anti-Defamation League defines racism as "the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person's social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics." Technically, there are no actual biological characteristics of race, and race is a social construct. But the belief that there are biological differences between people of different races allows racist practices to be continually upheld in society.

Although white privilege is a different concept than racism, it inherently helps hold up racist structures that benefit white people and at the disadvantage of Black people and people of color.

How can you "correct" white privilege?

In essence, white privilege isn't something you can "correct." If you were born white in America, you have it: plain and simple. But even though you can't "get rid of it," — and as this video of anti-racist advocate and educator Jane Elliot shows, most white people wouldn't want to — you can do something with it.

Recognizing your privilege and the many seemingly invisible ways in which it helps you is step one. Then, you can use it to help those who don't have access to the same privileges and social protections available to you. For example, if you see an altercation between a white person and a Black person, don't just walk away. Oftentimes, simply the presence of a white person — especially a white person holding a cell phone — will alter a potentially dangerous or deadly outcome. Advocate for Black and brown people in predominately white spaces. If you're in a position of power, employ Black and brown people in leadership positions, incorporate stories of Black and brown joy and excellence in otherwise white-washed mediums, and confront racist comments, actions, and beliefs said, done, or held by the white people in your life that would otherwise ignore the thoughts and feelings of Black and brown people.

If you hear someone using language that is derogatory or prejudiced against people of color, even if it doesn't seem flagrantly "racist," don't just stay silent. Speak up. Force your white family, friends, and colleagues to look inward and acknowledge how they're upholding structures that are inherently racist, and how in their words and their actions are working to support those structures.

You can't singlehandedly solve racism in America — no one can — and you certainly can't solve it overnight. But the responsibility to build a more equitable world falls on those who have benefitted from an unequal one. Recognizing white privilege is the first step. Using that privilege for the benefit of others will be the second, third, and every other subsequent step that carries us all towards equality and racial justice.

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