White Privilege

Reflections On My White Privilege

Before beginning this introspective article, I want to clarify its parameters. I will be talking about white privilege. Not all white people are privileged, and not all privileged people are white. But, for this article, I’ll be referring to those fitting into both categories of being white and being privileged.

White privilege (WP) is described as “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” (McIntosh 2006, 95). It is a way of life granted to people who are white (by skin color) and privileged (by class). It is a set of circumstances and characteristics given to you, as a white person of privilege, by society, as a result of centuries of racism and colonial domination. It puts you at the top of the power hierarchy in humanity (WP men being at the very top).


Related Article: “ADDING A SOUTH AFRICAN PERSPECTIVE TO PHOTOGRAPHY: INTERVIEW WITH GARETH PON


White privilege is visible from everyday conversations to the overarching power systems that govern nations. As described by Michel Foucault, the ruling powers establish a ‘regime of truth’ (1975), determining what the truths are and who gets to validate them. This power allows the powerful to naturalize certain human-constructed truths (1975), infusing the population with the belief that no matter how flawed, the current reality is normal and that there is no interest in changing it.

In a recent article about his childhood, Trevor Noah describes the way his mother raised him in South Africa:

When I look back, I realize she raised me like a white kid — not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.

This quote in particular made me realize that my view of the world and my interaction with it has been entirely through a WP lens. I have been brought up to believe that I can achieve anything I set my mind to and that my voice truly matters. I am not saying that the voice of millions of WP individuals does not matter; on the contrary, they matter a lot. They hold a lot of power. Take the US elections, for example. Yet, as WP individuals we see ourselves in a way that the majority cannot. We take the privilege given to us at birth for granted. We don’t even think about it most of the time. We work hard to achieve our life goals but forget that we started the race 10 steps ahead.

disney-impakter-whiteIN THE PHOTO: Disney’s famous “When You Wish Upon a Star,’ followed by the subsequent lyrics “makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you,” will never sound the same when you realize that it makes all the difference who you are. PHOTO CREDIT: Marc Levin

White privilege is a phenomenon that has successfully been exported to all corners of the world. Even outside of the West, white people of privilege have more advantages than the rest. I experienced this myself as a WP expatriate living in South Africa. I had access to top-quality health services, education and housing that few South Africans have access to.

What has not been equally exported, however, is the ownership of concepts. For example, the West owns the concept of democracy. Yet, the West does not own the concept of genocide. Muslims own the word terrorism but when a white person of privilege commits the same act he/she is considered mentally unstable. There seems to be a very selective affiliation with these kinds of concepts. 

On a more individual level, if you are a white person of privilege, you are dissociated with the idea of being an immigrant. You can easily access visa and travel documentation and upon moving abroad become an expatriate. Non-WP people face barriers to accessing visa and travel documentation and, upon moving to the West, are considered immigrants. When Westerners go abroad, there isn’t a strong need to assimilate in the new culture. They can just recreate their own community and remain in a bubble of privileged comfort. Children will go to international schools to continue their education in their own language and acquire qualifications recognized in their home countries. On the other hand, when a non-Westerner moves to the West, they are expected to assimilate with the host country, being required to learn the new language and in some cases change the way they dress.

From my observations, the main way WP plays out is in the form of racism. There’s a difference between individual acts of racism (making a comment at someone wearing a hijab) and institutionalized racism (Jim Crow laws). One emerging trend challenging institutionalized racism is affirmative action. This is a type of policy that prioritizes disadvantaged groups in situations like job applications, university applications, etcetera. Many WP people dislike these policies, the main reason being that despite being more qualified they are losing their spot to a disadvantaged person. It revolves around meritocracy and a feeling of injustice. Yet, if you’re upset about race getting in the way of meritocracy, don’t stop there. Get out on the streets and protest that qualified black people are not getting jobs just because they’re black. Get out on the streets and protest that black people get harsher prison sentences just because they’re black. Get out on the streets and protest that black people cannot as easily buy a house or take out a loan, simply because they are black.

Your silence is a luxury.

– Jamila Woods

White privilege is the most blindingly apparent in the development/aid world. I myself have been guilty of indulging in the white savior complex. Here’s the thing about white people of privilege: we create institutionalized problems in developing countries (through Structural Adjustment Programs, for example) and then want to roll up our sleeves to fix all of the consequences. Of course, I know white people of privilege working in developing countries who are doing brilliant work, because they are highly aware of their WP and remain conscious of it in every interaction they have with their host community. Equally, the work of individuals in emergency relief settings during natural disasters or human conflict is invaluable. Yet, most of the well-intentioned WP global citizens want to go work in Africa, South America or South East Asia, without having ever volunteered in their home community. They forget that they can find poverty and injustice in their own city if they just go to the right neighborhood. There remains a deep desire to help the Global South. If you really want to have an impact, consider this: a more powerful way to contribute to the world is through your own spheres of influence. If you are white and privileged, going to a rural African community may not have very high impacts – it can actually sometimes cause more harm than good. Working in your spheres of influence, though, to educate people back home about their misconceptions and how they can help out in their own communities would be far more impactful, and would reduce some of the damage caused by the $100+ billion development industry.

