White privilege

For the clothing protocol in the Vatican, see Privilège du blanc. For the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis song, see White Privilege II.

White privilege (or white skin privilege) is a term for societal privileges that benefit people identified as white in Western countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. Academic perspectives such as critical race theory and whiteness studies use the concept of "white privilege" to analyze how racism and racialized societies affect the lives of white or white-skinned people.

According to Peggy McIntosh, whites in Western societies enjoy advantages that non-whites do not experience, as "an invisible package of unearned assets".[1] White privilege denotes both obvious and less obvious passive advantages that white people may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice. These include cultural affirmations of one's own worth; presumed greater social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely. The effects can be seen in professional, educational, and personal contexts. The concept of white privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one's own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal.[2][3]

The concept has attracted attention and some opposition. Some critics say that the term uses the concept of "whiteness" as a proxy for class or other social privilege or as a distraction from deeper underlying problems of inequality.[4][5] Others state that it is not that whiteness is a proxy but that many other social privileges are interconnected with it, requiring complex and careful analysis to identify how whiteness contributes to privilege.[6] Critics of white privilege also propose alternative definitions of whiteness and exceptions to or limits of white identity, arguing that the concept of "white privilege" ignores important differences between white subpopulations and individuals and suggesting that the notion of whiteness cannot be inclusive of all white people.[7][8] They note a problem with the interpretation of people of color, in that it fails to acknowledge the diversity of people of color and ethnicity within these groups.[6] Conservative critics have offered more direct critiques of the concept; one writes that "today ... the lives of minorities are no longer stunted by prejudice and 'white privilege'",[9] while another says that the concept is a danger to the project of achieving an equal society.[10]

Gina Crosley-Corcoran in her Huffington Post article, "Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person", says that she was initially hostile to the idea that she had white privilege, initially believing "my white skin didn't do shit to prevent me from experiencing poverty", until she was directed to read Peggy McIntosh's "Unpacking the invisible knapsack". According to Crosley-Corcoran, "the concept of intersectionality recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not privileged in others." [11] Other writers have noted that the "academic-sounding concept of white privilege" sometimes elicits defensiveness and misunderstanding among white people, in part due to the rapidity in which the concept of white privilege was rapidly brought into the mainstream spotlight through social media campaigns such as Black Lives Matter.[12] Cory Weinburg, writing for Inside Higher Ed, has stated that the concept of white privilege is frequently misinterpreted by non-academics because it is an academic concept that has been recently been brought into the mainstream. Academics interviewed by Weinburg, who have been otherwise studying white privilege undisturbed for decades, have been taken aback with the seemingly-sudden hostility from right-wing critics since 2014.[13]


The definition of white privilege, as with many terms, varies from source to source, but is generally distinguished from active bias or prejudice against non-white people.[14] The following is a partial list of definitions:

History of the concept


In his 1935 Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois introduced the concept of a "psychological wage" for white laborers. This special status, he wrote, divided the labor movement by leading low-wage white workers to feel superior to low-wage black workers.[15] Du Bois identified white supremacy as a global phenomenon, affecting the social conditions across the world by means of colonialism.[16] For instance, Du Bois wrote:

It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.[15]

In 1965, drawing from that insight, and inspired by the Civil Rights movement, Theodore W. Allen began a forty-year analysis of "white skin privilege", "white race" privilege, and "white" privilege in a call he drafted for a "John Brown Commemoration Committee" that urged "White Americans who want government of the people" and "by the people" to "begin by first repudiating their white skin privileges".[17] The pamphlet, "White Blindspot", containing one essay by Allen and one by Noel Ignatin (Noel Ignatiev), published in the late 1960s, focused on the struggle against "white skin privilege" and significantly influenced the Students for a Democratic Society and sectors of the New Left. By June 15, 1969, the New York Times was reporting that the National Office of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was calling "for an all-out fight against 'white skin privileges'".[18] In 1974–1975 Allen extended his analysis to the colonial period with "Class Struggle and the Origin of Racial Slavery: The Invention of the White Race" in 1974/1975,[19] which ultimately grew into his two-volume "The Invention of the White Race" in 1994 and 1997.[20]

In his historical work Allen maintained: that the "white race" was invented as a ruling class social control formation in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century Anglo-American plantation colonies (principally Virginia and Maryland); that central to this process was the ruling-class plantation bourgeoisie conferring "white race" privileges on European-American working people; that these privileges were not only against the interests of African-Americans, they were also "poison," "ruinous," a baited hook, to the class interests of working people; that white supremacy, reinforced by the "white skin privilege," has been as the main retardant of working-class consciousness in the US; and that struggle for radical social change should direct principal efforts at challenging white supremacy and "white skin privileges".[21] Though Allen's work influenced Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and sectors of the "new left" and paved the way for "white privilege" and "race as social construct" study, and though he appreciated much of the work that followed, he also raised important questions about developments in those areas.[22]

In newspapers and public discourse of 1960s United States, the term "white privilege" was often used to describe white areas under conditions of residential segregation. These and other uses grew out of the era of legal discrimination against Black Americans, and reflected the idea that white status could persist despite formal equality. In the 1990s, the term came back into public discourse, such as in Robert Jensen's op ed "White privilege shapes the U.S."[23]

1970s to early 2000s

The concept of white privilege also came to be used within radical circles for purposes of self-criticism by anti-racist whites. For instance, a 1975 article in Lesbian Tide criticized the American feminist movement for exhibiting "class privilege" and "white privilege". Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn, in a 1977 Lesbian Tide article, wrote: "... by assuming that I was beyond white privilege or allying with male privilege because I understood it, I prepared and led the way for a totally opportunist direction which infected all of our work and betrayed revolutionary principles."

