White privilege is a term used to describe the cultural and social advantages that white people face in today’s Western societies compared to non-white counterparts.
The term is most closely associated with Peggy McIntosh’s article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in which she stated:
“I observe white privilege as an unearned box of opportunities that can be cashed out on any day, but about it, I meant to remain oblivious” (Amico, 2019).
In McIntosh’s analogy, white privilege is like a knapsack containing ‘special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks’ (Peggy McIntosh & McIntosh, 2019) that can be used to gain advantages in society.
1. I’m Not Discriminated Against when Interviewing for Jobs
Studies (Banerjee, Reitz & Oreopoulos, 2018; Quillian & Midtbøen, 2021) have shown that white people get offered more job interviews than non-white people.
Names commonly associated with non-white people on resumes can lead to less job interviews than names associated with white people.
One study submitted 13,000 fake resumes to 3,225 employers with one key difference: the surname of the applicant.
This study found that typically Asian surnames (including Chinese, Pakistani, and Indian names) get less invited for job interviews than typically white surnames.
The study noted that:
- Asians faced 20% disadvantage for large employers
- Asians faced 40% disadvantage for small employers
The rationale for large employers being somewhat less discriminatory (while still discriminating) was that their HR departments are usually more professionalized.
2. I can Spend Most of my Time with People of my Own Race
In countries where white people are the plurality, such as the United States, whiteness becomes the norm. This is particularly true in majority-white neighborhoods.
If white people prefer, they can usually spend most of their time with other white people (Massey & Lundy, 2001; Peggy McIntosh & McIntosh, 2019).
By contrast, non-white people often find themselves in the minority in friendship groups, class discussions, and social situations. As a result, their ethnic and racialized experiences are marginalized in group discourse.
3. I Don’t Face Housing Discrimination
Whites can be confident that they will be able to rent or buy accommodation in a privileged neighborhood (Peggy McIntosh & McIntosh, 2019).
Massey and Lundy (2001) found that rental agencies can often exclude applicants over the phone based on race. People can infer race over the phone based on factors such as speaking styles, giving them the opportunity to self-select applicants.
Further, to analyze the proposed hypotheses, Massey and Lundy (2001) devised an audit study that compared male and female speakers of White Middle-Class English, Black English Vernacular, and Black Accented English.
The authors found considerable racial discrimination, which social divisions frequently aggravated. Poor black women, in particular, faced the most severe exclusion when applying for a rental property.
Whites, on the other hand, can often be assured that when they relocate to a new town, their neighbors will be unlikely to be biased against them (McIntosh et al., 1998).
4. I am Unlikely to be Harassed by Police due to my Race
The widespread Black Lives Matter and I Can’t Breathe movements in the United States highlighted the decades-long police discrimination against people of color.
This doesn’t mean all police are racist, but rather, that people of color are victims of some racist police, which causes them to mistrust police.
To test this theory, Dottolo & Stewart (2008) conducted a study comparing white and black graduates of Midwestern US High School.
The authors found that, overwhelmingly, black people discussed their interactions with police negatively and highlighted how those interactions were impacted by their race. The white people rarely brought up discrimination when discussing interactions with police.
5. Protagonists in Films and Television Look Like Me
When whites switch on mainstream TV or read the daily paper, they will be seeing folks of their ethnic background depicted in protagonist roles (Peggy McIntosh & McIntosh, 2019).
Recent moves to be more inclusive, such as Survivor’s commitment to have at least 50% people of color in their cast, show some recognition from producers of this problem.
However, the depiction of people of color is not enough. Often, people of color who are presented in films are depicted as “magical Negroes,” using their power to help white protagonists. This perpetuates ages-old Black stereotypes instead of genuine inclusivity (Wood, 2020).
Therefore, in order to destabilize white privilege, depiction of people of color needs to increase, but also, people of color need to be represented as protagonists.
6. History Textbooks Unfairly Glorify People of my Race
History has for centuries been written by white colonizers. Textbooks have told the stories of white men like Christopher Columbus and Captain Cooks as heroes rather than men who began genocides against indigenous people.
