White Privilege: What Is It?

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Credit: Rachael Parlier

According to the Racial Equity Resources Guide, white privilege “Refers to the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits and choices bestowed on people solely because they are white. Generally white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it” (Glossary, n.d.). In the following section of this blog, each element of this definition and its applications will be discussed.

First to be examined: white privilege as an unquestioned force in a culture. White privilege is so ingrained into the culture of the United States that it has become an essential part of other cornerstone values of America. White privilege has essentially become the poster child for the American Dream. White privilege exists because it is not challenged, acknowledged, or questioned to the extent that would require those who wield it to change.

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Next, white privilege is an “unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits, and choices…” (Glossary, n.d.). Peggy McIntosh (1990) unpacks “the invisible knapsack” that holds these advantages and more, listing twenty-six items that she feels she enjoys as a result of her whiteness. These include social matters, mundane grocery needs, personal achievement attribution, and more. McIntosh notes that these advantages all have this in common: they were not bestowed upon her because of any special work she had done, nor were these benefits being equally distributed by merit among other people of different races (McIntosh, 1990).

This brings up the next part of the definition, qualifying the people who are given these entitlements – they are “bestowed on people solely because they are white” (Glossary, n.d.). “According to Tim Wise (2014), ‘White privilege refers to any advantage, opportunity, benefit, head start, or general protection from negative societal mistreatment which persons deemed White will typically enjoy, but which others will generally not enjoy’” (Wise, 2014 as cited by Hossain, 2015). Whiteness is a social construct, as is race in general. However, this construct has had far reaching effects into the way that social stratification has been structured and the way that power and privilege have been claimed both historically and today. White privilege attests that “Whatever may have occurred as harmful practices in the past has occurred with sufficient distance, or subsequent correction, in time to be irrelevant in the ‘here and now’” (Tascon, 2008, p. 262). The acknowledgement of white privilege dismantles this belief, and portrays a less cheery story – the wrongdoings of the past don’t go away when the power structure that created them are ignored.

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Finally, there is the element of denial. “Generally white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it.” (Glossary, n.d.). Tascon’s (2008) article focused on white privilege as an invisible force, a spectre that is fueled by a deeply-ingrained blindness. This blindness results in ‘everyday racism’. In other words, “the formation of attitudes and understandings that are so embedded in the everyday life of a racialised culture that the members of that culture don’t even recognize themselves as making decisions based in a racialised history” (Stratton 2006, p. 662 as cited by Tascon, 2008). There are several reasons for the perpetuation of this denial, but one is most powerful: the fact that white privilege is in direct contrast to the national narrative. “Nation-building in modernity relies on the articulation and circulation of narratives that engender imagined unity” (Tascon, 2008, p. 262). Slavery, torture, racism and prejudice all make the culture look bad, and so despite the fact that these atrocities have, and indeed, still do occur, they are often ignored.

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