In the late 1980s, the term gained new popularity in academic circles and public discourse after Peggy McIntosh's 1987 essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.[24] In this essay, McIntosh described white privilege as “an invisible weightless knapsack of assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks", and also discussed the relationships between different social hierarchies in which experiencing oppression in one hierarchy did not negate unearned privilege experienced in another.[1][25] In later years, the theory of intersectionality also gained prominence, with black feminists like Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw arguing that black women experienced a different type of oppression from male privilege distinct from that experienced by white women because of white privilege.[26] The essay is still routinely cited as a key influence by later generations of academics and journalists.[11][13]

In 2003, Ella Bell and Stella Nkomo noted that "most scholars of race relations embrace the use of [the concept] white privilege".[27] Sociologists in the American Mosaic Project report widespread belief in the United States that "prejudice and discrimination [in favor of whites] create a form of white privilege". According to their 2003 poll this view was affirmed by 59% of white respondents, 83% of Blacks, and 84% of Hispanics.[28]

Social media era

White privilege as a concept marked its transition from academia to more mainstream prominence through social media in the early 2010s, especially in 2014, a year in which Black Lives Matter exploded into a massive protest movement and the word "hashtag" itself was added to Merriam-Webster.[12] Brandt and Kizer, in their article "From Street to Tweet" (2015), discuss the American public's perception of the concept of privilege in mainstream culture, including white privilege, as being influenced by social media, but also express caution as to its limits. Commenting on Kira Cochrane's identification of a fourth-wave of feminism, a proposed emerging movement characterized by use of technology and social media, they note that there are "large, splashy examples" of social media activism's reach, but "on an individual level ... the influence and reach of social media is unclear." [29]

Hua Hsu, a Vassar College professor of English, opened his The New Yorker review of the 2015 MTV film White People with the remark: "like the robot in a movie slowly discovering that it is, indeed, a robot, it feels as though we are living in the moment when white people, on a generational scale, have become self-aware." [30] Noting that "white people have begun to understand themselves in the explicit terms of identity politics, long the province of those on the margins", Hsu ascribes this change in self-awareness to a generational change, "one of strange byproducts of the Obama era." Hsu writes that discourse on the nature of whiteness "isn't a new discussion, by any means, but it has never seemed quite so animated".[30]

The film White People itself, produced and directed by Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas, is a documentary that follows a variety of white teenagers who express their honest thoughts and feelings about their whiteness on-camera, as well as their opinions on white privilege. During one moment of the film, Vargas interviews a white community college student, Katy, who attributes her inability to land a college scholarship to reverse racism against white people, before Vargas points out that white students are "40 percent more likely to receive merit-based funding".[31] In one review of the film, a Daily Beast writer interviews Ronnie Cho, the head of MTV Public Affairs, who acknowledges "young people as the engine behind social change and awareness", and therefore would be more likely to talk about white privilege, but also notes that at the same time, millennials (with some overlap with Generation Z) form "a generation that maybe were raised with noble aspirations to be color blind". Ronnie Cho then asserts these aspirations "may not be very helpful if we ignore difference. The color of our skin does matter, and impacts how the world interacts with us." Later in the same review, writer Amy Zimmerman notes that, "white people often don’t feel a pressing need to talk about race, because they don’t experience it as racism and oppression, and therefore hardly experience it at all. Checking privilege is an act of self-policing for white Americans; comparatively, black Americans are routinely over-checked by the literal police." [31]

In January 2016, hip-hop group Macklemore and Ryan Lewis released "White Privilege II", a single from their album This Unruly Mess I've Made, in which Macklemore raps about his struggle to find his place in the Black Lives Matter protest movement, conscious that his commercial success in hip hop is at least partially a product of white privilege. He also says that other white performers have profited immensely from cultural appropriation of black culture such as Iggy Azalea,[32] and raps about which the impunity with which white police in the United States are free to take black lives, with "a shield, a gun with gloves and hands that gives an alibi".[33] Arguing his success is "the product of the same system that let off Darren Wilson", the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown,[34] he raps that, "one thing the American dream fails to mention, is that I was many steps ahead to begin with".[35] The song also samples a line from a woman who, affirming her belief that she lives in a post-racial America, dismisses the existence of white privilege, "you're saying that I have an advantage, why? Because I'm white? [scoffs and laughs] What? No." [36][37]

According to Fredrik deBoer, it is a popular trend for white people to willingly claim self-acknowledgement of their white privilege online. deBoer criticized this practice as promoting self-regard and not solving any actual inequalities.[38]


Critical race theory

Main article: Critical race theory

The concept of white privilege has been studied by theorists of whiteness studies seeking to examine the construction and moral implications of 'whiteness'. There is often overlap between critical whiteness and race theories, as demonstrated by focus on the legal and historical construction of white identity, and the use of narratives (whether legal discourse, testimony or fiction) as a tool for exposing systems of racial power.[39] Fields such as History and Cultural Studies are primarily responsible for the formative scholarship of Critical Whiteness Studies.