Similarly, presidents like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson are lauded as men of great stature in American history despite the fact they, combined, owned over 1500 slaves.
These examples are instances where we can see that “history is written by the victors” and non-white people’s histories are erased or minimized.
7. Educational Materials and Children’s Books Depict My Race
Similarly, educational materials often depict whiteness as the norm. Children are often given learning materials that only depict white people and fail to reflect non-white children who are reading the educational materials (Peggy McIntosh & McIntosh, 2019).
For example, one study found that only 10% of American children’s books depict African-American children, 7% Asian or Pacific Islander, and 5% Latino.
Therefore, a Latino child is likely to only see themselves in one in twenty of their own children’s books growing up.
8. I Do Not have to Talk to my Children about Institutionalized Racism Against Them
White people may not feel as much of a need to teach their children about institutionalized racism as people of color.
Many stories from people of color explore the sad reality of feeling as if you have to talk to your child about how to interact with police to protect yourself, the reality of race-based killings in the 21st Century, and how to handle instances of race-based discrimination.
Similarly, one psychologist explains how white parents tend to take a colorblind approach to teaching about race, leading children to learn about social stratification and the power of whites over blacks through interpretation of racist situations they observe. This, she argues, can be damaging because it leads white children to infer that they are superior.
9. I do not Feel like I am Regularly Stereotyped
Often, a person of color feels as if they are seen by others through a lens of racialized stereotypes.
For example, a young black man walking down the street may be typecast as suspicious, as with the countless cases of harassment and even murder of black men who were minding their own business.
Similarly, when in a supermarket, they may be followed by security guards because they are being typecast into a negative stereotype perpetuated over time through racist social discourse.
10. I do not Feel like I am a Representative of my Race
Often, successful individuals from minority groups are held up as “laudable representatives” of their race.
For example, Barack Obama may be many things – liberal, president, husband, father – but history will always remember him primarily as the first black president.
When people of color do well, their color becomes a part of the conversation in a way that does not happen when white people are successful. This is because whiteness is seen as “normal” and not worthy of mentioning.
Therefore, people of color have to carry their race as something that they are always representing. If they make a mistake, they are seen to be representing not only themselves as individuals, but their entire race. If they are successful, they are seen as a “credit to their race” and held up on a pedestal.
11. I am Represented in Everyday Commercial Imagery
White people can find readily available banners, greeting cards, storybooks, birthday cards, toys, dolls, and kids’ magazines that feature people of the same race (McIntosh et al., 1998).
By contrast, in a study by Massey & Lundy (2001), one interviewee explained how they walked away from a store feeling lonely and lost because they cannot associate with anybody or anything in the shopping mall (Massey & Lundy, 2001). They had to buy “invisible” band-aids that were the color of white skin and struggled to find clothing worn by non-white models.
12. People Don’t Dress in Outfits Designed to Mock Me
Historically, outfits like blackface have been worn to mock and mimic the behaviors of non-white people.
Similarly, people of non-European ethnic origin often have to endure others wearing their outfits in acts of cultural appropriation in ways that belittle or minimize the cultural importance of those outfits.
Examples of outfits that are worn in ways that mock non-white cultures can include the Saudi headdress known as the ghutra, which is worn by people pretending to be terrorists and traditional East Asian outfits.
13. I Don’t Often Think about my Privilege or Disadvantage
White privilege is not often thought about by white people because they aren’t constantly subsumed beneath its power. It rarely distresses them or causes them frustration in public situations.
As a result, many white people appear to be entirely unaware of their own privilege.
By contrast, people of color are constantly reminded of white privilege in their everyday lives. Each time they are discrimintated against – subtly or otherwise – they’re made aware of their position in society.
Over time, this discrimination can make non-white people choose to avoid some uncomfortable situations, avoid speaking up, and cede public space to white people.
14. My Race Won’t Negatively Affect my Medical Care
People with white privilege can rest assured that if they require medical or legal assistance, their race is not likely to be used against them.
