• Sarah Bien

White Privilege


Note that this piece is about structures in our societies and not about the individuals of any particular group. This clear distinction must be made in order to remove the fear of moral accusations. Decide whether you are in a mental state to put your beliefs to question.

The questions I’ll be discussing in this article are: What is white privilege? What is not white privilege? Why is understanding white privilege important?

The definition of white privilege is the “collection of unearned cultural, political, economic, and social advantages and privileges possessed by people of Anglo-European descent or by those who pass as such”. This is a densely packed definition, but there are some daily life examples that make it clear. An activist and scholar, Peggy McIntosh, states her white privilege:

I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured I won’t be followed or harassed. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability. I can watch TV and see people of my race widely represented. I can swear or dress in second clothes without having people attribute these choices to stereotypes of bad morals, poverty, or illiteracy of my race. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.

The power of white privilege comes from the sense that it’s normal. By considering privileges to be the norm, the empathy to understand that it is not normal for everyone is lost.

In addition to understanding what White Privilege is, let’s establish what White Privilege is not. It does not mean that all white people do not deserve their success. It also does not mean a white person’s life can not be hard, but it does mean that it's not hard because of race. It is not a moral judgement on how difficult a white person’s life is. It's not about the individual, but rather it's about how institutions benefit white people and disadvantage people of color.

Now we’ll trace how institutions built by white people in the past continue to create a racial disparity. Complex personality traits are not strictly inherited by parents, but wealth is. We can trace through history exactly how political policy has compounded this effect. “Housing and Urban Development Act” was a policy in the late 1960’s that intended to benefit inner city areas, but out of $120 billion dollars worth of new housing, only 2% went to people of color. In this time period, minorities were sold with substandard housing and there were no laws to protect minorities from racial collusion. This essentially destroyed the value of inner city housing and made the area ineligible for future loans. On top of this, the urban renewal cycle made minority neighborhoods even more vulnerable. Highways will be built in these urban areas, decreasing the population in the neighborhoods, decreasing the community’s political power which ultimately minority neighborhoods more vulnerable which furthered urban renewal. This made these areas the target for prisons, incinerators, and toxic waste dumps. By the 2000s, African Americans were 2.5x more likely to die from nutritional deficiencies than European Americans.

Now that we understand the history of land, let’s look at the loan debate today. Today, minority communities are significantly less likely to be able to receive financial loans. The argument against evidence of racism is “it simply comes from the low net worth of minority applicants” or “these applicants are denied based on a fair system” or “they didn’t take the opportunities that the other applicants took”. However net worth is determined by past housing opportunities and reflects a history of discrimination. We can not accept arguments such as “We can’t give you a loan today because we’ve discriminated against your race so effectively in the past that you have not been able to accumulate any equity and to pass it down through the generations”.

A mindset ingrained in America’s mind is that a person earned every point to reach where they are today and everyone begins at the same point. A successful person worked hard and made the right choices. An unsuccessful person made the wrong choices and were lazy. However when there’s a contradiction, an unsuccessful person that’s tried to do everything in their power, it shows us something painful: our work does not immediately transfer into upward social class movement. We tend to blame the unsuccessful for their choices instead of finding fault in the system that failed them. This is why recognizing white privilege is important. We need to be able to see what has long been fed to us is not normal. It is not normal for minority communities to not have the same opportunities and equal outcomes as white people.

This is not a personal and moral attack on any of our white peers. Again, it’s not about the individual but rather the institution that we live in and the assumptions that we are tacitly taught on day one. In order to reach any change, we must work together and remove the systemic barrier that our institutions give white people an advantage and people of color a disadvantage.


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