Critical race theorists such as Cheryl Harris[40] and George Lipsitz[41] have said that "whiteness" has historically been treated more as a form of property than as a racial characteristic: In other words, as an object which has intrinsic value that must be protected by social and legal institutions. Laws and mores concerning race (from apartheid and Jim Crow constructions that legally separate different races to social prejudices against interracial relationships or mixed communities) serve the purpose of retaining certain advantages and privileges for whites. Because of this, academic and societal ideas about race have tended to focus solely on the disadvantages suffered by racial minorities, overlooking the advantageous effects that accrue to whites.[42]

Whiteness unspoken

From another perspective, white privilege is a way of conceptualizing racial inequalities that focuses on advantages that white people accrue from their position in society as well as the disadvantages that non-white people experience.[43] This same idea is brought to light by Peggy McIntosh, who wrote of white privilege from the perspective of a white individual. McIntosh states in her writing that, "as a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which 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."[44] To back this assertion, McIntosh notes a myriad of conditions in her article in which racial inequalities occur to favor whites, from renting or buying a home in a given area without suspicion of one's financial standing, to purchasing bandages in "flesh" color that closely matches a white person's skin tone. She further asserts that she sees

a pattern running through the matrix of white privilege, a pattern of assumptions which were passed on to me as a white person. There was one main piece of cultural turf; it was my own turf, and I was among those who could control the turf. My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways, and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.[44]

Unjust enrichment

Lawrence Blum refers to advantages for white people as "unjust enrichment" privileges, in which white people benefit from the injustices done to people of color, and he articulates that such privileges are deeply rooted in the U.S. culture and lifestyle:

When Blacks are denied access to desirable homes, for example, this is not just an injustice to Blacks but a positive benefit to Whites who now have a wider range of domicile options than they would have if Blacks had equal access to housing. When urban schools do a poor job of educating their Latino/a and Black students, this benefits Whites in the sense that it unjustly advantages them in the competition for higher levels of education and jobs. Whites in general cannot avoid benefiting from the historical legacy of racial discrimination and oppression. So unjust enrichment is almost never absent from the life situation of Whites.[45]

Spared injustice

A protester holds a sign reading "They don't shoot white women like me" at a#BlackLivesMatter protest in the wake of the non-indictment of a New York City police officer for the death of Eric Garner.

In Blum's analysis of the underlying structure of white privilege, "spared injustice" is when a person of color suffers an unjust treatment while a white person does not. His example of this is when "a Black person is stopped by the police without due cause but a White person is not".[46] He identifies "unjust enrichment" privileges as those for which whites are spared the injustice of a situation, and in turn, are benefiting from the injustice of others. For instance, "if police are too focused on looking for Black lawbreakers, they might be less vigilant toward White ones, conferring an unjust enrichment benefit on Whites who do break the laws but escape detection for this reason."[46]

Blum describes "non-injustice-related" privileges as those which are not associated with injustices experienced by people of color, but relate to a majority group's advantages over a minority group. Those who are in the majority, usually white people, gain "unearned privileges not founded on injustice."[46] As an example, in workplace cultures there tends to be a partly ethnocultural character, so that some ethnic or racial groups' members find them more comfortable than do others.[46]

Framing racial inequality

Dan J. Pence and J. Arthur Fields have observed resistance in the context of education to the idea that white privilege of this type exists, and suggest this resistance stems from a tendency to see inequality as a black or Latino issue. One report noted that white students often react to in-class discussions about white privilege with a continuum of behaviors ranging from outright hostility to a "wall of silence."[47] A pair of studies on a broader population by Branscombe et al. found that framing racial issues in terms of white privilege as opposed to non-white disadvantages can produce a greater degree of racially biased responses from whites who have higher levels of racial identification. Branscombe et al. demonstrate that framing racial inequality in terms of the privileges of whites increased levels of guilt among white respondents. Those with high racial identification were more likely to give responses which concurred with modern racist attitudes than those with low racial identification.[48] According to the studies' authors these findings suggest that representing inequality in terms of outgroup disadvantage allows privileged group members to avoid the negative implications of inequality.[49]

White fragility

Robin DiAngelo, lecturer at the University of Washington, created the term "white fragility".[50] She has noted that "white privilege can be thought of as unstable racial equilibrium".[51] When this equilibrium is challenged, the resulting racial stress can become intolerable and trigger a range of defensive moves. DiAngelo defines these behaviors as "White Fragility." She also writes that white privilege is very rarely discussed and that even multicultural education courses tend to use vocabulary that further obfuscates racial privilege and defines race as something that only concerns blacks. She suggests using loaded terminology with negative connotations to people of color adds to the cycle of white privilege,

It is far more the norm for these courses and programs to use racially coded language such as 'urban,' 'inner city,' and 'disadvantaged' but to rarely use 'white' or 'overadvantaged' or 'privileged.' This racially coded language reproduces racist images and perspectives while it simultaneously reproduces the comfortable illusion that race and its problems are what 'they' have, not us.[52]