Feeling guilty about white privilege is a normal reaction, alongside denial and an anger at being accused of something that is a product of past generations and that you’re not even aware you engage in today. Remember that just because you are white and privileged, it does not mean that your problems are not valid or important. Guilt about WP is an important feeling, but not one that should be dwelled on. It is a burden that needs to be unpacked with your fellow white privilege friends. It is not the role of the historically oppressed to soothe your self-reproachment and anxieties. Seek that in your own community and then move past it. Guilt is the first step, but it has to transform into action. You cannot take responsibility for decades of domination, but you can take responsibility for your generation’s actions.

impakter-white-privlegeIN THE PHOTO: In the photo: Leaders of the Virginia Civil Rights Movement found at the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial. Photo credit: Ron Cogswell.

This article has looked at how white privilege plays out in different forms: ownership of concepts, expatriates, immigrants, cultural assimilation, the white savior complex, anger at affirmative action policy, guilt. There are many, many more areas to unpack and discuss, including interracial relationships, Eurocentric school curricula, and WP people having the power to question and define non-WP people’s identities.

If you weren’t already, you are now aware of your white privilege. So, where do we go from here? We introspect. We start conversations. We refuse to be bystanders to institutionalized racism. We engage in meaningful conversations and take a moment to just listen. Don’t feel pity and guilt when you learn about how white privilege has been and continues to be destructive; gain respect for people who are on the receiving end of that every single day. Don’t feel like you need to save non-white non-privileged people from the injustice, because it’s us that need saving. Save yourself from being a part of this system. Save yourself from the inhumane rationalization of intolerance. Save yourself from normalizing discriminatory thinking. White privilege is not a right but a responsibility. Be someone who steps up and faces their position, refusing to take it for granted and instead, taking advantage of it to make a change.


Recommended Reading: POST-APARTHEID INEQUALITY IN SOUTH AFRICA


EDITOR’S NOTE: THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED HERE BY IMPAKTER.COM COLUMNISTS ARE THEIR OWN, NOT THOSE OF IMPAKTER.COM
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  1. Alex

    While I admire your attempt to be introspective and address your white privilege, I do think this article misses the mark in a number of ways.
    Firstly, all white people have privilege by virtue of our whiteness. Privilege is not based on class. A close reading of Peggy McIntosh’s piece makes it obvious that privilege is not associated only with class, but primarily with race, at least within the confines of this country.
    You also stated that not all privileged people are white, and I think I understand the point you are trying to make here, but to make this point closer to valid, I think it could have been phrased “not all people who hold privilege are white.” I say this to make the point that in America, race is the primary determinant of privilege, not class. To say it any other way puts too much space between whiteness and privilege, which are inextricably linked.
    I also believe that if this article was truly introspective, you would not attempt to separate yourself from your whiteness by using terms like “WP” and saying “they” when referring to white folks instead of “we” or by simply saying “white people.” As white people, we have to own up to the privilege we possess, and by refusing to explicitly implicate whiteness and white people in the oppressive systems we both benefit from and perpetuate – intentionally or not – we are not truly working to dismantle our inherent racist beliefs.
    I also take issue with saying that we “own concepts.” It is possible that I’m completely missing your point, but I’m fairly certain it is impossible to “own concepts.” This statement was not clearly explained, and can definitely be perceived to be problematic. It is not wise to make a claim that “Muslims own the word terrorism” and then not at all elaborate on what exactly that means.
    It is also untrue that affirmative action challenges institutionalized racism. In fact, white women are most supported by affirmative action. (http://ideas.time.com/2013/06/17/affirmative-action-has-helped-white-women-more-than-anyone/ ; http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/affirmative-action-white-women_us_56a0ef6ae4b0d8cc1098d3a5) While I do not believe that affirmative action should be continued solely because it helps white women, as the Time article argues, I think it is significant that even a Fox News contributor recognizes that affirmative action does not significantly impact people of color in a positive way.
    The statement that “Many WP people dislike these policies, the main reason being that despite being more qualified they are losing their spot to a disadvantaged person,” is not only ignorant (racist) but blatantly false. http://www.understandingprejudice.org/readroom/articles/affirm.htm Look specifically at Myth #5 here, which cites government statistics. Unqualified people are not “stealing jobs” from purportedly “qualified” white folks. This statement also equates being unqualified with being a person of color, which is incredibly problematic for reasons I hope are apparent to you. Race does not get in the way of meritocracy. At all. I’m not sure where you’re coming up with this information. In fact, meritocracy does not exist in this country. People advance based on their privilege (white skin) and connections. Look at our president-elect. You can not honestly say that Donald Trump is objectively “qualified” to be this nation’s president, yet we (white Americans) have elected him. This is the most obvious example that comes to my mind. There are countless others, but I wouldn’t want to suggest that you’re incapable of doing your own research.
    I will give you credit for admitting that by engaging in the neocolonial practice of international aid work as a white woman, you do engage in white savior behaviors. This is perhaps the most introspective part of your essay. I personally feel like white folks who do this work are ignoring / escaping the problems we’ve created at home, but that is not to discredit your passion. Just food for thought.
    I understand that your intentions were good, but this article, to be frank, can hardly be considered to be introspective. It is poorly researched and incredibly shallow in terms of analysis. What is important is that you are trying to learn, but as white people the most important thing for us to understand is that we will constantly be learning. Neither you nor I will ever reach a point where we have learned everything there is to know about our own privilege and how it impacts the way we move through the world, how it impacts those we interact with.
    Here are some links I find particularly helpful, so you are able to continue your journey of self-discovery:

