The Privilege of Whiteness

As a biracial child who spent part of his youth abroad, Barack Obama learned the feeling of otherness and became attuned to how he was perceived by those around him. As a politician, he knew well that many white people saw him as a vehicle for their hopes of a post-racial society. Even if those hopes were somewhat naïve, they came from a sincere and admirable desire, and he was happy to let those sentiments carry him along. Part of the bargain, though, was that he had to be extremely careful about how he talked about race, and then only on the rarest of occasions. His race had to be a source of hope and pride—for everybody—but not of displeasure, discontent, or worst of all, a grievance that would demand redress. No one knew better than him that everything was fine only as long as we all could feel good about Barack Obama being black.

So when he made his unexpected remarks about Trayvon Martin on Friday, Obama was stepping into some dangerous territory. By talking about his own experience as a black man, he was trying to foster both understanding and empathy, to explain to white Americans why the Martin case has caused so much consternation and pain among black Americans. The petty (and not so petty) daily suspicion and indignities and mistreatment black people are talking about? Even I, the most powerful human being on the planet, know them well.

In doing so—and by saying "it's going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching"—he may have implicitly encouraged white people to think about their own privilege, the privilege of whiteness. Privilege is a dangerous word, one that raises lots of hackles, and one Obama himself would never, ever use. But it's inescapable.

Despite the way people react when the word is introduced, acknowledging your own privilege doesn't cost anything. I grew up in a home with lots of books, in a town with good schools, in a country with extraordinary opportunities. I benefited hugely from them all, though I created none of them. I may have earned my current job as a writer, but compared to the labors of those who wait tables or clean houses or do factory work, it's so absurdly pleasant you can barely call it work at all. But more to the point, in all my years I've never been stopped by a cop who just wanted to know who I was and what I was up to. I've never been accused of "furtive movements," the rationale New York City police use for the hundreds of thousands of times every year they question black and Hispanic men. I've never been frisked on the street, and nobody has ever responded with fear when I got in an elevator. That's not because of my inherent personal virtue. It's because I'm white.

I will never have to sit my children down and give them a lengthy talk about what to do and not to do when they encounter the police. That's the talk so many black parents make sure to give their children, one filled with detailed instructions about how to not appear threatening, how to diffuse tension, what to do with your hands when you get pulled over, and how to end the encounter without being arrested or beaten. I can tell my children, "Don't do anything stupid," and that will probably be enough. I worry about them as much as any parent, but there are some things I don't have to worry about.

Because of my privilege, I also don't have to concern myself with how strangers are thinking of me when I leave the house, because their thoughts will bear on me not a whit. Amir "Questlove" Thompson, drummer for The Roots and bandleader for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, wrote last week about how he is constantly made aware of the fact that, as a large black man, he makes other people uncomfortable. "My friends know that I hate parking lots and elevators, not because they are places that danger could occur, but it's a prime place in which someone of my physical size can be seen as a dangerous element. I wait and wait in cars until I feel it's safe for me to make people feel safe." Privilege means not spending any mental energy worrying about how you make other people feel by your very presence. Privilege means never having the thought even occur to you.

My privilege as a white man is to be unnoticed if I choose, because when I step into an elevator or walk through a store or pass a cop on the street, I'm an individual. No one looks at me and says, "Hmm—white guy there," because I'm the default setting. I'm not suspicious, I'm not a potential criminal, I ring no alarm bells in anyone's head. And that is a gift. Even as an adult, Barack Obama, the "articulate and bright and clean" Harvard-educated lawyer, had something in common with Trayvon Martin and every other 17-year-old black kid: the presumption of suspicion with which they found themselves treated. They couldn't just be themselves. To so many people, they were a type, and a bad one at that, or at least assumed to be of a lesser station. So a fellow guest at a posh party in 2003 could walk up to state Senator Obama and ask him to fetch the man a drink. Has that happened to you?

Privilege is also not worrying that the deeds of other people who are like you in some way will reflect poorly on you. As Jamelle Bouie wrote last week, at times like this, some conservatives will always bring up the idea of "black on black" crime as a justification for the presumption that young black men are criminals, but we never speak about "white on white" crime. The reason? When a white person robs a liquor store or beats someone up or commits insider trading, we see it as just a crime, not a crime that has anything to do with the whiteness of the perpetrator. Since white is the default setting, there's no such thing as white crime. Each white criminal is just himself.