White privilege versus universal rights

Academically, the concept of white privilege has been primarily critiqued by scholars who agree with the reality of racial inequality. Conservatives have generally not seen the concept as serious enough to oppose politically, although David Marcus says it is a danger to traditional ideals of an equal society.[10]

Peggy McIntosh has stated "Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one’s place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background."[24]

The notion of white privilege has been critiqued on the basis that privileges that white people enjoy are actually rights that should be given to all people. Lewis Gordon rejects the idea of white privilege, arguing that the privileges from which whites as a group are supposed to benefit are, in fact, social goods to which all people aspire. As such, he writes, they are not privileges:

A privilege is something that not everyone needs, but a right is the opposite. Given this distinction, an insidious dimension of the white-privilege argument emerges. It requires condemning whites for possessing, in the concrete, features of contemporary life that should be available to all, and if this is correct, how can whites be expected to give up such things? Yes, there is the case of the reality of whites being the majority population in all the sites of actual privilege from prestigious universities to golf clubs and boards of directors for most high-powered corporations. But even among whites as a group, how many whites have those opportunities?[53]

According to Gordon, viewing whites as universally privileged constructs "a reality that has nothing to do with [the] lived experience" of the majority of whites, who themselves do not have access to elite institutions.[53] Their "daily, means-to-means subsistence" is a right, of which it makes no sense to feel guilty.[53] Naomi Zack similarly criticizes the term white privilege as a misunderstanding of the difference between privileges and rights. Discrimination against nonwhites does not create a privilege in the normal sense of the term, a "specifically granted absolute advantage", a "prerogative or exception granted to an individual or special group".[54] In the United States, Zack writes, discussion of "white privilege" distracts from the discussion of social exclusion of nonwhites, which is the origin of racial disparities.[54]

Lawrence Blum responds to this critique, writing "privileges are generally counterposed to 'rights'. They are not things people should expect to have, but rather things that people count themselves fortunate if they do have them."[46] Blum tends to find somewhat of a gray area between these two ideals, however, when he states that, "many of the things that are called 'privileges' in White Privilege Analysis do have the character of either rights or things it is appropriate for someone to expect to have ... being able to buy a home of one's choice, having one's voice heard in various settings, and the like. These are referred to as 'privileges', of course, because of the comparison to non-Whites who do not have them."[46] Blum is not calling the concept of white privilege into question, rather he is distinguishing different types of privileges possessed by white individuals in society with the intent of showing a distinction between rights and privileges. In his view, privileges are not merely whites having more opportunities than people of color; rather, he shows how racial disparity has been assimilated into society through activities that are often unconsciously assumed by those who benefit. He considers these better-defined advantages as important because they provide concrete examples in which white privilege is prevalent and helping demonstrate its existence to those who doubt the presence or severity of white privilege.

Blum also points out that one of the weaknesses of whiteness studies within the philosophy of education is that it fails to consider the social, economic, and political explanations from existing research in the social sciences and often cites "white privilege" as a problem without providing a structure for how to address it (p. 314).[6] He recommends a specific structural analysis that provides "(1) an analysis of a particular racial disparity, (2) an account of why this particular gap is of moral and political concern, (3) an explanation involving both class and racial factors that has led to this disparity, and (4) a set of policy proposals intended to address the particular gap in question" (p. 314).[55] Therefore, white privilege analysis is lacking because it fails to consider class, diversity within racial groups, linguistic barriers, and implications for racial justice.

White privilege versus socioeconomic privilege

A frequent critique of the concept of white privilege argues that privileges accrued to white people might really be a type of socioeconomic privilege based on social class. According to James Forrest and Kevin Dunn, the privileges of being white might accrue largely to certain white ethnic and cultural groups, as opposed to white people as a whole.[7] Adam A. Powell, Nyla R. Branscombe, and Michael T. Schmitt say that people in the least successful white ethnic and cultural groups are often the ones that are disadvantaged the most from any affirmative action that attempts to take into account white privilege.[56] The label "white trash", in particular, has been described as marking off a lower limit of white privilege in the social hierarchy. In the words of anthropologist John Hartigan: "White trash, a lurid stereotype and debasing racial epithet, applies to poor whites whose subordination by class is extreme. This charged label is a reminder that there are important class dimensions to whiteness and that whites are not uniformly privileged and powerful."[5] Hartigan also cites "hillbilly" and "redneck" as contemporary terms that connote whiteness but not privilege.[57]

Lawrence Blum writes that white privilege analysis has been too narrow in its focus. Specifically, it fails to acknowledge important ethnic and class differences, among both whites and people of color. Blum argues that white privilege implies that all hindrances suffered by people of color are related to race, when privileges awarded to groups of people based on class is often left out of the discussion. There are privileges awarded to the middle and upper class that are not awarded to the lower class. White privilege also fails to recognize diversity within groups of people. It fails to recognize the linguistic barriers of Whites who do not speak the dominant language. It also fails to recognize the differences in racial groups (Asian, Latino, African American, etc.). It assumes that all people of color are in similar situations. That is to say that Latinos, Blacks, Asians, etc. all face the same struggles in relation to white privilege. Blum (2008) writes, "That some are more disadvantaged than others means that ethnic groups within the major racial or pan-ethnic groups need to be distinguished; they have importantly distinct historical experiences that shape the character of whatever racial and ethnic stratification applies to them" (p. 317).[6]

