How much do we actually know about the concept and history of this sociological term, which is rapidly gaining popularity?
1. You should know about … Peggy McIntosh’s ‘Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’
In 1988, Academic and Feminist, Peggy McIntosh wrote a 50-point essay, identifying and noting down some of the daily effects of privilege in her life as a white person living in the U.S.
Although the underlying concepts date back at least as far as to the work of W.E.B Du Bois in the 1930s, it was McIntosh’s essay in the 1980s that made ‘white privilege’ gain popularity in social discourse. (It is well worth noting, and with no small amount of irony, that it took the work of a white person to gain notoriety for a concept that many prominent black academics and intellectuals had been identifying and ‘unpacking’ for decades already.)
Some of ‘Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack‘ is here,
- ‘I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race’.
- ‘I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.’
- ‘I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.’
2. You should know that … White privilege is not class privilege
As the word ‘privilege’ is often associated with the upper classes; people who went to private schools, those who got a car for their sweet 16th, those who have hired ‘help’ or people whose parents paid their rent throughout university, many white people who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds negate the concept of white privilege.
White privilege doesn’t mean that you are born into money, that’s class privilege.
White privilege means that you are born into the racial ‘norm’, another kind of privilege. A privilege where you can;
- Turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of your race widely represented.
- If you wish, you can arrange to be in the company of people of your race most of the time.
- If you buy “flesh” coloured items like band-aids or stockings, they will more or less match your skin tone.
- If you were able to use the original suite of emoji’s, the ‘thumbs up’ or ‘peace sign’ hand gestures represented your race.
- You can easily can find picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and magazines featuring people of your race.
Being born white means that you were born into a system that validates and reaffirms that you are socially included – and being socially included, is a very valuable privilege.
And lastly, unlike class, a person cannot hide their race.
3. You should know about … Jane Elliott’s brown-eyed-blue-eyed experiment
A school teacher named Jane Elliott was living and working in segregated 1960s America where black citizens’ civil rights were perpetually denied. She became so affected by the widespread prejudice, particularly after the racially motivated assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, that she made an effort to teach her students – the future generation – how illogical it is to discriminate a person purely because of the way they look.
Like skin colour, eye colour is determined by pigmentation and Elliott’s classroom became a ‘society’ where brown-eyed students were privileged over blue-eyed students, and then after time, reversed this blue-eyed children to feel superior. By creating a microcosm of power and prejudice, where children were briefly exposed to both, Elliot was able to impart on them a life long lesson about the absurdity of racism and of white privilege.
Since then she has replicated this exercise for adults around the world.
4. You should know that … It’s not about what white people do get, it’s about what they don’t get
You should know that the opposite of privilege is disadvantage. While a person might not feel like significant opportunity (like the private schooling or the car) has been handed to them on account of their whiteness, on the flip side – and more importantly – disadvantages haven’t either.
White privilege doesn’t mean that you get to walk into a supermarket, shoplift and not be reprimanded. Instead, it means that you are less likely to be racially profiled and followed around by store security with the assumption you’re going to steal, because you’re not white.
When you are white, you are less likely to,
- Have been called racial slurs
- Have been the victim of racially motivated abuse
- Be asked ‘where you’re from’ in a way that is not polite
- To have marched in a protest in order to demand equal rights for, or call out the suffering of, your race.
- See your cultural ethnicity hanging on shelves of party stores as a costume
Do you have the privilege to avoid having your race, religion and cultural identity made into a costume and worn by a group who have oppressed your people for hundreds of years?
To understand privilege, you need to understand disadvantage. What disadvantages does a person avoid by being white?
5. You should know that … “You have white privilege” does not automatically translate as ‘you are a racist’.
In the words of Peggy McIntosh, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”.
Having your white privilege mentioned doesn’t mean that you are being labelled as someone who is actively prejudice toward non-white people. Instead, it is making the point that as a white person, you receive benefits from being the dominant ethnicity in society. Also admitting that you have white privilege doesn’t conflict with your own acceptance of diversity.