And retaining your individuality means you're granted an exemption from some kinds of costs. Last week The Washington Post's Richard Cohen wrote a remarkable column arguing that it's perfectly reasonable to treat all black men like criminal suspects, since there are some black men who commit crimes. As Ta-Nehisi Coates noted, Cohen was "arguing for a kind of racist public safety tax" that black men should be forced to pay. Sure, most black men are perfectly law-abiding, but since some aren't, you sir are just going to have to put up with getting stopped and frisked, getting followed by store security, and getting pulled over even when you haven't been speeding. If you're white, that's a tax you will never have to pay, because you will be treated as an individual.

As a white person, I'll continue to enjoy this privilege almost no matter who I am or what I do. In my heart I could be the most kind-hearted humanitarian or the most vile sociopath. I could be assiduously law-abiding or a serial killer. I can dress in a suit or in torn jeans and a hoodie, and no one will react to me with fear or suspicion, because if they don't know me they will assume they know nothing. I am myself, nothing more or less. That's privilege.


So, "white privilege" is almost identical to "female privilege". It means that you, unlike a male, aren't considered much of a threat to go crazy and hurt people or commit other crimes. Do women feel guilty about this privilege -- if not, why not?

Hmmmm, rrhamilton, that's an interesting definition of privilege. Privilege is defined as "a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to one person or group of people." In general, it refers to the advantages given to an empowered group and withheld from disempowered groups. Examples of privileged groups include people who are white, heterosexual, male, able-bodied and wealthy.

"White privilege" refers to the lump sum of advantages that white people have without having done anything to earn them: better access to healthcare and education, better pay for the same work, longer life expectancy, the ability to walk down the street without being profiled, etc, etc, etc. The list is nearly endless.

Though there are very occasional benefits to being a member of disempowered groups (non-white, homosexual, female, handicapped, impoverished, etc), those rare benefits are generally not referred to as privilege. So, yes, I suppose that one of the benefits of being female is that people generally aren't afraid of me when I follow them into an elevator. However, an occasional benefit doesn’t rise to the standard required for true systemic privilege, hence the term "privilege" is generally reserved for the systemic benefits given to males, not females.

To answer your question, I think that some members of privileged groups do recognize their privilege and feel discomfort about it whereas many do not. One of the main components of privilege is the ability to choose whether or not to acknowledge its existence. As a white person, I can shrug my shoulders and say “Oh, well, I get unfair advantages, too bad” and then ignore it. Or, I can say “Wait, this isn’t fair! I want to do something about it.” A black person is forced to deal with his/her lack of privilege on a daily basis.

Clearly the author is recognizing some of his privilege and feeling discomfort. As a white female, yes, I recognize that certain assumptions are made about me that are different from the assumptions that are made about black men. Yes, I feel very uncomfortable about that.

Well, you didn't answer the question, which was whether you felt guilty about having the advantages that go with having two X chromosomes?

But you did say this:

"White privilege" refers to the lump sum of advantages that white people have without having done anything to earn them: better access to healthcare and education, better pay for the same work, longer life expectancy, the ability to walk down the street without being profiled, etc, etc, etc. The list is nearly endless.

First, by your standards, are ANY privileges "earned"? How did whites get their "privilege" if it wasn't earned -- was it randomly assigned? Is that how females got THEIR privilege, too -- random assignment?

"Better access to healthcare": I've never been in a doctor's office where the receptionist let the whites cut in line. Have you? What else to you mean by that term?
"Better access to education": Huh? You've clearly never been the parent of a white college applicant or you'd know this is the opposite of the truth. Or are you referring to primary and secondary education, and if so, why do whites have "better access" to those?
"Better pay for the same work": Why don't profit-motivated employers fire the whites and hire the non-whites, if the work is really the same and the expense is really lower? The same would apply to car dealers and dry cleaners who must HATE to see white customers since they supposedly pay less for better products and services, right?
"Longer life expectancy": Now you're getting into the identical "female privilege" again.
"The ability to walk down the street without being profiled": Whites are certainly profiled walking down the street, by criminals as potentially lucrative -- and in non-white neighborhoods, friendless -- victims.

Let me ask you this. There are about 40 million black people in America. But let's make that a more manageable number, say, 4 million. If you were black and the leader of all black people and could make them move with you, then what other country would you want to live in? In other words, in what country in the world would you rather be black than in the U.S.?

Your comparison is one of apples-to-oranges. The "female privilege" you describe is not privilege as much is it is an assumption which really isn't true - many "crazy" people are female.

