Taking for granted that when you’re shopping, you probably aren’t going to be followed or harassed.
Knowing that you can curse, dress sloppily or misspell a word in a memo without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, poverty or substandard education of your race.
Assuming that if you buy a house in a nice neighborhood, your neighbors will be pleasant and welcoming.
Understanding that if you ask to speak to the person in charge, you'll almost certainly end up facing someone of your own race.
Feeling comfortable and “normal” in all the usual walks of public life.
What is white privilege? It’s the social advantage that comes from being seen as the norm in the United States, automatically conferred irrespective of wealth, gender or other factors. It smooths out life, but in a way that’s barely noticeable – unless it doesn’t apply to you. In her 1988 paper “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh described it as a set of unearned assets that white people can count on cashing in each day even as they remain largely oblivious to their advantage.
Yet every time white privilege is acknowledged, there is a backlash.
This shouldn’t be controversial. Agreeing that yes, there is some advantage to being white in the United States, doesn’t then mean stripping white people of their jobs and possessions. A request to acknowledge one’s privilege is just a reminder to be aware – aware that you might not be able to fully understand someone else’s experiences, that the assumptions you were brought up with may be blinding you, that some people may have to struggle for reasons foreign to you.
Pointing out that white privilege exists isn’t the same as accusing every white person of being a racist. And acknowledging that you might benefit from such privilege doesn’t mean that you’re “apologizing for being white” or joining the ranks of those dreaded “social justice warriors.” The most heartening comments I received were those from readers who understood that. Rather than reacting defensively, they asked: What’s next?
Here’s what’s next.
Generally, we expect those with advantages to help out those who are disadvantaged. The leg up provided by white privilege offers a chance to do just that. Understanding that you benefit from white privilege offers the freedom to amplify important issues in ways that those without it cannot. It represents an opportunity to speak out more loudly against injustice, knowing you’re better-protected from negative outcomes. It’s the ability to use the access you’re given to create opportunity and space for others.
The use of white privilege tends to be unintentional. White privilege isn’t asked for, but it’s also not earned. The advantages it brings are uncomfortable to acknowledge and easy to take for granted. But they shouldn’t remain invisible. There’s no way to level the playing field unless we first can all see how uneven it is.
The Washington Post
Christine Emba edits The Post’s In Theory blog.