Many Americans recognize that people of color are disadvantaged and oppressed by racism, but presume that White people occupy a neutral or normal position. But recognizing ways that Whites occupy a privileged position helps to clarify how racism operates.
The original essay by Peggy McIntosh which introduced the word “privilege” into discussions of social justice as a way of naming how racism doesn’t just mean unfair disadvantage for people of color, it also means unfair advantages for Whites, offering a list of fifty daily effects of White privilege. These are the first few:
- I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
- If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
- I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
The concept of “White privilege” can seem baffling to White people who have good reasons to think they are far from privileged. Gina Crosley-Corcoran looks at how to understand this paradox.
I, maybe more than most people, can completely understand why broke white folks get pissed when the word “Privilege” is thrown around. As a child, I was constantly discriminated against because of my poverty and those wounds still run very deep. But luckily my college education introduced me to a more nuanced concept of Privilege; the term Intersectionality. The concept of Intersectionality recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not privileged in others. There are many different types of privilege, not just skin color privilege, that impact the way people can move through the world or are discriminated against. These are all things you are born into, not things you earned, that afford you opportunities others may not have.
A cartoon from Robot Hugs offering an overview of ways to think about privilege.
Privilege is a fact, not an insult! You can’t help it if you have it, and you don’t have to feel guilty about it.
A witty metaphor from Sindelókë:
Imagine, if you will, a small house, built someplace cool-ish but not cold, perhaps somewhere in Ohio, and inhabited by a dog and a lizard. The dog is a big dog, something shaggy and nordic, like a Husky or Lapphund — a sled dog, built for the snow. The lizard is small, a little gecko best adapted to living in a muggy rainforest somewhere. Neither have ever lived anywhere else, nor met any other creature; for the purposes of this exercise, this small house is the entirety of their universe.
The dog, much as you might expect, turns on the air conditioning. Really cranks it up, all the time — this dog was bred for hunting moose on the tundra, even the winter here in Ohio is a little warm for his taste. If he can get the house to fifty (that’s ten C, for all you weirdo metric users out there), he’s almost happy.
The gecko can’t do much to control the temperature — she’s got tiny little fingers, she can’t really work the thermostat or turn the dials on the A/C ….
People in privileged positions encountering social change — Whites with racism, men with sexism, and so forth — experience sincere distress at necessary changes; Doug Muder offers a way to think about this without permitting it to disrupt efforts to move toward justice.
Confronting this distress is tricky, because neither acceptance nor rejection is quite right. The distress is usually very real, so rejecting it outright just marks you as closed-minded and unsympathetic. It never works to ask others for empathy without offering it back to them.
At the same time, my straight-white-male sunburn can’t be allowed to compete on equal terms with your heart attack. To me, it may seem fair to flip a coin for the first available ambulance, but it really isn’t. Don’t try to tell me my burn doesn’t hurt, but don’t consent to the coin-flip.
In social justice circles, people commonly mark instances of people in positions of privilege stumbling into maintaining that privilege — White people exhibiting racism, or men exhibiting sexism — by saying “check your privilege”. Ally Fogg offers a way to think about this.
Privilege-checking can be irritating and frustrating, but it bothers me less than pronouncements from those with the highest platforms and largest megaphones demanding acquiescence to their status, acceptance of their values and the right to police the tone or limit the range of objections of their detractors. Now that really is an abuse of privilege.