Owning White Privilege

Last week, while waiting in front of the Hyatt for his transport to the U.S. Open to fulfill corporate commitments, retired American tennis star James Blake was tackled to the ground and handcuffed by an undercover NYC police officer. The police chief (somewhat) quickly issued an apology to Mr. Blake, and called the incident a case of mistaken identity.

The incident surfaced many issues, but rarely mentioned in the press was the issue of white privilege. I don’t know about you, but never have my white friends, nor I, ever been tackled to the ground while being mistaken for a white criminal. The Blake incident brought to mind the Dee Brown incident near the suburb where I once worked. I can only imagine the countless cases of such acts that go unreported across the country each year because the recipients are not famous. To his credit, Mr. Blake, a former Harvard student, handled the incident with class.

Professor Peggy McIntosh, Associate Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, contends that white males are rarely aware of the advantages they cash in each day. It’s not that others are disadvantaged, according to McIntosh, but that white males are overprivileged. These benefits remain invisible to those who enjoy them. Many white males refute this concept, not accepting the invisible system conferring dominance onto their group. They cite meritocracy–that the best and hardest working rise to the top–for their status. Pure meritocracy is a myth, even in the land of the American dream.

Here are a few (of countless) unearned privileges to contemplate, taken from McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”:

  1. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

  2. 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.

  3. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

  4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

  5. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

  6. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

  7. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

  8. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

I don’t mean any disrespect to those embroiled in the well-publicized race issues in the U.S. this past year, but I feel that privilege is perhaps more germane to our society these days. While we are clearly not yet post-racial, the wealth gap continues to grow wider. The haves have more, and the have nots go deeper into the financial abyss.  Despite the disastrous long-term and intergenerational effects that failing to accumulate wealth has on the individual, the effects on society can be widespread and profound. The greater the wealth gap grows, the more likely the haves will live in gated communities, withdraw support for public services, and send their children to private schools. We go back to a segregated, separate but not equal society (and still, mostly white). Full circle for the Land of the Free.

What can we do to address white privilege? Quite a bit, actually. Start by looking in the mirror. Am I cashing in privileges at the expense of others, such as networking my way to get what I want? If so, allow others to gain access to your network. Get over the guilt you may have for these privileges. It’s self-serving and lacks utility. Don’t make invisible those who lack power or strength, due to their stigmatized position in society. Accept white as a racial identity (race as social, not biological), and stop acting colorblind. Face and acknowledge Robert Jenson’s The Fears of White People

Finally, consider doing this white privilege activity, developed by Professor McIntosh. The exercise never fails to produce the predicted results, and astound and confound its participants. They will come to see the glass ceilings that hold back a true meritocracy. Educate. Enlighten. Grow.

3 thoughts on “Owning White Privilege

  1. Nice summary of a lot of important and relevant content. Interestingly, a friend of mine currently living in India recently posted this message on Facebook:

    “How do you explain “white privilege” to a child? Our daughter told us this afternoon that a local gave small Ganesha idols to her friends, in her words: “to the kids with peach skin, but not to me.” This is not the first time this has happened, and I think it is not the first time she notices either, but it is the first time that she has voiced it. Why do non-white people insist on reinforcing these behaviours?”

    My friend is Mexican married to an American. Her daughter was the only child not given an idol, apparently because she wasn’t white. Among many other sympathetic or outraged responses, here is mine:

    “So sorry – it’s awful. This happens even between Mia and Madison. People will give attention to Madison’s fair skin and blue eyes while ignoring Mia. I now insist that they either don’t talk to us or honor both girls.”

    Sadly, race is very much an issue worldwide.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Never have I been more aware of white privilege than while living in Saudi Arabia. White male with a blue passport will get you most things in this world, but it will not make me Saudi. This society is the most strongly stratified I have experienced, with a definite hierarchy strongly correlated with skin color, language, and country of origin. The flippant dismissal that occurs because I am not Saudi, or Arab, and don’t speak Arabic, while not incessant, happens. This, oddly, is one of the things I like about living here. It is a window into how the daily lives and interactions with society of so many people are colored, by one’s color.


  3. Ten steps forward! I remember a thought provoking study on the same issues whose summary was something like, “to be successful in the world, you can’t be born too male, too tall or too white..” It has amazed me as an adult to see how Asian people spend billions on skin whitening products and covering up from the sun, while white Westerners can’t get enough of it. Just look at Thai and Filipino advertising! They look nothing like the people you see in the markets…


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