White privilege refers to the inherent advantages and benefits that white people often experience solely due to their racial identity. These advantages are underearned and can manifest in various aspects of life, such as education and employment.
What is white privilege?
White privilege is an unearned and advantageous set of benefits granted to individuals solely because they are perceived as white within a predominantly white-dominated society.
These benefits often include greater access to education, job opportunities, healthcare, and legal protection.
It encompasses subtler advantages, too, such as the freedom to move through public spaces without undue suspicion and to avoid negative stereotypes based on race.
White privilege – meaning and definition
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of white privilege is “the set of social and economic advantages that white people have by virtue of their race”.
But the meaning of the term can be better understood by examining its origin and historical context.
Rooted in centuries of colonialism, imperialism, and racial discrimination, white privilege emerged as a product of societal structures that granted power and resources disproportionately to those of European descent. The dominant narrative promoted the superiority of white cultures, while simultaneously marginalizing and oppressing people of color.
Defining white privilege requires acknowledging it is not a personal accusation or a statement about an individual character. Instead, it highlights how systemic biases work in favor of white individuals and contributes to the perpetuation of racial inequality.
This acknowledgement does not diminish the struggles and challenges that white individuals face – but instead, it seeks to bring attention to the invisible advantages they might unknowingly benefit from.
Often operates on a subconscious level
White privilege often operates subconsciously, making it difficult for those who benefit from it to recognize its existence. This lack of acknowledgement can make it more insidious and challenging.
For many people, the advantages they experience due to their race are so deeply ingrained in societal norms that they may not even perceive them as advantages. This unawareness perpetuates the cycle of privilege, as it becomes challenging to motivate individuals to confront and dismantle the systems that maintain racial inequalities.
That’s why a part of understanding and addressing white privilege involves bringing these hidden advantages to light and fostering a sense of responsibility among those who possess them.
Historical roots of white privilege
White privilege is rooted in colonialism, slavery, and systemic racism.
During colonial times, European powers imposed racial hierarchies, positioning themselves as superior to indigenous people and people of color.
The transatlantic slave trade further entrenched white privilege, economically benefiting white populations while perpetuating racist beliefs.
Systemic racism became institutionalized through discriminatory laws and policies, denying people of color access to education, voting rights, and economic opportunities. Segregation and racial violence maintained white supremacy and oppression.
All of these historical legacies continue to shape contemporary societies and contribute to the perpetuation of white privilege today.
What does white privilege mean in practice?
In daily life, white privilege manifests in various overt and subtle ways. Below are some examples from everyday life.
Greater access to quality education
In educational settings, white privilege can lead to higher enrollment rates in quality schools and increase access to resources, resulting in better academic outcomes for white students than their peers of color.
For example, white students often have access to well-funded schools, advanced placement courses, and extracurricular opportunities.
In the workplace, white individuals often encounter fewer obstacles to career advancement. They are less likely to face discrimination based on their race during the hiring process or while on the job.
For example, applicants with “white-sounding” names are more likely to receive callbacks and job offers compared to applicants with ethnic names, even with similar qualifications.
In fact, according to research, job applicants with white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to be contacted for job interviews than those with typical black names, illustrating the effect of white privilege.
Criminal justice disparities
White privilege also extends to the criminal justice system. For example, studies show that white defendants often receive more lenient sentences than individuals of color convicted of similar offenses. White people are also less likely to be subjected to racial profiling and are more likely to trust law enforcement agencies, which can influence interactions with the police.
White individuals are more frequently depicted as heroes or positive role models in the media, while people of color are often relegated to stereotypes or portrayed negatively.
According to research, representation in the media significantly impacts societal perceptions. In this case, it can contribute to reinforcing discriminatory attitudes and stereotyping about non-white people.
A list of specific examples of white privilege in different aspects
- The privilege of having a positive relationship with the police
- The privilege of being favored by school authorities.
- The privilege of finding children’s books that majorly represent one’s own race.
- The privilege of learning about one’s own race in school
- The privilege of attending segregated schools of affluence
- The privilege of soaking in media blatantly biased towards one’s own race.
The role of intersectionality in understanding white privilege
The concept of intersectionality is important to consider in order to understand the full impact of white privilege.
Intersectionality acknowledges that individuals experience privilege and oppression along multiple aces, such as race, gender, sexuality, class, and more.
White women, for instance, experience white privilege but may also face challenges due to their gender (sexism). Similarly, white individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds may experience the benefits of racial privilege but still undergo economic hardships.
For example, a wealthy white woman and a low-income white man experience different levels of privilege based on their gender and class. Despite both being white, their socio-economic background creates distinct advantages in their lives.
Another example might be a person of color who identifies as LGBTQ+, illustrating how various intersecting identities lead to unique experiences of privilege and oppression.
Addressing white privilege
Recognizing and acknowledging white privilege is a crucial step towards creating a more equitable society. This involves active self-regulation and openness to uncomfortable conversations about race and privilege.
In the case of white individuals, understanding that privilege exists does not imply guilt or shame but rather encourages taking responsibility to combat racism and its systemic effects.
People can use their privilege to advocate for marginalized communities, challenge discriminatory behaviors, and support policies that promote equality. Additionally, institutions must actively work towards dismantling systemic racism by implementing inclusive policies and diversifying their leadership and workforce.