Some critics of the concept of white privilege have argued that members of a "model minority", such as Asian-Americans, can enjoy "white privilege", or something like it, despite their non-European ancestry.[16] According to this argument, the case of model minorities shows that white privilege can really be attributed to economic privilege. However, the concept of a model minority, has actually faced backlash from the Asian-American community because the "model minority myth" is often used to invalidate Asian American complaints about discrimination in the workplace (e.g. the bamboo ceiling) or in other sectors like housing and education. According to AAJC, "the misperception that Asian Americans are doing fine on their own has serious policy implications...politicians won’t talk about our community’s needs if they assume people don’t require assistance." According to the Washington Post, since the 1960s, "the idea that Asian Americans are distinct among minority groups and immune to the challenges faced by other people of color is a particularly sensitive issue for the community, which has recently fought to reclaim its place in social justice conversations with movements like #ModelMinorityMutiny." [58]


Gina Crosley-Corcoran is a white feminist writer who was born into a poverty so severe, she recounts frigid winters in northern Illinois without heat or running water. In her article, Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person, she recounts that as an adolescent she was "making ramen noodles in a coffee maker with water fetched from a public bathroom".[11] During her childhood, she was constantly discriminated against because of her poverty. Initially hostile to the concept of white privilege, even after being directed to read Peggy McIntosh's essay "Unpacking the invisible knapsack," she says there are many points in the essay "where the word 'class' could be substituted for the word 'race,' which would ultimately paint a very different picture." During her college years, she began to embrace the concept of intersectionality, which "recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not privileged in others." Thus, even impoverished white people who might be labelled "white trash," while disadvantaged economically, still enjoy advantages not available to people of color, distinct from economic discrimination in the same way that discrimination based on sexual orientation and discrimination based on sex or gender identity are also distinct.

Intersectional analysis was originally pioneered by black feminist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who now heads the African American Policy Forum (AAPF). According to a primer released by the AAPF, "disadvantage or exclusion can be based on the interaction of multiple factors rather than just one. Yet conventional approaches to social problems are often organized as though these risk factors are mutually exclusive and separable." [59] AAPF notes the importance of intersectional analysis in the case of DeGraffenreid v. General Motors heard by the United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit: "In this historically race and gender segregated auto industry, women were only permitted to work in front office jobs and African Americans were limited to heavy industrial work... The problem for African American women was even more acute: the front office jobs were only available to women who were white, and the industrial jobs were appropriate only for Blacks who were men." The Court dismissed their case because "neither white women nor black men were similarly excluded". Intersectional analysis, which was born from the analysis of this case, not only recognizes that white privilege is distinct from economic privilege, but also realizes that privilege (and conversely, oppression or discrimination) arising from different group memberships can be mutually-reinforcing, rather than acting independently as linear operators.[59]

Marxist critiques

The idea that white privilege has functioned as a social tool to divide white and black workers has proved particularly controversial. A Marxist critique of this perspective holds that racial differences are secondary to economic difference, and that white privilege is therefore secondary to class privilege. According to this view, analyzing white privilege is misguided because it distracts from class struggle.[60] Historian Eric Arnesen has challenged this understanding of "whiteness" as ill-constructed historical revisionism. Arnesen calls whiteness a "moving target" in historical studies, writing: "Whiteness is, variously, a metaphor for power, a proxy for racially distributed material benefits, a synonym for 'white supremacy,' an epistemological stance defined by power, a position of invisibility or ignorance, and a set of beliefs about racial 'Others' and oneself that can be rejected through 'treason' to a racial category." Arnesen disagrees with the idea that white privilege divided the labor movement, as well as with the underlying concept of inherent labor unity, arguing that many types of difference have divided the working class.[4]

Arnesen's arguments about race and organized labor form the basis for a larger argument about "white privilege" as a concept in the social sciences. Arnesen also rejects the idea of a basic connection between the identity of whiteness and the ideology of white supremacy.[4] The "white privilege" concept creates the image of a person so favored by society that they are unaware of unfairness and domination—yet this may not be the experience of all people with "white skin".[61]

Arnesen has also wrote that some claims about the psychology of whiteness and white privilege are difficult to prove, or even wrong. He compares whiteness studies with Freudian psychoanalysis because of its rigid pre-determined structure.[4]


White privilege functions differently in different places. A person's white skin will not be an asset to them in every conceivable place or situation. White people are also a global minority, and this fact affects the experiences they have outside of their home areas. Nevertheless, some people who use the term "white privilege" describe it as a worldwide phenomenon, resulting from the history of colonialism by white Western Europeans. One author states that American white men are privileged almost everywhere in the world, even though many countries have never been colonized by Western Europeans.[62][63]

In some accounts, global white privilege is related to American exceptionalism and hegemony.[64]

