Why Some White People Don’t See White Privilege

Some people take white privilege as a moral accusation against them.
07/20/2017 12:04 pm ET Updated Jul 25, 2017

Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege” introduced many of us to the concept of white privilege. Her work is a critical resource in the development of racial awareness for many of us. It introduces the metaphor of the “invisible knapsack,” a set of unearned advantages over people of color that we have as white people in the U.S.

Many people misunderstand what white privilege is. They think it means that we whites don’t struggle. That’s not the case. It means that the quality of our struggles are different than other racial groups’ because we’re considered the “default” group by an overwhelming majority of the systems we interact with.

We are racial insiders rather than racial outsiders. The advantages we have over people of color in our system stem from our insider status. It is not a guarantee of success in life. I understand white privilege as being the product of white prevalence. Prevalent is defined as 1) being in ascendancy: dominant; and 2) generally or widely accepted, practiced, or favored: widespread. It’s also worth noting that the words prevalent and prevail come from the same root. White privilege has at its root the goal of whites prevailing over other groups.

In her article, Ms. McIntosh lists examples of the benefits of white privilege in her everyday life, such as, “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.” Some people say this is about class rather than race, that it is her socioeconomic class that allows her to have more choices, choices that poorer whites don’t have. This is a misconception. Yes, class plays a role in everyone’s life, but statistically speaking, race profoundly impacts housing choices and outcomes.

People of color, as well as HUD and other institutions, report that, class and financial means being equal, people of color will be funneled to neighborhoods where the economic class is on average lower than in the neighborhoods where white people are funneled. In other words, people of color often cannot find housing in areas that they can otherwise financially afford. And though there are certainly people who espouse explicit white nationalist philosophies in all spheres of U.S. society, most of this happens without conscious awareness or intention. Certainly, many whites who are real estate agents, property managers, owners, etc., hold earnest beliefs in equality but don’t see the ways they are contributing to the process.

As whites, our typical experience is fundamentally what all people should expect in a race-neutral society: our race is respected by the systems through which we move. In many ways, it’s treated as a non-factor. This is at the core of the biggest misconception about white privilege. White privilege’s advantages come from NOT being excluded from mainstream society in the ways that people of color are.

We are the assumed group, the normative group: in other words, the prevalent group. Since we are on the inside it is very difficult to see what it is like on the outside. After all, we only inhabit our own lives. That is why it is so invisible to many of us. We don’t see the differences between the house a real estate agent shows us and the house the same agent shows a family of a different race.

We’re not there when the other family is seeing the other house. And this differential treatment plays out in many more ways, including the ways listed in Ms. Macintosh’s article. We don’t see the difference in focus and attitude a potential employer has toward us versus a member of a different race with the same abilities. We don’t notice that we are seldom, if ever, the only member of our race in a group. We don’t notice that we are never called upon to represent our race in a discussion. We simply do not experience those differences because they are not happening to us. Because we don’t see these differences it’s easy to see attempts to address them as unnecessary or unfairly advantaging people of color. If society really did treat everyone the same, then affirmative action would unfairly advantage people of color. We object to ongoing attempts to address inequity, being more concerned with “reverse racism” than actual racism, while not seeing that our society continues to vastly favor whiteness. We can live in a country where the unemployment rate for African Americans averages twice that of whites and still feel like we are disadvantaged.

This is in part because White privilege does not mean that we whites don’t face hardships or have to work to succeed. While white privilege does give us advantages over people of color, it does not confer advantages in relation to other whites. The advantages of birth, wealth, connections, luck, skill, hard work, all continue to apply to us. We still compete with other whites. We don’t, however, have to compete on equal footing with non-whites. That’s why a white person can be poor and still have white privilege. We know the child of a rich white family has advantages over the child of a poor white family. There are times when the child of a rich black family may have some advantages over the child of a poor white family, but white privilege means that there are times when race will give the white child an advantage.

In reality, if we’re to compare poor whites to wealthy blacks, we should acknowledge that the average wealth of black families in the U.S. is 1/16th the average wealth of white families. A rich black family is less likely to exist at all. But we often use examples of non-whites’ success as an argument that the system is race neutral. None of this means that poor whites should be forgotten in favor of poor members of other races. It actually means that poor whites are often better served by more generous approaches to different forms of public assistance, programs that they often perceive as existing to serve other races.

Some people think that white privilege means that only whites have privilege, that we whites are being unfairly singled out. This isn’t the case. Enacting privilege is not something that only whites do. Privilege is something that stems out of being the dominant group. Other dominant groups in the world and throughout history have also had forms of privilege. Some use the fact that whites aren’t the only people who enact privilege as an excuse to do nothing about white privilege. Our racial prevalence means that here, now, we are the dominant group and we are responsible for the impacts of that dominance.

Some people take white privilege as a moral accusation against them personally. The existence of white privilege doesn’t make any one of us a bad person. No single one of us invented it and we were all born into a world in which it already existed. In a way, it even co-opts us whites. The existence of white privilege does not reflect on the morality of any one of us. Our individual responses to white privilege, however, do.

Once we start to see how white prevalence impacts the way we see race, we can start to look for other perspectives. We can listen to people of color with respect rather than disbelief. In a very real sense, they are likely to have more expertise in seeing its workings because of their experience. Relying on the experience of others to understand so much about our world can make us feel vulnerable.

As a white man, I know what it’s like to feel defensive about race. I’ve used arguments like, “My family wasn’t even here during slavery, and went through all kinds of hardships to overcome them,” to diminish white privilege’s impact on people of color. I’ve experienced my own strong emotional reactions against the examination of how our current system is a legacy of the past and how it acts outside of our immediate awareness to sustain itself. I’ve felt my own desire to diminish what’s said by people speaking out or protesting against racism.

Defensiveness can make us want to attack people who make us feel uncomfortable. We can confuse that feeling with feelings of moral outrage toward those people for what they’re saying or doing, especially when their experience contradicts our worldview. Having misconceptions about white privilege contributes to that confusion. Much of my basic obligation to fairness relies on the choices I make about those feelings.

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