Ten Things Everyone Should Know about White Privilege
Mikhail Lyubansky Ph.D. | February 28, 2012
Thinking about privilege — the unearned benefits that we enjoy in society as a result of being White or male or Christian — may not seem crucial, but the potential payoff is the ability to make sense of our relationships, connect across differences, and make the world better in the process. Whether you’re brand new to this subject or have been exploring it for some time, these ten observations about White privilege should feed your growing awareness.
1. The Invisible Knapsack is still the place to start. If the topic of white privilege, or privilege more generally, is new to you, start with Peggy McIntosh’s classic “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” written in 1988. Unfortunately, this is an excerpt. The full article “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies” is only available for a fee. I have some complicated thoughts on this, which I describe in #6 below, but the excerpt stands well on its own. I cannot recommend it more highly.
[Note: the original 1988 article can now be viewed online for free, see above]
2. The roots of the privilege discourse are important. McIntosh is justly credited for putting the concept of privilege into mainstream discourse on gender, race, and other categories that serve both as sources of social identity and as catalysts for social oppression (e.g., religion, sexual orientation), but it’s important to recognize that McIntosh didn’t invent the concept and that her ability to mobilize a movement speaks not only to the power of her eloquence but also to her own white privilege. Paul Gorski explains:
The white privilege concept wasn’t new [in 1988], of course, nor was it uniquely Peggy’s, a fact she has explained over and over with great humility through the years. Scores of People of Color throughout the brutal history of European colonization had spoken and written about the concept of white privilege for generations before Peggy wrote about the power whiteness afforded her. W.E.B. DuBois, Gloria Anzaldúa (whose book, Borderlands: The New Mestiza, knocked me on my proverbial hind-end and changed everything I thought I knew about social justice), James Baldwin, Harold Cruse, Rayna Green, Hinmatóowyalahtq’it (also known as Chief Joseph): Each, despite never using the term, wrote or spoke about white privilege before doing so was hip; when nobody grew wealthy writing and lecturing about white privilege; and, in some cases, when speaking truth to white power put People of Color at grave risk. Rayna Green continues to do so today. Still-and this, in and of itself, is a marker of privilege-it took Peggy’s essay to plant the concept firmly into the mainstream “diversity” lexicon, which is another way of saying White people seemed intrigued enough by the knapsack not to dismiss it. And so the notion of “white privilege” stuck; it appears as though it’s here to stay. (from Complicating White Privilege
3. We are not talking about a historic phenomenon. White privilege is manifested daily, by both public figures and private citizens. As just one example, here is one thoughtful exposition about the role of privilege in a recent interaction between Arizona governor Jan Brewer and President Obama.
4. Anti-racism activism by Whites is necessary and important. It makes the statement that racism is not a “people of color problem” but an “American problem” or “human problem,” and that the solution will not come from the work of people of color (though their needs and contributions should certainly be centered!) but from the collaborative efforts of all Americans and, on the international stage, all human beings. Racism is our collective problem. Until this is recognized on a wide scale, progress will be slow and painful because we don’t have the same urgency to fix/solve other people’s problems as we do our own. This is where Wise and other White activists who speak about race privilege come in. As my friend @ssedoga tweeted to me, “People with privilege recognizing it and speaking to it allows the conversation to be spoken in ‘I’ statements not ‘you’ statements.” This is hardly trivial.
5. Anti-racism activism by Whites can also have devastating costs. Tim Wise has replaced McIntosh as the face of the White Privilege discourse, and increasingly as the face of white anti-racism as well. He is now one of the few people who supports himself (I do not know how lucratively) solely with his anti-racism writing and speaking. Wise is well-spoken and worth reading and hearing. At the same time, Wise’s success is itself telling, because it often comes at the expense of people of color whose expressions of their authentic lived experience get silenced in favor of Wise’s interpretation of those same experiences. Lest I perpetuate the same dynamic, I want to be clear that this observation comes primarily from Ewuare Xola Osayande thoughtful critique of Wise and other white anti-racism activists. Osayande writes:
When grassroots Black activists speak honestly about racism at colleges across this country, we are not met with open arms by administrators and faculty. And most certainly our calendars are not full for the rest of the year let alone for the next three to five. When we speak, we are often met by the deaf ear of white denial. When Tim Wise speaks, he gets applause, standing ovations, awards and proclamations. The fact that schools can’t “hear” us when I and other people of color speak but will search out and roll out the red carpet for Wise is a statement to a kind of racism that doesn’t get discussed much — if at all — in our work. Despite all of the white anti-racist presentations given over the years at colleges and universities across the country, institutional racism at these schools remains intact. All the while, activists of color continue to be muffled and marginalized. Even in the ghetto of race discourse we remain tenants and never owners of an analysis that is ours to begin with.
One way that whites can be accountable is to stop being enablers to white supremacy by supplanting the voice of people of color with their own. We do not need white people speaking for people of color. Such talk is crass paternalism. My words do not need to be placed through a white filter in order for them to be understandable. Besides, there are some things that get lost in “translation.” If there is work for whites to do on this issue, then let it be work that addresses this deaf ear of white denial. This is a question of power. Whites that do not listen to people of color do not have a “hearing problem.” They fail to hear and to listen because they can. Those that promote the claim that white people speaking for people of color is a positive only coddle such whites in the comfort of their conformity to a way of life that denies, not just the voices of people of color, but our lives as well. (from Word to the Wise: Unpacking White Privilege of Tim Wise.