Privilege is not preferential treatment - privilege is about access. Privilege also addresses universality. It can be argued that everyone has the right to higher education in the United States - a universal statement. The privileged class has more options available - often without merit, simply because they have, in the past rated the privilege. Your examples seem almost baiting - for instance, in a medical office the preferential treatment of a white person over a black person is not privilege but racism and prejudice. In that case privilege stems from the apparent access of a wider variety of medical options for the white over the black for any number of reasons - placement of treatment, cost of treatment, referral protocol from primary providers, etc.

One way to look at privilege is when one party simply says "why don't they just get over it" when someone talks about past discrimination. It is the "privilege" of the privileged class to have the others assimilate to them as opposed to the other direction.

How about child privilege and quadriplegic privilege and blind privilege? Do they feel guilty? They should- they aren't any better than blacks yet we don't view them as threats. As a white I don't feel guilty that blacks are singled out for abuse- I do acknowledge this as a shame and a burden on their lives.

nyscribbler wrote: "As a white I don't feel guilty that blacks are singled out for abuse- I do acknowledge this as a shame and a burden on their lives."

Ok, guilt serves no useful purpose if empathy and action are not part of the equation. So I am not impressed simply by your acknowledgement that you know blacks are singled out for "abuse.....this is a shame and a burden on their lives." Your intellectual "objectivity" speaks volumes: A lack of empathy? Were you subjected to systemic abuse as a white person, I'm sure you would react strongly in some way. Were you aware that whites have the highest rate of suicide in America? Just imagine if they had the added burden of racism to deal with...

I am black and quite aware that systemic racism has traumatized black people. There's a better word fitting those who seek to destroy the lives of others, economically or psychologically,etc: They are sociopaths. Understanding this truth has set many people free who would otherwise be burdened beyond reason by the imposition of racism on their lives.

There is a lot of unfairness in the world, in our culture, in life. We are born into this, against our will. The best advice I've ever gotten was to not have babies that I couldn't raise, guide, care for, pay for, teach extremely strong morals to, and be responsible for. It's not fair that I didn't get to have any and every baby I wanted to have an could have physically created. It's not fair that I have this conscience and constant concern about what neighborhood my children occupy, what friends they make, what influences they are subject to. It's not fair that I stopped after 2 kids and spent a lot of extra time and energy on them, time I could have spent working or playing. It's not fair that my kids have to dress and look as nice as possible to be considered non-threatening. It's not fair that giving birth is not the same as parenting, and that strong resilient parenting skills will never be required before anyone takes their baby home from the hospital. It's not fair that hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and fires occur, but they do. Man, I am so glad I spent all that extra time with my kids to keep them smart, safe, sane, and not carrying around a chip. I have awesome kids, and it's not all luck.

The smugness of your comments...very interesting. Even though you make no racial insinuations, please don't imply you are the only person who has parented well.

You have two awesome kids....good for you. But it's not all due to brilliance.
Many things can happen outside of people's control including accidents and injuries that can change lives overnight.
"Life is unfair" you say? Ok. But you wouldn't be so smug about it all if your kids were singled out and harmed just because...they are different in some way.

I am black and have only one child. So even some black people have fewer kids than you.
The personal choices people make are quite different from systems of hierarchy developed over things people have no control over -- skin color -- that impose unfairness through systems from cradle to grave. And want to know something? Those who dig graves for others do not go unscathed themselves.

Ref your comment: "So a fellow guest at a posh party in 2003 could walk up to state Senator Obama and ask him to fetch the man a drink. Has that happened to you?"
Practically every overly proud West Point cadet on their way home from school in their uniform can tell a deflating story about how important they thought they were, only to be asked to pick up bags at the airport or bus station.
And when wearing a suit or shirt and tie that looked close to the store clerks, who hasn't been asked "where is the linen department?"
Yes, Mr. Waldman, it's a big racist, capitalist plot!

Typical smug entitled person's remark about anothers' misfortune.