In the United States


Some scholars attribute white privilege, which they describe as informal racism, to the formal racism (i.e. slavery followed by Jim Crow) that existed for much of American history.[65] In her book Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America, Stephanie M. Wildman writes that many Americans who advocate a merit-based, race-free worldview do not acknowledge the systems of privilege which have benefited them. For example, many Americans rely on a social or financial inheritance from previous generations, an inheritance unlikely to be forthcoming if one's ancestors were slaves.[66] Whites were sometimes afforded opportunities and benefits that were unavailable to others. In the middle of the 20th century, the government subsidized white homeownership through the Federal Housing Administration, but not homeownership by minorities.[67] Some social scientists also suggest that the historical processes of suburbanization and decentralization are instances of white privilege that have contributed to contemporary patterns of environmental racism.[68]


According to Roderick Harrison "wealth is a measure of cumulative advantage or disadvantage" and "the fact that black and Hispanic wealth is a fraction of white wealth also reflects a history of discrimination".[69] Whites have historically had more opportunities to accumulate wealth.[70] Some of the institutions of wealth creation amongst American citizens were open exclusively to whites.[70] Similar differentials applied to the Social Security Act (which excluded agricultural and domestic workers, sectors that then included most black workers),[71] rewards to military officers, and the educational benefits offered to returning soldiers after World War II.[72] An analyst of the phenomenon, Thomas Shapiro, professor of law and social policy at Brandeis University, says, "The wealth gap is not just a story of merit and achievement, it's also a story of the historical legacy of race in the United States."[73]

Over the past 40 years, there has been less formal discrimination in America; the inequality in wealth between racial groups however, is still extant.[70] George Lipsitz asserts that because wealthy whites were able to pass along their wealth in the form of inheritances and transformative assets (inherited wealth which lifts a family beyond their own achievements), white Americans on average continually accrue advantages.[74]:107–8 Pre-existing disparities in wealth are exacerbated by tax policies that reward investment over waged income, subsidize mortgages, and subsidize private sector developers.[75]

Thomas Shapiro wrote that wealth is passed along from generation to generation, giving whites a better "starting point" in life than other races. According to Shapiro, many whites receive financial assistance from their parents allowing them to live beyond their income. This, in turn, enables them to buy houses and major assets which aid in the accumulation of wealth. Since houses in white neighborhoods appreciate faster, even African Americans who are able to overcome their "starting point" are unlikely to accumulate wealth as fast as whites. Shapiro asserts this is a continual cycle from which whites consistently benefit.[76] These benefits also have effects on schooling and other life opportunities.[74]:32–3

Peggy McIntosh, co-director of the SEED Project on Inclusive Curriculum, posits that white people in the United States can be sure that race is not a factor when they are audited by the IRS.[1]

Employment and economics

Median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers, by sex, race, and ethnicity, U.S., 2009.[77]

Racialized employment networks can benefit whites at the expense of non-white minorities.[78] Asian-Americans, for example, although lauded as a "model minority", rarely rise to positions high in the workplace: only 8 of the Fortune 500 companies have Asian-American CEOs, making up 1.6% of CEO positions while Asian-Americans are 4.8% of the population.[79] In a study published in 2003, sociologist Deirdre A. Royster compared black and white males who graduated from the same school with the same skills. In looking at their success with school-work transition and working experiences, she found that white graduates were more often employed in skilled trades, earned more, held higher status positions, received more promotions and experienced shorter periods of unemployment. Since all other factors were similar, the differences in employment experiences were attributed to race. Royster concluded that the primary cause of these racial differences was due to social networking. The concept of "who you know" seemed just as important to these graduates as "what you know".

According to the distinctiveness theory, posited by University of Kentucky professor Ajay Mehra and colleagues, people identify with other people who share similar characteristics which are otherwise rare in their environment; women identify more with women, whites with other whites. Because of this, Mehra finds that white males tend to be highly central in their social networks due to their numbers.[80] Royster says that this assistance, disproportionately available to whites, is an advantage that often puts black men at a disadvantage in the employment sector. According to Royster, "these ideologies provide a contemporary deathblow to working-class black men's chances of establishing a foothold in the traditional trades."[78]

This concept is similar to the theory created by Mark Granovetter which analyzes the importance of social networking and interpersonal ties with his paper "The Strength of Weak Ties" and his other economic sociology work.

Other research shows that there is a correlation between a person's name and his or her likelihood of receiving a call back for a job interview. Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan found in field experiment in Boston and Chicago that people with "white-sounding" names are 50% more likely to receive a call back than people with "black-sounding" names, despite equal résumé quality between the two racial groups.[81] White Americans are more likely than black Americans to have their business loan applications approved, even when other factors such as credit records are comparable.[82]

Black and Latino college graduates are less likely than white graduates to end up in a management position even when other factors such as age, experience, and academic records are similar.[83][84][85]

Cheryl Harris relates whiteness to the idea of "racialized privilege" in the article "Whiteness as Property": she describes it as "a type of status in which white racial identity provided the basis for allocating societal benefits both private and public and character".[86]


Discrimination in housing policies was formalized in 1934 under the Federal Housing Act which provided government credit to private lending for home buyers.[74]:5 Within the Act, the Federal Housing Agency had the authority to channel all the money to white home buyers instead of minorities.[74]:5 The FHA also channeled money away from inner-city neighborhoods after World War II and instead placed it in the hands of white home buyers who would move into segregated suburbs.[87] These practices and others, intensified attitudes of segregation and inequality.