    http://organizingforpower.org/anti-oppression-resources-exercises/

    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1U1QOhhCjMz0rI844S3C6fjekmXu1cU_-VVxICcjJNyw/edit

    http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/facts-about-racism/

    • Chloe Hogg

      Alex,

      Thank you for your sharp comments. All of my ideas are up for discussion and I’m glad you challenged them, as this is part of us contributing to the conversation about WP.

      I liked many of the points you raised. What you said about changing my phrasing to “not all people who hold privilege are white” is a great point, but I’m still on the fence about this. I’m reluctant to say that all white people are privileged, which is why I brought class into the discussion. For example, I would be reluctant to call a homeless white person privileged. Whiteness and privilege are deeply connected, but I think there are times when it is more complex than that.

      I do agree with it being problematic to assign concepts to different parts of the world. I still stand by what I said and I’ll explain my argument a little more. What I mean by ownership of concepts is that different concepts are associated with different civilizations/races/religions. When I say that Muslims own the word “terrorism,” I am drawing from the fact that the attacks over the last year or two in Europe and North America by Muslim men are deemed to be terrorist attacks. Before even looking at the origins of these individuals, we assume that they are affiliated with a terrorist organization. Yet, when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting happened in the States, the white shooter had “a history of mental illness.” http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/12/15/15907407-elementary-school-massacre-20-children-among-28-killed-in-connecticut-slaughter. I admit that I have indulged in these rhetorics and I find my own biases, ones I have been conditioned to adopt by the system I have grown up in, deeply disturbing and I am working hard to get rid of them.

      You make a great point about my claim on white people’s reactions to affirmative action policy. I made that claim based on listening to white people talk about affirmative action both in South Africa and North America, and they have definitely been against the policy because they feel that they are more qualified and therefore more worthy of the job/university position in question. They certainly bring meritocracy into the discussion. Yet, it is likely my observations are not representative of the entire white populations of North America and South Africa. When you said “this statement also equates being unqualified with being a person of color, which is incredibly problematic for reasons I hope are apparent to you,” you make a very fair point and I agree with you. You also make a great point about meritocracy not existing in the US, Donald Trump being the most recent national example of that.

      I certainly agree with you saying “what is important is that you are trying to learn, but as white people the most important thing for us to understand is that we will constantly be learning. Neither you nor I will ever reach a point where we have learned everything there is to know about our own privilege and how it impacts the way we move through the world, how it impacts those we interact with.” This is why I’m glad you posted these comments and would encourage you to unpack and criticize my ideas further, because this is how we contribute to understanding white privilege and how it has affected our view of the world and our roles in it.

      Finally, thank you for the resources you have shared. I appreciated the checklist for white allies. I also liked the article on 8 facts about race, especially the point that it makes about race being wrongly associated with everyone who is not white, as if white was a non-existent racial category. This is another thing we should work to address. I will take time to look through the anti-oppression resources to gradually try to deepen my understanding of my white privilege and help me to have more informed conversations on the topic.

      I would encourage you to write your own piece on white privilege. Perhaps you further analyze the concept and help us to move forward with understanding the past and the present.


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