6. You should know that … The greatest trick white privilege ever pulled was convincing the world it doesn’t exist.
The myth of the meritocracy, and the fallacy that at some magical point in the last few decades, is that racism was not only abolished, but was slowly replaced with ‘reverse racism’ and that white people are now the disadvantaged group. This has made the realities of white privilege more elusive than ever before.
This can be seen in levels of representation in all of our institutions, both in terms of under representation of non-white people in positions of power and influence, and in the over representation of non-white people in prisons, in poverty, in unemployment and in all of the areas that – in an Indigenous context – create the ‘gap’ that we are forever trying to close.
7. You should know that … Acknowledging white privilege isn’t enough to end it.
Because so few people acknowledge the existence of white privilege, and because it can feel like such an overwhelming awakening to finally see it, many people feel that the work is done simply by acknowledging it. While this is an important first step, it doesn’t actually do much to reduce it, or to eventually end it.
Privilege should be distributed in order to actually spread the social, policitical and economic opportunities and advantages to other groups. For example, rather than just acknowledging the existence of Indigenous arts organisations, using the resources of Indigenous peak bodies and the skills of their artists will be active in making change. The same principle goes for actively using Indigenous run businesses and distributing the wealth of employment. Also, having equal representation in the media and advertising. And distributing the wealth of policy and decision making.
Australian arts sector needs to recognise and legitimise Indigenous peak bodiesNot enough people are aware of the creative Indigenous institutions and Koori producer Merindah Donnelly is continuously trying to educate the wider society about Indigenous arts’ peak bodies.
8. You should know about … The role of white privilege in ‘reverse racism’.
9. You should know that … It’s not the job of those who are disadvantaged by white privilege to calmly educate white people about it.
10. You should know that … Pretending that colour doesn’t exist is not the solution to abolishing white privilege.
Race may be a social construct, but that doesn’t change the fact that racism is real; that people are different colours, or that the consequences of this history have not been redressed or removed from the society we still live in.
Taking the “I don’t see colour” approach may sound like a great idea in theory, but it doesn’t undo the impacts of racism.
At best, what it does do is allow you to wipe your hands of playing an active part in the work that needs to be done to eradicate racism, and at worst it means you are perpetuating the existing status quo by denying the identity and the very real experiences of people who live with the realities of racism every day.
Also, isn’t it funny how many white people are ‘colourblind’ compared to non-white people? Having the opportunity to pretend that race doesn’t exist the epitome of white privilege.
The two most contentious issues on this website are the definition of racism and the concept of white privilege. The concept that racism is power based—and flows from power to lack of power—is hard to grasp for majority people (defined in this country as white, male, heterosexual, Christian and with no disabilities). I can understand the frustration: Racism is hard to grasp. But white privilege is almost impossible for a majority person to truly understand. The comment below is on a column I wrote years ago. (Note: The person commenting used a lower case b for Black; we use an upper case B.)
By your definition, black people (for example) cannot be racist to a white person.
Um, black people cannot subscribe to “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races”?
Why Are All the Teachers White?
I am a white teacher.
Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s in Brooklyn, N.Y., I do not remember having a single teacher who did not look like me. Every teacher I’ve ever had represented “me” in some way or another.
By virtue of being born a white child who spoke English as her first (and only) language, I was fortunate. I had my pick of mentors, my race was represented in most—if not all—curricular texts, and I excelled in school year after year. My academic fate was sealed in the most predictable of ways.
Not only were my teachers homogenously white, but in my 13 years of compulsory schooling, I do not remember being assigned a single text authored by a person of color.
Indeed, I was already at a social advantage long before my teachers even knew my name. My family and I were not tasked with learning what Lisa Delpit has famously coined the “culture of power”; as a typical neighborhood white kid, I was not ignorantly considered a cultural anomaly, nor was I a threat to the tried, “true,” and impenetrable pedagogies, practices, and policies of my teachers’ classrooms and those of the schools I attended.
My parents never, not once, not for a nanosecond, would have to worry about how my teachers and administrators chose to relate to me—or worse yet, treat me—because of my race, culture, or primary language. My parents did not have to worry about the potential for racist policies and practices to impact my outcomes.
