What I Mean By “White Privilege”

What I Mean By “White Privilege” March 2, 2024

What I Mean By “White Privilege”

Conversations about “white privilege” often bog down because of imprecise definitions. One common misunderstanding is that it means that every Caucasian person is automatically privileged socially and economically simply by being white. Some would argue that is the case. I think, however, of my own childhood in poverty. We were not economically privileged. Some would argue we were and just didn’t experience it as we could have. I wonder about that.

So what is “white privilege?” First, I confine my discussion of it here to America. Second, I confine my discussion of it here to the present (2024). Third, I decline to use it as tied to any particular organization or movement such as BLM.

The term and concept “white privilege” seems to have been born in the 1980s with the publication of a series of papers by Peggy McIntosh who defined it as “unearned [and usually unconscious] advantage” of white people over others. I stick to that definition but update it and unpack it.

Most simply and practically expressed, it means that MOST white people in America can go about their “business” without worrying about being excluded or harmed because of their skin color, whereas MOST black people can’t, unless their “business” is solely in a black community. Even there, however, they experience the structural components of white privilege.

What are those? They are the ways in which America society is structured to favor the affluent and most of the affluent are white. Affluence and whiteness are in many places in America subconsciously equated. The affluent black person is considered an anomaly.

To give a different example, however, of what I see as white privilege…. I have taught many black students over the years and all of them testify that they have been pulled over by police for no reason (“driving while black”) other than being black. And that happened to me once. I know, it sounds counter-intuitive unless you hear (read) the whole story.

In college I often got up in the middle of the night and drove to a factory where one of my roommates worked. He was black. At about 2:00 in the morning I drove him back to the dormitory. One night the police pulled us over. I was driving. I know that I was not breaking any laws or driving erratically or anything and the police did not say that. Instead, they rudely made me and my passenger stand apart from the car while they took out the seats, searched every inch of the car. They didn’t put the seats back in. I asked them why they pulled me over and they didn’t answer. When they didn’t find the drugs or guns or whatever they were looking for, they rudely left without apology or explanation. I have no doubt whatever that we were pulled over because my friend was black. The same kind of thing has never happened to me alone or with a white passenger.

Now, that happened years ago, but my recent black students all testify that the same has happened to them. I don’t know any white people who have experienced that unless they deserved to be pulled over because they were in violation of some ordinance.

White privilege is having greater freedom of movement than blacks, especially, solely because one is white. It is also having no fear of being excluded or mistreated solely for having white skin. O, yes, I know…someone will object that that can happen and maybe has happened in some context (e.g., a black neighborhood). The point is that white privilege is bigger than individual incidents. It is a social habit, a social custom that all black people in America have to deal with in a way very few white people do.

Back to what I do NOT mean by it. I do NOT mean that every white person in America is guilty of racial bias or experiencing unearned advantage over others merely for being white. I can’t say that is the case because there are always exceptions. White privilege is about general white experience, not about every white person’s experience. And it is about a general social custom, not about every white person’s experience all of the time, everywhere. The fact that, for example, a white person might have a bad experience with a black person in no way undercuts the reality of white privilege. (I was once accosted by a large black man in a parking lot who yelled “White devil!” At me. That did not put a dent in my belief in white privilege. I knew that if I were black and a large, powerful looking white person yelled “Black devil!” At me I would have much greater reason to be afraid than I did in that instance.)

*If you choose to comment, make sure your comment is relatively brief (no more than 100 words), on topic, addressed to me, civil and respectful (not hostile or argumentative), and devoid of pictures or links.*

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