Many studies (e.g Stepanikova & Oates, 2017) demonstrate a discrepancy in the healthcare quality provided to whites and people of color. According to a 2003 Institute of Medicine report, the disparity is due to discriminatory practices at the individual, organizational, and social levels and the healthcare system.
This imbalance is a representation of white privilege’s benefits and may go some way to explaining the disparate health outcomes for people of various races (Orfield, 2001).
15. My Culture’s Foods aren’t down an ‘Ethnic’ Aisle in the Supermarket
Perhaps the quintessential example of white privilege in school activities, students are often asked: “is your food considered normal or ethnic?”
Generally, supermarkets in Europe and North America place the foods of white Europeans in generic aisles, while the foods of non-white communities are sectored-off into their own corners. This has the effect of framing non-white people as ‘others’ whose ethnic dishes, as with other parts of their identity, are peripheral and separate.
16. My Leadership won’t be Questioned due to my Race
Society has normalized the idea that white males “look like” people in power. This has helped to shield white males in powerful positions from scrutiny for centuries.
A white man in power looks the part, and therefore, his right to occupy that position is often unquestioned. By contrast, non-white people in leadership positions are not assumed to have the right leadership qualities, so they have to work hard to prove their right to be there.
This issue was highlighted, for example, in one study that found 60% of black executives felt they had to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to gain the trust and confidence of their employees.
White people can accept employment without their coworkers suspecting they got the job because of their race.
By contrast, black employees in workplaces with affirmative action plans are often suspected as not being “good enough” to get the job. The assumption is they only got the job to meet quotas for people of color.
This assumption ignores the fact that good affirmative action plans involve seeking out qualified professionals of color, rather than simply employing underqualified people to meet a quota.
Fortunately, most available positions have many applications with the requisite skills, and therefore, the assumption that someone isn’t good enough or only got the job due to their race is generally untrue.
Nevertheless, people of color continue to face suspicions from colleagues about their competency and therefore they feel they need to “earn” their place after getting the job rather than before.
18. My Representatives Look Like Me
Young people who see leaders who look like them can start to see themselves as potential future leaders. They get the message that “people like me” can do that job.
One question about white privilege, therefore, is: “do your representatives look like you?” You could consider your local member of parliament or even the leader of your country.
Take, for example, presidents. The vast majority of presidents in United States history have been white males.
Therefore, young people who are not white males can accurately assume that there is some sort of exclusionary barrier in society that holds non-white people (and women) back from reaching the upper echelons of democratic representation.
19. People Don’t Actively Avoid me in Public Spaces
People of color have often experienced situations where others cross to the other side of the street to get away from them.
In these situations, the people avoiding them have internalized a belief in the “dangerous” person of color who shouldn’t be trusted in public spaces.
Being avoided in public spaces can cause a person of color to feel as if they are a mistrusted member of society who will never be able to occupy public spaces with the confidence and impunity that their white counterparts can.
In the 1960s, white privilege was first used in renowned magazines and newspapers, the idea of white privilege has been transformed in the U. S. since then.
For centuries, institutional privileges intended to allow whites to maintain a legal advantage over other races in the country. Regrettably, discrimination persisted in the United States even though the unjustified kinds of racism were outlawed. As a result, scholars began to look into other factors that contribute to the preservation of white privilege so at expense of people of color (Bennett, 2012).
Amico, R. P. (2019). What Is White Privilege? Anti-Racist Teaching, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315635972-1
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Dottolo, A. L., & Stewart, A. J. (2008). “Don’t ever forget now, you’re a Black man in America”: Intersections of race, class and gender in encounters with the police. Sex Roles, 59(5–6), 350–364. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-007-9387-x
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Quillian, L., & Midtbøen, A. H. (2021). Comparative perspectives on racial discrimination in hiring: the rise of field experiments. Annual Review of Sociology, 47, 391-415. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-090420-035144
Stepanikova, I., & Oates, G. R. (2017). Perceived discrimination and privilege in health care: the role of socioeconomic status and race. American journal of preventive medicine, 52(1). Doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.amepre.2016.09.024
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.