As a white child, I would not have to endure a single micro-aggression by some adult who should have a) kept their mouth shut, and b) read a book by Lisa Delpit, bell hooks, Tim Wise, or other brilliant thinkers who have made it their life’s mission to understand how race—including whiteness and white privilege—and the dominant culture impact day-to-day life in this country and its schools.
I may have been from a working-class community, but I had it easy. The fact of the matter is that schools were set up by people who looked like me for people who looked like me. And as Motoko Rich illustrates in her recent article, “Where Are the Teachers of Color?,” despite an ever-increasing racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse student population, not much has changed in the racial makeup of the teaching force.
Different Experiences of School
Indeed, the important quest to develop more teachers of color is not new. Education leaders and researchers from a variety of camps have been asking the same questions about this for quite some time. However, it is a question that seems to skirt, if not outright ignore, the system of racialized privilege that is historically embedded in, and endemic to, the public school system writ large.
As a researcher, I study white teachers, their words, and their practices. As a university professor, I teach education courses where, most semesters, each and every one of my teacher-education students is white.
I have yet to meet a student in my college courses who did not claim to excel in school, or at the very least to do exceptionally well. My students, for the most part, fondly recall their experiences as K-12 students.
Such fondness, to be sure, is part and parcel to why students go into teaching, and it is not far-fetched to assume that they look back fondly on their experiences because schools were set up by people who look like us forpeople who look like us.
Current politics, initiatives, and institutionalized madness aside, is it really any wonder that we’d want to return? Indeed, most of us who desire to return to school as teachers are returning to the very institutions that have been set up to benefit us all along.
Conversely, why would historically marginalized populations elect to eventually become teachers for the very system that (likely) underserved them in some way? Why would minority populations elect to serve a system that will (likely) continue to underserve minority students if the current discourse of “accountability” has its way?
In other words, who willingly, and in their right mind, returns to a system that failed to adequately educate, represent, respect, and appropriately mentor their own student body?
An underserved schooling experience might be examined in a couple of ways. We might think about it in terms of the desperate skill-and-drill measures that Jonathan Kozol illustrated long ago, fraught measures which have been shown to impact schools inequitably.
Moreover, the guarantee of seeing your race represented positively in your daily experience, or of seeing your race reflected back at you by people in power (as with our teachers and administrators) is a core tenet of Peggy McIntosh’s iconic White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.
On the other hand, for your race to be underrepresented in your daily experience with others in the most meaningful of ways (e.g., while spending up to one third of your day in an educational institution surrounded by authority figures who do not look like you) is one powerful way for you to be underserved by your schooling experience.
On the curricular front, I would argue that schools’ odd, even irrational adherence to all things canonized is also an example of underserving an increasingly diverse student body. Perhaps if schools permitted their teachers to teach something other than the “required classics” from the “canon,” we might begin to scratch the surface of what it would look like to foster a culturally in-sync learning environment. A curriculum which reflects the realities of a racially and culturally diverse student body is perhaps more likely to create an environment with the potential to appeal to a more diversified teaching force.
The failure to incorporate curricular materials that, as McIntosh puts it, “testify to the existence” of racial diversity is to underserve and ignore our increasingly diverse student bodies. Perhaps if, as institutions of education, we gave some attention to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has famously coined “the danger of a single story,” we might begin to unravel the reasons why our teaching force has not kept up with the student populations we are tasked with educating for a better world.
The quest for more teachers of color involves a lot more than asking schools, programs of teacher education, and teachers to uncover personal biases. Becoming aware of your own personal biases requires, also, becoming aware of how and why school served you well. An examination of your relationship with your educational experiences, however long gone, might reveal unspoken insights into who schools invite back to become teachers, and who they continue to cast aside.
White Privilege Explained In 3 Easy (ish) Steps
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. Straight 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
Provide 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, psycological, 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. Unfortunately, there’s nothing white people can do to get rid of their privilege until America’s institutions use their power to dismantle our old inequitable systems and structures. But hey, people run those, right? So, educate yourself, 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!
– See more at: http://debbyirving.com/how-to-explain-white-privilege-in-three-easy-ish-steps/#sthash.FguLJYZJ.dpuf