The "single greatest source of wealth" for white Americans is the growth in value in their owner-occupied homes. The family wealth so generated is the most important contribution to wealth disparity between black and white Americans.[74]:32–33 It has been said that continuing discrimination in the mortgage industry perpetuates this inequality, not only for black homeowners who pay higher mortgage rates than their white counterparts, but also for those excluded entirely from the housing market by these factors, who are thus excluded from the financial benefits of both equity appreciation and the tax deductions associated with home ownership.[74]:32–3

Brown, Carnoey and Oppenheimer, in "Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society," write that the financial inequities created by discriminatory housing practices also have an ongoing effect on young black families, since the net worth of one's parents is the best predictor of one's own net worth, so discriminatory financial policies of the past contribute to race-correlated financial inequities of today.[88] For instance, it is said that even when income is controlled for, whites have significantly more wealth than blacks, and that this present fact is partially attributable to past federal financial policies that favored whites over blacks.[88]

Chip Smith describes some ways he views whites as privileged:[89]


Education policies in the US have contributed to the construction and reinforcement of white privilege.[90][91] Wildman says that even schools that appear to be integrated often segregate students based on abilities. This can increase white students' initial educational advantage, magnifying the "unequal classroom experience of African American students" and minorities.[92]

Williams and Rivers (1972b) showed that test instructions in Standard English disadvantaged the black child and that if the language of the test is put in familiar labels without training or coaching, the child's performances on the tests increase significantly.[93] According to Cadzen a child's language development should be evaluated in terms of his progress toward the norms for his particular speech community.[94] Other studies using sentence repetition tasks found that, at both third and fifth grades, white subjects repeated Standard English sentences significantly more accurately than black subjects, while black subjects repeated nonstandard English sentences significantly more accurately than white subjects.[95]

According to Janet E. Helms traditional psychological and academic assessment is based on skills that are considered important within white, western, middle-class culture, but which may not be salient or valued within African-American culture.[96][97] When tests' stimuli are more culturally pertinent to the experiences of African Americans, performance improves.[98][99] However, white privilege critics say that in K-12 education, students' academic progress is measured on nationwide standardized tests which reflect national standards.[100][101] African Americans are disproportionately sent to special education classes in their schools, identified as being disruptive or suffering from a learning disability. These students are segregated for the majority of the school day, taught by uncertified teachers, and do not receive high school diplomas. Wanda Blanchett has said that white students have consistently privileged interactions with the special education system, which provides 'non-normal' whites with the resources they need to benefit from the mainline white educational structure.[102] Educational inequality is also a consequence of housing. Since most states determine school funding based on property taxes, schools in wealthier neighborhoods receive more funding per student.[103] As home values in white neighborhoods are higher than minority neighborhoods, local schools receive more funding via property taxes. This will ensure better technology in predominantly white schools, smaller class sizes and better quality teachers, giving white students opportunities for a better education.[104] The vast majority of schools placed on academic probation as part of district accountability efforts are majority African-American and low-income.[105] However, Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 to address such school performance disparities. That act provides for a large increase in federal school aid to address property tax disparities and gives parents the right to switch schools if their neighborhood school fails to progress to meet national performance standards.

Inequalities in wealth and housing allow a higher proportion of white parents the option to move to better school districts or afford to put their children in private schools if they do not approve of the neighborhood's schools.[106]

Some studies have claimed that minority students are less likely to be placed in honors classes, even when justified by test scores.[107][108][109] Various studies have also claimed that visible minority students are more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled from school, even though rates of serious school rule violations do not differ significantly by race.[110][111] Adult education specialist Elaine Manglitz says the educational system in America has deeply entrenched biases in favor of the white majority in evaluation, curricula, and power relations.[112]

In discussing unequal test scores between public school students, opinion columnist Matt Rosenberg laments the Seattle Public Schools' emphasis on "institutional racism" and "white privilege":

The disparity is not simply a matter of color: School District data indicate income, English-language proficiency and home stability are also important correlates to achievement...By promoting the "white privilege" canard and by designing a student indoctrination plan, the Seattle School District is putting retrograde, leftist politics ahead of academics, while the perpetrators of "white privilege" are minimizing the capabilities of minorities.[113]

Conservative scholar and affirmative action–opponent[114] Shelby Steele believes that the effects of white privilege are exaggerated. Steele states that blacks may incorrectly blame their personal failures on white oppression, additionally saying that there are many "minority privileges": "If I'm a black high school student today... there are white American institutions, universities, hovering over me to offer me opportunities: Almost every institution has a diversity committee... There is a hunger in this society to do right racially, to not be racist."[115]

Anthony P. Carnevale and Jeff Strohl show that whites have a better opportunity at getting into selective schools, while African Americans and Hispanics usually end up going to open access schools and have a lower chance of receiving a bachelor's degree.[116]


