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.
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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.
The concept has been percolating in academic circles ever since and is approaching broad usage among young people on the political left. Yet as Post reporter Janell Ross noted this month, it’s a term that many Americans “instinctively don’t trust or believe to be real,” despite reams of evidence to the contrary. Black children – 4-year-olds! – compose 18 percent of preschool enrollment but are given nearly half of all out-of-school suspensions. Job applicants with white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to get called in for an interview. Black defendants are at least 30 percent more likely to be imprisoned than white defendants for the same crime.
Why does such a fraught piece of academic lingo matter now? Because people are beginning to talk about what it means in their own lives. At a time when minorities are growing more vocal about the ways in which their experiences in the United States differ from those of their white counterparts, the idea might finally be entering the mainstream. Two weeks ago, at a forum in Iowa, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was asked by an audience member to explain what white privilege meant to her and how it had affected her life. Her response? “Look, where do I start?”
Yet every time white privilege is acknowledged, there is a backlash.
When a version of this column ran online over the Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, the comments posted in response were disappointing, to say the least. An overwhelming number of readers wrote to remind me that not all white people are privileged, a clear misreading of the term. Others denounced the very idea of white privilege, arguing that it was a falsehood invented to justify discrimination against white people at a time when we should all be moving past race. And many others suggested that perhaps black people deserved any disadvantage they faced, trotting out old canards about black-on-white crime, black violence and how if black people for once just pulled up their pants, got off welfare and worked as hard as these commenters had, everything would be fine.
Obviously not all white people are wealthy, and obviously many minorities are rich and powerful. Lots of white people are disadvantaged. But white privilege is something specific and different from the ordinary rising and falling of a free society. It’s the fact that simply by virtue of being a white person, of whatever socioeconomic status, you get the benefit of the doubt. That simply isn’t the case for those of other races in the United States, no matter how wealthy, smart or hard-working they are. Even when black people work as hard as or harder than their white counterparts, they have this additional barrier to surmount.
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.