White Privilege Explained In 3 Easy (ish) Steps


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Though people dumped on Bill O’Reilly for not understanding white privilege, the truth is most white people don’t understand it. I know I didn’t — until it was thoroughly explained to me in a full semester graduate school course. Here’s a short, info-packed explanation.

1) Examine The Word Privilege

common misperception: privilege = rich

actual meaning in this context: material, psychological, and convenience advantages

Refocus the conversation by examining a few other ‘privileged’ American social statuses, such as…

Able-bodied privilege. Able-bodied people have the privilege of:

  • getting around pretty easily by walking, driving, or taking public transportation
  • not always having to call ahead to find out if the location has ramps and/or elevators
  • not having to worry about being pitied, not hired, not invited because of their body

Sexual-orientation privilege. Heterosexual people have the privilege of:

  • being open about who they love, date, or marry with out fear of harassment
  • marrying who they love
  • sharing tax breaks, health insurance, and other job benefits as a family
  • not worrying about being ridiculed, not hired, not invited because of who they love

Class privilege. Middle and upper-middle class people have the privilege of:

  • living in a neighborhood with access to adequate public education and other resources
  • leveraging income and assets to produce more income and assets
  • participating in clubs and activities that build social networks that increase access to goods, services, and more social networks

2) Examine The Word White

common misperception: white is a natural, biological term

actual meaning in this context: a legal term created in 1681 to describe a group of people from assorted European countries

A quick education on the term’s history.

  • White is a legal term first inserted into Maryland Law in 1681 and still recognized today.
  • The term white was invented in the years after the 1676 Bacon’s Rebellion as wealthy plantation owners feared impending demands for rights from the racially mixed and politically united masses.
  • In an effort to retain control, the colonial elite first attempted the term Christian (whoops, people can convert) and sufficiently British-like (whoops, a little vague) before settling on the term white.
  • Over the years, decades, and centuries the construction of racial categories and inherent human value came to feel like a natural order.
  • Over the years, decades, and centuries white achievement came to be understood as evidence of superior morals, intelligence, and work ethic as opposed to white-favored laws, policies, and practices.
  • Since the term white became attached to rights and resources, every group new to America has fought to be white. The winners? Irish, Italian, Jewish, Russian, German, and other ‘white ethnics’ who now fall into the racial assignment: white. Who were the deciders? The Christian, British-like, white folks already in power.

To learn more about the legal history of the term white, read Birth of a White Nation, by Jacqueline Battalora

To learn more about the conceptual ideas about whiteness, read The History of White People, by Dr. Nell Irwin Painter

3) Now …. Examine White Privilege

common misperception: white privilege is limited to slavery and Jim Crow Laws

how it actually works: white privilege is the ongoing pattern of material, psychological, and convenience advantages conferred to individuals able to be perceived, both legally and practically, as white

In America, white people are more likely to:

  • have had parents and/or grandparents who were able to live in white-designated towns and neighborhoods that provided access to social networks and adequate public education later used for gainful employment
  • have lived and continue to live in white-dominated towns and neighborhoods that provide access to social networks and adequate public education later used for gainful employment
  • have had parents and/or grandparents whose retirements were funded by the social security program, a program that advantaged white people by excluding domestic and agricultural workers, disproportionately people of color
  • be free of financially supporting their family elders
  • have had parents and/or grandparents who received mid 20th century GI Bill benefits – low-interest mortgages and free Higher Ed tuition. (96% of black GIs were unable to access the bill’s benefits)
  • have ancestors who came to America and, despite initial discrimination, were ultimately able to become labeled white
  • have a sense that government institutions and agencies provide fair and equal treatment and will protect their rights and safety
  • be enjoying the compounded material, psychological, and convenience advantages of all of the above
  • be able to get through each day without being followed or questioned or worse by security or police 
  • be able to live, work, and study in communities where their race is the race of the people in power
  • be able to study the history of their racial group in schools throughout the school year
  • be perceived by their teachers (majority white) as capable of high academic achievement and good behavior
  • be able to watch films and TV shows that depict members of their racial group in a positive light
  • be believed
  • be hired
  • be promoted
  • suffer fewer stress diseases
  • live longer
  • believe that achievement is based mostly on individual merit

I have stumbled and struggled to understand white privilege. You can read all about my cringeworthy journey in Waking Up White: and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.

OMG – I Get It! Now What?

Great! You get it. That’s huge. There’s lots to learn once the paradigm shift occurs. The most important thing any white person can do is learn how privilege has worked in your own life and how it's likely created an unexpected, deep-seated attachment to that privilege. So, educate yourself, be honest with yourself when racist thoughts or a sense of entitlement arises, learn to talk about it – which can be shockingly tongue-tying at first — then, use your accumulating wisdom and skill to engage other white people who may also appreciate some clarity on the issue. 

Take The Challenge

If you’re really fired up, take the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge!