The term white privilege seems to be popping up everywhere these days — online, in the media, and in college classrooms. In the midst of all this talk, though, I have noticed that the term is frequently misunderstood, particularly by people who find it offensive. Many, many times, I have heard rebuttals of the idea of white privilege that go something like this,
“Just because I am white does not mean I am wealthy. I came from a poor family, and I have worked hard to get where I am today. It makes me angry when people assume that all white people have money and that life has been easy for us.”
I understand how a white person raised in poverty or in the working class would be annoyed by assumptions that they were raised with money and that life has been easy for them. Here’s the thing, though – that is not what white privilege means. Not at all.
White privilege means that, in our society, white people are in the majority, both numerically and culturally, and majority status comes with benefits. And, let’s be clear, majority status always comes with benefits. In China, for instance, the majority ethnic group is the Han Chinese; they make up 91% of the population. (Other ethnic groups include the Zhuang, the Mongols, and the Kazakhs.) So, in China, there is undoubtedly something that could be called Han privilege. In all societies, there are bound to be benefits that come with being in the majority. It’s a fact of life. The point is to get those of us who hold these benefits to recognize them. And once we’ve learned to recognize them, we can learn how to not exploit them at others’ expense.
So, to be extra clear, white privilege is not a term that refers, in the first instance, to money at all. It is not about wealth. It is about benefits like being able to buy a home in any neighborhood you can afford without the neighbors looking at you askance as they worry about a decline in their property values. It is about the fact that you can easily surround yourself with people of your own ethnicity wherever you go. You are never, in any situation, forced to stick out. You can choose to be in the minority, but you don’t have to.
It is about being able to easily find books and TV shows for your kids that have characters that look like them. You can walk into any toy store and find a doll that resembles your child. It is not hard to imagine how a child who has difficulty finding characters that look like her will begin to feel peculiar and, ultimately, inferior.
All white people are afforded these benefits, regardless of their financial means. Now, if you move into that upscale neighborhood and make your lawn look like a junkyard, you are likely to encounter class privilege as your neighbors start looking at you askance. You will not have been discouraged from moving into the neighborhood from the get-go, though. These things that ease life are a privilege that only some of us hold.
And, yes, financial gains can accrue from these other benefits, but having money is not what is primarily meant when people are accused of having white privilege. (Sidenote: The best description I have seen of these financial benefits is in the second chapter of Tim Wise’s White Like Me.)
White privilege also does not mean that white people never have to work for their accomplishments. It simply means that additional burdens are not placed on them by their whiteness as they try to climb ladders and reach their goals. No one assumes that because of their skin color or their name that they are unintelligent or dangerous. They do not have to prove, prima facie, that they are clean, responsible or orderly. Certainly white people must work hard to secure jobs and to gain admission to selective colleges. The difference is that in the midst of all their hard work, they don’t also have to disprove negative stereotypes. They are much more likely to be taken at face value, so to speak.
On a related topic, you may have heard about the new, fashionable challenge to “Check your privilege!” This challenge is issued when someone in a classroom or other place of dialogue expresses an idea without giving thought to the privileged space from which they speak, whether that be as a male, as a Caucasian, or as a member of the upper classes. While I do think it is often important to encourage people to examine the personal assumptions that arise from their positions in society, I do not think retorting “Check your privilege!” is the best way to do it. Why? Mostly because it is not likely to work.
An imperious reproach of this sort is much more likely to put someone on the defensive than to invite them to think more deeply. The tone of this curt order most resembles the tone a parent might use with a child who is sassing off. I believe we must speak to adults with greater respect and civility, especially if we want to gain a hearing. So, for instance, we might say, “Have you thought about how your own life experiences and background might be impacting your thinking here?” Or “I hear you, but I am wondering how your own position in society might be affecting your perceptions of reality in this instance.” Let’s try catching flies with honey.
I think these are important conversations and worthy of our effort. We must try to understand the terms being used, listen well, and speak respectfully.
© Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2015.