I regret to inform you that white is less & less right & there IS institutional discrimination against white males in both academia & state job offerings. My Anglo spouse, on the faculty of a state university, has been the target of threatening emails & threatening comments in open meetings by another faculty member (a minority) for several years! These items are on file. Neither the HR office nor the Equal Opportunity folks on campus will do anything about this problem because my husband is NOT A MINORITY, I.e., it is basically "open season" on him as far as the other faculty member is concerned (& the emails are distributed campus-wide on the faculty network). Since my husband is non-tenured, the other faculty member has set out with the express intent of "relieving him" of his job.
In another instance, shortly after my husband graduated with triple bachelors' degrees in history, archeology, & anthropology, he attempted to apply for a posted state museum job requiring 2 of those degrees. The secretarial staff at the state employment office, on hearing his qualifications, pulled the posting & refused to give him an application. He later learned that the job had been given to a young woman with NO college degree AFTER he had attempted to apply.
So, you see, white males are the new class against whom it is perfectly OK to discriminate. After all, they ALL must have been racists or something, at something point?---Or have "inherited guilt"?--Or what? Exactly why is it OK to do this?

Not that I expect Paul Waldman to pay any attention to this but I figured I'd try anyway.

White privilege is overblown. The reason non-whites and especially blacks are profiled as potential criminals is because they have much higher rates of crime, including violent crime, than whites do. When people bring up "white privilege" I ask them if Asians have privilege too because Asian people tend to make more money than whites and based on my experiences are not profiled as criminals by regular people or by police. Why? Could their low crime rates and generally civilized behavior have something to do with it?

Now I'm not saying white privilege doesn't exist, just that it's exaggerated. As a white person in the US I am privileged to live here. And guess what? I don't feel guilty about that at all. My white ancestors built and maintained a great country for me to live in. It isn't my fault that many non-whites don't feel the same way about their own country. Maybe they should do something about it instead of trying to make us feel guilty.

Of course there are a bunch of smaller advantages of being white in a majority white country, but that isn't so much white privilege as it is the privilege of being part of the majority. Japanese people for example benefit from being the majority in Japan. Indians are the majority in India. Arabs are the majority in Saudi Arabia. These countries I'm mentioning are not exactly known for their pleasant attitudes toward black people either, yet nobody gets on their backs or tries to make them feel bad for having privilege. They only do this to whites.

Your white ancestors aren't the only people who built this country. They stole land from Native Americans and from Mexico.
African-Americans helped built this country, but their income was stolen through 400 years of slavery.

Speaking of your crime statistics: You are discounting the high rates of crime, including violent crime, that whites are involved in -- and have done since the beginning of America. How did they slaughter otherwise peaceful Natives and African people who preferred non-violence?

African-Americans helped build...not built.

We are all stereotyped. Ask a visible jew, muslim Sikh, or a white in a black or latino neighborhood. How about transgender or openly gay., or a woman. We all respond to stereotypes and in many cases we are the stereotypes and are subject to negative and often positive responses because of how we present ourselves. There is no getting away from it.

Stereotypes are one thing. Prejudice is one thing.
Racism is a sociopathic system. There is a difference.

When I ride my Harley, dress in black leather, fingerless gloves, look rough, very unfriendly and dangerous, people avoid me. Are the profiling me? Yes! But it is I who chooses to dress like a biker and be unfriendly. People should be concerned. How do they know if my intentions are good (they are). Blacks commit crimes at a rate 7 times the rate of whites. You'd better believe I'm on alert! We live in the society that exists in reality - not a fairytale "never-neverland." Deal with it. It is what it is! Maybe if young black men quit dressing and acting like "gangstas." Just like I could stop dressing like a "biker," neither of us would be "profiled."

Um, most blacks dress very well and hope to be upwardly mobile. Those screwy numbers you stating are probably based on bad statistics. when you take into account the country is mostly White and Latino. We only make up about 12 percent of the population, and disproportionately we are thrown into jail for the same crimes that whites commit (petty crimes that are mostly drug related). Not only that, you need to check your history because last time I checked black men and women have only recently come out of slavery. It truly ended in the 1950's; while at the same time living in a (white) culture that has found other ways to enforce Jim crow laws (if you even know what those are) upon us, and treat us as lesser citizens. your obviously to far up on your high horse to be able to sympathize with a peoples who have had their entire culture stolen, bread against there will, and continuously beaten down and locked up because White Men are afraid of Black Mens power. Cause yes, we are beautiful, talented, strong and smart (your predecessors were afraid we would steal all the white women, creating a myth that we are dangerous animals and that white women are pure as freshly fallen snow, not). Don't forget that any culture that has been driven to the outskirts of society; any person that grows up in poverty is more likely to become a criminal. It is the nature of poverty and the lack of accessibility that causes this phenomenon. Without us (Negros) American culture would be even more bland and predictable ( I.e . fashion, music, science, art, sports ect...). think about it.

P.C. Green
watch my video based on this phenom

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)