What Is White Privilege?
It’s not about you as an individual, even if you benefit from it. But recognizing and challenging structural “whiteness” is the key to equity — and excellence.
Spring 2021 | By Ann Gleig
As an associate professor of religion and cultural studies, I find that teaching terms such as “white privilege” and “white supremacy” often provoke defensive reactions — what author Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility” — in white people. Some students from blue-collar backgrounds can find it hard to emotionally connect with the notion that they are privileged when they have struggled financially. Others from more comfortable middle-class backgrounds can feel that their family success is being undermined or that they haven’t worked as hard as others to achieve their success. And some students complain that such concepts are merely tools to “shame white people.”
One of the major stumbling blocks here is that such students reduce both racism and white privilege to certain individuals. As the epigraph to Peggy McIntosh’s foundational 1989 article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” states, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” Just as systemic racism is reduced to individual bad actors, privilege is misunderstood as something individual rather than a system in which white people as a collective are centered and prioritized.
McIntosh explains, “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.” She then lists 26 ways in which white privilege manifests itself. These include:
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
- I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
Extending the work of McIntosh, DiAngelo notes in her book White Fragility that many Americans equate white supremacy with groups such as the torch-carrying white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. For sociologists, however, the term white supremacy denotes, as DiAngelo writes, a “socio-political system of domination based on racial categories that benefits those defined and perceived as white. This system of structural power privileges, centralizes and elevates white people as a group.” Even though according to 2019 Census data, 60.1% of the U.S. population was white, she draws on data from 2016–17, giving examples of this supremacy, including:
- Ten richest Americans: 100% white
- U.S. Congress: 90% white
- People who decide which TV shows we see: 93% white
- People who decide which news is covered: 85% white
- Teachers: 82% white
To better grasp the concepts of white privilege and white supremacy, we have to move beyond individual experiences to understand the structural conditions and the wider historical and social context in which all individuals are shaped. How have legal and social systems in the U.S. functioned to produce and maintain white privilege? And what is the cost of such white privilege to Black Americans?
One good example is the legacy of redlining, a state-sponsored practice by which the government maintained segregation between white and Black populations. Neighborhood risk assessment maps developed for more than 200 cities during the 1930s shaped federal government housing policies in the United States. City planners literally drew red lines across the city to establish white suburban housing areas that were separated by highways from Black and immigrant neighborhoods. Often confined to densely packed and more polluted urban centers, Black Americans were more likely to be denied mortgages or only offered mortgages with high interest rates. While these practices were made illegal through the 1968 Fair Housing Act and the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, many of them continued in new, less overt forms. Before the 2008 recession, for instance, there was an increase on risky loans for low-income borrowers. Afterward, many Black Americans lost their homes, and property values decreased in minority neighborhoods.
The legacy of redlining is present in wealth inequities today. A report by the Federal Reserve stated that white families have nearly eight times the net worth of Black families and more than five times that of Hispanic families. As explained in the Mapping Inequality Project, “Redlining directed both public and private capital to native-born white families and away from African American and immigrant families. As homeownership was arguably the most significant means of intergenerational wealth building in the United States in the 20th century, these redlining practices from eight decades ago had long-term effects in creating wealth inequalities that we still see today.”
“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.”Peggy McIntoshWhite Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Another legacy of redlining is health inequities between white and Black Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans are more likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes and strokes at a younger age than their white counterparts and to die at earlier ages from all causes. And Black children are about twice as likely to have asthma as white children.
A major factor in determining health and life expectancy is where you live. A study comparing housing districts in Southeast Washington, D.C., with Bethesda, Maryland, revealed that the average life expectancy was 10 years lower in the predominantly Black neighborhood than the affluent white neighborhood, even though they’re only about 10 miles apart. This is because where we live determines our access to education, employment, fresh food and outdoor space — all factors that contribute to health.
Through specific examples such as redlining, my students are able to see how white privilege and white supremacy are structural phenomena rooted in historical legal and social processes. This offers them an opportunity to move beyond individual defensiveness and to develop empathy and solidarity with Black Americans. One of my current students, for example, shared that during high school she was struck by the massive differences in resources between the predominately Black urban school she attended and the predominantly white suburban school her brother attended. She discovered that her school was in a former redlined neighborhood, which had been denied the same resources and opportunities as white neighborhoods. Understanding her experience in a wider social and historical context made her commit to tackling racism in her own family and community.
While individual white people are not to blame for policies that began before they were born, we are still benefiting from them at the — often grave — expense of Black Americans. We must challenge rather than comply with white supremacy and work toward creating a country that is more livable for everyone. What are some specific ways white people can recognize and take responsibility for white supremacy?
- Educate ourselves on systemic racism and white supremacy.
- Participate in anti-racist training programs.
- Commit to having difficult conversations with white family and friends about systemic racism.
- Join multiracial organizations such as Showing Up for Racial Justice.
- Partner with Black organizations.
- Support Black-owned businesses.
As constitutional law scholar Bruce Ledewitz states, “Since white racism is the problem, it is the responsibility of white people to end it.” What are we waiting for?
An open-source resource for white people wanting to dismantle white supremacy.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
So You Want to Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo
Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debbie Irving
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum
Ann Gleig is an associate professor of religion and cultural studies who has taught about racism and white supremacy since earning a Ph.D. in religious studies from Rice University in 2010.