In a 2013 news story, Fox News reported, "A controversial 600-plus page manual used by the military to train its Equal Opportunity officers teaches that 'healthy, white, heterosexual, Christian' men hold an unfair advantage over other races, and warns in great detail about a so-called 'White Male Club.' ... The manual, which was obtained by Fox News, also instructs troops to 'support the leadership of non-white people. Do this consistently, but not uncritically,' the manual states."[117] The manual was prepared by the "Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute", which is an official unit of the Department of Defense under the control of the Secretary of Defense.[118]

Development of anti-racist thinking

Education about white privilege and workshops exploring white privilege are offered to students at elite private schools in New York City such as Friends Seminary, Collegiate School, Saint Ann's, the Spence School, Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School (LREI), the Dalton School, and the Calhoun School. A diversity consultant may be hired to conduct the workshops or readings such as "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack", an article by Peggy McIntosh may be explored. White affinity groups have emerged in school communities which explore and educate white students regarding privilege issues.[119]

In South Africa

Registration certificate identifies a person as white

White privilege was legally enshrined in South Africa through apartheid. Apartheid was institutionalized in 1948 and lasted formally into the early 1990s. Under apartheid, racial privilege was not only socially meaningful—it became bureaucratically regulated. Laws such as the 1950 Population Registration Act established criteria to officially classify South Africans by race: White, Indian, Coloured (mixed), or Black.[120]

Many scholars say that 'whiteness' still corresponds to a set of social advantages in South Africa, and conventionally refer to these advantages as "white privilege". The system of white privilege applies both to the way a person is treated by others and to a set of behaviors, affects, and thoughts, which can be learned and reinforced. These elements of "whiteness" establish social status and guarantee advantages for some people, without directly relying on skin color or other aspects of a person's appearance.[2] White privilege in South Africa has small-scale effects, such as preferential treatment for people who appear white in public, and large-scale effects, such as the over five-fold difference in average per-capita income for people identified as white or black.[121]

"Afrikaner whiteness" has also been described as a partially subordinate identity, relative to the British Empire and Boerehaat (a type of prejudice towards Afrikaners), "disgraced" further by the end of apartheid.[122] Some white South Africans fear that they will suffer from "reverse racism" at the hands of the country's newly empowered majority,[123] but the constitution of South Africa is strong[124] and most of what appears to be reverse racism, in particular affirmative action is actually an attempt to right past wrongs in order to achieve substantive equality of opportunity.[125]

In Australia

White privilege in Australia parallels the pattern of dominance seen elsewhere in colonialism. Indigenous Australians were excluded from the process that lead to the federation of Australia, and the White Australia policy restricted the freedoms for non-white people, particularly with respect to immigration. Indigenous people were governed by the Aborigines Protection Board and treated as a separate underclass of non-citizens.[126] Prior to a referendum conducted in 1967, it was unconstitutional for Indigenous Australians to be counted in population statistics.

Holly Randell-Moon has claimed that news media are geared towards white people and their interests and that this is an example of white privilege.[127] Michele Lobo claims that white neighborhoods are normally identified as "good quality", while "ethnic" neighborhoods may become stigmatized, degraded, and neglected.[128]

Some scholars claim white people are seen presumptively as "Australian", and as prototypical citizens.[128][129] Catherine Koerner has claimed that a major part of white Australian privilege is the ability to be in Australia itself, and that this is reinforced by, discourses on non-white outsiders including asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants.[130]

Some scholars have suggested that public displays of multiculturalism, such as the celebration of artwork and stories of Indigenous Australians, amount to tokenism, since indigenous Australians voices are largely excluded from the cultural discourse surrounding the history of colonialism and the narrative of European colonizers as peaceful settlers. These scholars suggest that white privilege in Australia, like white privilege elsewhere, involves the ability to define the limits of what can be included in a "multicultural" society.[131][132][133] Indigenous studies in Australian universities remains largely controlled by white people, hires many white professors, and does not always embrace political changes that benefit indigenous people.[134][135][136][137] Scholars also say that prevailing modes of Western epistemology and pedagogy, associated with the dominant white culture, are treated as universal while Indigenous perspectives are excluded or treated only as objects of study.[136][138][139][140] One Australian university professor reports that white students may perceive indigenous academics as beneficiaries of reverse racism.[141]

Some scholars have claimed that for Australian whites, another aspect of privilege is the ability to identify with a global diaspora of other white people in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. This privilege contrasts with the separation of Indigenous Australians from other indigenous peoples in southeast Asia.[126][142] They also claim that global political issues such as climate change are framed in terms of white actors and effects on countries that are predominantly white.[143]

White privilege varies across places and situations. Ray Minniecon, director of Crossroads Aboriginal Ministries, described the city of Sydney specifically as "the most alien and inhospitable place of all to Aboriginal culture and people."[144] At the other end of the spectrum, anti-racist white Australians working with Indigenous people may experience their privilege as painful "stigma".[145]

Studies of white privilege in Australia have increased since the late 1990s, with several books published on the history of how whiteness became a dominant identity. Aileen Moreton-Robinson's Talkin' Up to the White Woman is a critique of unexamined white privilege in the Australian feminist movement.[129] The Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association formed in 2005 to study racial privilege and promote respect for Indigenous sovereignties; it publishes an online journal called Critical Race and Whiteness Studies.[146]

See also


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