Updated: Dec 13, 2020
White privilege is a term you may have heard more than usual recently.
During the Black Lives Matter movement which erupted this summer, and the media attention which surrounded it, the term "white privilege" was frequently used during discussions about race.
Sometimes, it led to misunderstandings and heated debate. But what exactly does it mean?
What is white privilege?
Contrary to what some people would have you believe, white privilege does not mean that white people have not struggled.
White privilege just means that if you are white, you have not struggled as a direct result of your skin colour.
It might seem like the word "privileged" is an odd way to describe a white person, especially if they don’t seem to be privileged in the way we might usually define it. A person with white skin can definitely have a hard life and having white privilege certainly doesn't mean that you don't deserve your successes. But this is not exactly what white privilege means.
It's important to remember that, despite their difficulties, a white person will never face the additional struggles and stereotypes that people of colour have to deal with. So, even if you worked hard to get where you are, if you are white, you may not have to work as hard or deal with as many setbacks as a person of colour might have.
The concept of white privilege is explained in an essay by Peggy McIntosh as having an "invisible knapsack" or toolbox of tools and privileges simply because you are white. It draws on concepts first outlined by W.E.B Du Bois in the 1930s and activists during the American Civil Rights Movement.
Some of the things she describes as being part of white privilege include:
I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely and positively represented.
When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilisation," I am shown that people of my colour made it what it is.
I did not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
I will feel welcomed and "normal" in the usual walks of public life, both institutional and social.
I can choose blemish cover or bandages in "flesh" colour and have them more or less match my skin.
I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
As shown in the examples above, white privilege can take many forms, from being represented in public institutions and the media, to easily finding the right shade of makeup to match their skin tone. It means that as a member of the dominant ethnicity in a country, such as being White in Britain, the history of white British people is taught on the school curriculum. It also means that because people tend to hold positive opinions about people who have white skin, they do not hold assumptions about white people based purely on their skin colour.
Because of this, white people don't have to prove themselves as trustworthy just to get the treatment they deserve in a medical or legal setting. Even as the person writing this guide, my whiteness, and my European sounding name, may mean that readers take this article more seriously.
In short, a white person, as part of the majority ethnic group in the UK, has an advantage, or privilege, simply because of their skin colour.
Why do we need to understand white privilege in order to understand racism?
Understanding white privilege gives us an insight into some of the ways that race can put people of colour at a disadvantage.
Thinking about whiteness and the benefits that people with lighter skin have, which they are often not even aware of, shows us how racism can be difficult to spot if you aren't looking for it. White people have the luxury of not needing to be aware of how present race still is in society. For white people, it is easy to look the other way and to believe that racism does not exist like it used to. After all, slavery has long been abolished and there are plenty of successful black people. But, when we look at whiteness and the struggles that white people never have to deal with, it is clear that race is still a major issue to be resolved. White privilege (or the lack of it) is at the root of a lot of issues around race. For example, it could be difficult for a white person to immediately understand why many black people mistrust the police. The fact is that the majority of the police is white and people of colour, especially black people, are disproportionately likely to be arrested. People from BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds constitute only 14% of the population in England and Wales and yet they make up 25% of its prison population.
How can I check my privilege?
So, now you understand what white privilege is. But how privileged are you actually? And what can you do about it?
Buzzfeed has a great quiz which can help you understand the many different ways privilege can be present. It's not all to do with skin colour: wealth, sexuality, religion, gender and disability all play a role.
Once you're aware of the ways you are privileged, you can begin to notice the ways in which you benefit because of how racism is embedded into society. It’s nothing to feel guilty about, but don’t expect your newfound awareness to be an easy ride!
When you’re aware of your privilege, your understanding of people of colour will change. Now you understand your privilege, it’s vital that you do your homework to challenge your racial biases.
And please, use your privilege to speak up and not let racist situations go unchallenged.
How can you speak up? Take a look at our guide on How to Have a Conversation About Race.