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White Privileged, Explained (Politely)

I wrote a piece a few months ago called “White Privilege for the Partially White” in which I documented my thoughts on my relationship to white privilege as a person who is only half-white. Since writing the article, I have had a few conversations with people who have both denied the existence of white privilege and misinterpreted the meaning of the term. Upon reflection, I think what is missing from that piece is what white privilege is and why it matters.

I feel that I need to say outright that I’m not here to attack anyone. White privilege is not an accusation, as I’ll explain later. It saddens me that many have taken the term and used it to antagonize white folks. I believe that is incredibly useless. So, I’m going to explain it as logically and politely as possible.

People often have misunderstandings about what white privilege is, especially white folks who are not privileged. There is a large population of poor whites in America, and many of them voted for our current president. It is hard to think of these people, many of whom work modest blue-collar jobs and rely on welfare and food stamps, as privileged.

White privilege is, simply put, societal privilege that white people have as compared to other races. White privilege does not mean that white folks are of higher socioeconomic status than other races, as the term is often confused as. For example, take a white person who lives in Detroit, Michigan, and makes about $20,000 a year working as a gas station attendant. Compare her to an African American woman who lives in Detroit, Michigan, and makes about $20,000 a year working as a gas station attendant. The white woman has privileges that the black woman does not have, purely by virtue of being white. For example, if a coworker made a racist joke, the white woman would be less likely to be seen as self-interested if she called him out on it than the black woman. Peggy McIntosh, whom I cited in my previous article, gives a variety of examples in her piece “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Some are a bit dated as the essay was written in 1989, but most of the examples are valid for all socioeconomic classes. The example I gave above is valid for, for instance, a white man who is the dean of a university and a black man who is the dean of a university.

Perhaps the more important question at stake is why white privilege is important. Or perhaps, why recognizing white privilege is important. We talk about white privilege not to make white people feel guilty or to antagonize them. Just because we call people privileged does not mean we hate them, nor does it mean they are bad people. We are merely pointing out a societal fact, and thereby drawing attention to and illuminating an example of inequality in our society. Many, including a large population of white folks, argue that people should be treated based on their merits and their character. Many of these same people argue against affirmative action, saying that people should be given a job or accepted to college because of their qualifications rather than something they can’t control. It sounds very hypocritical for them to then not to apply this to the principle of white privilege. Why should a white person have privileges simply because of something he or she was born with? And then I can turn the argument around to say that affirmative action exists because white privilege exists, coupled with historical oppression of colored folks. But that’s another argument for another article.

Of course, people can get passionate when talking about white privilege. I assure these people, attacking white folks is not the way to achieve the equality we so ardently fight for. It is true that white privilege must be accepted by both white folks and people of color as a true concept manifesting itself throughout American society. But even hinting at accusation is the wrong approach.

So equality fighters, don’t antagonize anyone. It’s pointless and doesn’t do anything. And white people, you are privileged. The sooner you accept that, the closer to equality we can move. As the old saying goes, the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that there is one. Hopefully this article took care of that first step. Time to move on to the next — finding a solution.

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