6. In context of white privilege, money and accolades are thorny issues for White anti-racism activists. Osayande raises some valid concerns that don’t have easy answers. Among them is the uncomfortable observation that White anti-racism activists like Wise (and me!) are benefiting, both financially and professionally from racism. On the one hand, I celebrate that our society has become interested enough in anti-racism for folks like Wise to make a living and a career out of it. It means that anti-racism is seen as having value, and that’s no small thing. On the other hand, there is something unsavory about White folks — even well-intentioned White folks — making a living from racism. I want to be clear that this is personal. I don’t make much money from my writing about racism, but I make some (about $1000/year). Is it ethical to keep it?
I’m very clear it’s ethical to take it. Writing takes a lot of time and effort and I think writers and activists should be paid for what they do, especially in the age of the internet where writing is so easily devalued because so many are willing to give it away. Asking for and accepting compensation makes the statement that this work has value, which has symbolic meaning and implications beyond the actual dollars involved. But keeping it is a different matter. On the one hand, Wise’s ability to support himself with his anti-racism work allows him to spend more time engaged in such work, rather than on trying to earn a living through other means, and it certainly seems reasonable for him and others to be compensated for their time and effort. Moreover, it’s hardly my place to tell others how to earn money or what to do with money they earn. On the other hand, I can’t (and don’t want to) shake the sense that it’s inherently unsavory for White folks to profit from racism, even indirectly through anti-racism activism. Again, this is as much about me, as about Wise. I don’t have any pithy answers. All I can offer is that the least we can do is be willing to publicly acknowledge the dilemma and be transparent about the income derived from our anti-racism activism so that it’s public knowledge.
7. It’s important to recognize that privilege, even white privilege is always relative. Here’s Paul Gorski again, explaining how his privilege is different from that of his grandma.
Grandma’s white privilege is nothing at all like my white privilege. It certainly doesn’t resemble the white privilege enjoyed by Bill Gates or George W. Bush, nor even that enjoyed by Martha Stewart or Hillary Clinton. She does not have the white privilege of Peggy McIntosh or Tim Wise or Robert Jensen or Paula Rothenberg. Pretending that she shares that level of white privilege, or that a working class white third grade teacher experiences the same white privilege as a property class white lawyer (or law professor) or professional keynoter is, well, nonsensical. And it certainly isn’t conducive to an authentic movement for racial justice because it limits the extent to which we allow ourselves to understand the messy complexity of racism. It limits, as well, the extent to which we succeed at fostering a movement to which working class and poor White people feel connected. (from Complicating White Privilege).
8. Racial-minority privilege exists and serves an important function. I’m not saying that it is equivalent to white privilege — the power differential alone makes that impossible — but there is such a thing as racial-minority privilege. In marginalized spaces (also called counter spaces), this means that people of color generally have the privilege of speaking about race without having their point of view challenged solely on the basis of their racial identity or racial appearance. I’m not complaining about this or wishing for something different, though I’ve certainly been challenged in just this way. To the contrary, it makes sense to me that marginalized spaces have barriers to entry for the non-marginalized, as well as the fact that those barriers have to be negotiated over and over again by those not part of the racial minority in-group. These barriers allow the counter spaces to, at least occasionally, serve as safe havens for marginalized groups — a place where members of those groups can express themselves more freely and with a higher likelihood of receiving acceptance and validation of their experience and point of view. Not that such acceptance and validation are guaranteed (safer havens, is probably more accurate). Like white privilege, racial-minority privilege is also relative. The presence of colorism and internalized racism within many racial minority groups also sometimes contributes to the devaluing of certain voices, as does the intersection of racial-minority privilege with gender, class, sexual orientation, and other forms of privilege and oppression.
9. The privilege discourse is missing an important element: empathy and compassion for the oppressor. Social justice activist, Kit Miller (a White woman), observes that empathy has a hard time flowing upstream. Few are more starved for empathy than those who have structural power, because they are often dehumanized on the basis of having that power. How many of us, for example, see police officers as individual human beings motivated by the same universal human needs (e.g., love, acceptance, contribution, mutuality) as the rest of us? How about the politicians belonging to the political party you dislike most?
In the context of race relations, this means that there is not much empathy coming to white folks from across the racial divide. This, of course, is perfectly logical. It is certainly not the responsibility of the oppressed and marginalized to take care of the oppressor’s emotional needs. Suggesting otherwise would be, at best, an egregious expression of white privilege. Yet, it is also true that those who oppress others (and certainly those who do not perpetrate oppression themselves but stand by while others do so) have likely themselves experienced oppression and are themselves harmed by their own actions or lack of thereof. While it certainly impacts people of color disproportionately and more negatively, racism (and racial color-blindness) hurts everyone, even those who are part of the majority group. Peace activist Miki Kashtan (also a White woman) explains in a still unpublished book: Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Transforming the Legacy of Separation into a Future of Collaboration
If we take seriously the radical idea that all human beings are indeed human, it becomes immediately clear that defeating others can only reproduce oppression. Empathy for the oppressor, on the other hand, leads to recognition of the full humanity of all, and to an appreciation of the depth of the tragedy that has led some to act in harmful ways. The tragedy in question is the disconnection from our own source of human striving and of beauty. Demonizing “the enemy” leaves no real grounds for hope. It is only a deep understanding that the advantages of privilege come with a package of disadvantages, and that to become an oppressor we must first have [had the experience of having] been oppressed, that can sustain the hope for a change which will benefit all.
It is often not obvious, but to maintain their status, those who are in power must justify their behavior to themselves and that requires a partial loss of their humanity.
10. Those who flaunt their privilege today may be willing to own it tomorrow. People change, sometimes in ways that are difficult to predict. The person who manifests white privilege today may become an ally tomorrow. The goal should be to support that shift and perhaps accelerate it, not to prove that he or she is wrong or bad. If we can focus on the outcomes we want rather than on our own emotional needs, we are much more likely to act in ways that actually produce those outcomes.