A Primer On White Privilege (or, Challenging The Myth Of Meritocracy)

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White privilege (def.): a set of advantages enjoyed by white people beyond those commonly experienced by non-white people in the same social, political, and economic spaces. (Wikipedia)

While Peggy McIntosh was associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, she wrote an essay on her personal experience of becoming aware of white privilege. As a women’s studies professor, she realized that her experiences with oppression as a female in the context of male privilege helped her unlock the door to understanding her own white privilege.

I found her essay very helpful in my journey to understand race and racism. Some highlights:

“As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage…

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege… I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks…

My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow “them” to be more like “us”…

I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined…”

McClintock identified 50 daily effects of white privilege in her own life. I have included 9 here:

  • I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  • 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.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
  • I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
  • I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

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To view her entire list, and her complete essay, click here.

I’ll leave you with one last quote from McClintock:

“And so one question for me and others like me is…whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged, about unearned race advantage and conferred dominance, and, if so, what we will do to lessen them. In any case, we need to do more work in identifying how they actually affect our daily lives. Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the United States think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see “whiteness” as a racial identity…Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable…So one who writes about having white privilege must ask, ‘Having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?'”

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