If you ask 10 people you come across what the term “white privilege” means, you will likely get 10 very different answers. If some of the people you ask are white, you may notice they struggle to see themselves in racial terms as a white person. Or perhaps they find the question upsetting. Many times, these types of reactions can delay (or altogether stop) white individuals from the process of continued learning and self-reflection that is important when examining issues related to privilege. This process of evaluation and education related to white privilege is an important part of the journey to addressing racism and working toward a world where all children are safe and healthy.
What’s white privilege?
First, let’s understand 'what is white privilege exactly?' It refers to “advantages that are taken for granted by whites and that cannot be similarly enjoyed by people of color in the same context (government, community, workplace, schools, etc.)” (Ref: McIntosh, 2012). One metaphor that has been used to describe white privilege is imagining that white people have access to a bag full of specialty items which helps them get by easier in the world. The kicker is that white people do not realize they have this bag of goodies and did not do anything to earn these benefits. They were gifted the bag and the advantages inside simply by the fact that their skin is white and/or that they are perceived as white by others. These different advantages and disadvantages can directly impact a child’s success in school, career and long-term health outcomes, among others.
As a white person, I have the privilege:
Of learning history about my race in school. I regularly see my race’s point of view in textbooks.
Of often seeing my race speaking as a voice of authority or a voice in power.
Of having grandparents and older generations who were not denied a high school or higher education due to the color of their skin.
Of not having to “see color” or for that matter to notice racism.
Of having ancestors who were allowed to collect generational wealth or assets, such as home ownership, 401Ks and property for more than one generation.
Of not being afraid to travel with my family at night in rural America.
Of not being afraid for my life when or if I get pulled over for a routine traffic stop.
Of persons with my same race and lived experiences being on a jury if I am ever on trial.
Of not being followed in a store unnecessarily.
Of not having the experience of someone clenching their purse when I enter the elevator with them or locking their car door when stopping at a traffic light next to me.
What is white privilege not?
When we talk about white privilege, sometimes the discussion can get heated. In fact, some white folks are offended by the term. We believe it is important to address a few myths to help understand some key things when we are talking about white privilege.
Having white privilege does not mean that white people do not experience struggles or hardships, or are not under-privileged in other ways. We are all complex people with multiple identities that intersect. You may be more or less privileged based on your economic class, sex, gender, physical ability, etc.
Having white privilege also does not mean that white people have not worked hard in their lives. Privilege is not about anyone’s work ethic. It is more about how some opportunities are afforded to white people that are not to other racial identities.
Having white privilege does not mean that all white people believe that being white is superior to other races. In fact, acknowledging that you have unearned and often unnoticed privileges in our culture from being light-skinned is a good way to be anti-racist and an ally!
Having white privilege does not mean that you need to feel guilty or defensive for being white. Acknowledging that you have white privilege in your life does not mean you are totally responsible as an individual for oppression of other races. No one has control over what race they are born with, after all! While it can be painful to notice white privilege in our lives, this awareness is necessary. Privilege causes the most harm when it is hidden or unnoticed by the people who benefit from it.
Instead, white privilege requires white folks to acknowledge and review in ourselves some of the unearned benefits that are afforded to us. This awareness helps us to better understand that people of color do not have the same opportunities or the same sense of safety.
What can I do?
We as parents have many options for learning about white privilege. We can also create a safe space for our children to learn about it, too. Each child is different and their developmental age may affect when to address this topic with them, but here are a few places to start.
Don’t be Silent. Talking about racism is uncomfortable. Sometimes we are concerned with saying the wrong thing. However, avoiding the topic does not move it forward. Please consider leaning into the discomfort, say something when you see something, ask questions, listen. The more we all talk about this, the better we can all understand each other’s point of view, especially the viewpoints that have NOT been taught through media, textbooks, and social conversations.
Read Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” as a family. Talk with your child(ren) about what skin-color privilege they have or do not have. Take opportunities to notice this in real-world settings, in examples in movies/TV shows, books. Then talk about this privilege so your child is aware of the “invisible knapsack.”
Use your place of privilege to support others and speak up. You can model this for your child and others around you. If you are a business leader or influential in your organization, consider ways to prioritize this topic within your work through trainings and other activities.
Don’t say “All Lives Matter.” Why not? If you’re thinking “All Lives Matter” seems like a wonderful compromise to a difficult topic….well, this is the deal: “All Lives Matter” is a direct come-back of the sentiment of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. BLM underscores that Black lives have not been protected equally under the law nor in society historically and in many circumstances still today. “All Lives Matter” appears to suggest discomfort in acknowledging these facts.
Do forgive yourself and othersfor their ignorance. White privilege is a product of our larger society, which has been designed to hide and deny occurrences of racism. Instead of feeling shame or blame, spend intentional time learning and talking. Acknowledge (even if just to yourself) your own biases and work to change them.
Do reach out to people of color in your life and let them know you are thinking of them. This can be as simple as “I see you” or “I’m thinking of you.” The distress that many of us who are white are experiencing with current protests and increased exposure to the effects of racism is not new to our friends of color. However, these constant reminders can be like sprinkling salt on a wound for people of color. When you express your care and concern, follow your friend’s lead—be opening to listening, but do not expect them to talk more about their experiences with racism if they are not in the time, space, or mindset to do so.
It can often feel like fighting racism is a very big, very hard job. By taking things day by day and setting small goals along the way, we can all work together in making our community more equitable and inclusive. When we recognize our own white privilege, it helps us create a more compassionate, safe, and fair Kansas City—something that benefits us now and in the future for our children.
Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, McIntosh (1988)
Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondence Through Work in Women’s studies,” in Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology, ed. M. Anderson and P. Hill, 9th (Belmonth, CA: Wasworth, 2012), 94-105.
Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person; Gina Crosley-Corcoran, Huffington Post, 05/08/2014, Updated Dec 06, 2017