This article in my teachable moment series, looks at the concept of white privilege. But before we talk about a specific type of privilege, we must understand what the noun privilege means. That’s the starting point. Otherwise we focus on an adjective such as “white,” “male” or “cisgender” and stop reading.
The synonym for privilege is advantage. Sometimes it’s easier to talk about having an advantage than a privilege. The first definition in most dictionaries; is that privilege is a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most. Simply put, to have privilege is to have an advantage. Often that advantage is out of your control, not something you earned or even wanted. However, it doesn’t mean you don’t have it. Remember, everyone has some type of privilege going for them at times and in some places.
That word “most” may be where folks start to get upset when told they have some type of privilege. Depending on context of use, a person might feel they aren’t privileged; that they don’t have a special right or immunity. When the context is personal such as your gender, race, religion or similar factors, the defensiveness can be even more pronounced. Let’s look at a less controversial example: social-economic privilege.
This privilege has to do with the financial status or wealth of your family. Obviously the super-rich have this privilege, but it’s not just them. Having enough money so you don’t have to worry about living payday to payday. Enough to be able to take music or dance lessons or play after school sports. Being able to take vacations, travel, or afford to go to college without going deeply into debt. As an example, with my post-graduate degree, my privilege was not having to work while doing my classes. I was a sponsored student. My employer paid my tuition and salary. Many of my classmates didn’t have that privilege.
Now, let’s look at white privilege. It’s not a recent concept. Peggy McIntosh introduced the term in 1988 in her Wellesley College paper entitled “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.” She asked herself “on an everyday basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn?” Her list of examples includes some you may be able to relate to:
You go shopping alone and be sure you won’t be followed or harassed while doing so.
You’re not asked to speak or represent all the people within your racial or gender group.
If a traffic cop pulls you over, you can be sure you weren’t singled out because of your race.
You can easily buy posters, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, or toys featuring folks that look like you.
You can easily arrange to be in the company of people of your race without attracting unwanted attention.
If you need to move, you aren’t worried about renting or purchasing housing in an area you can afford and where you’d want to live.
You can count on easily finding staple foods from your cultural traditions, or a hairstylist to cut your hair, or beauty products made for you.
Basically, for me, white privilege is the freedom not to have to think about doing or saying things. An example, when we moved across country from Florida to Sonoma County in the late 80s, our trip planning was quite easy. We’d drive so many hours, or reach a certain destination such as Las Vegas and then find a place to spend the night. We didn’t have to worry about when or where to stop. For my black shipmates, that wasn’t the case. They had to meticulously plan their travel itinerary based on where it was safe for black folks to eat or sleep and what areas or routes to avoid. They had to “think about it.” I didn’t. That’s “white privilege.”
The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are based on the author’s learning and experience. That includes serving as a Military Civil Rights Counselor/Facilitator, Senior Coast Guard Instructor and Liaison Officer at the Department of Defense’s Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Past Co-Chair International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) Diversity Committee, and Civil Rights, Assistant Civil Rights or Human Relations Committee assignments over a twenty-eight-year active duty military career. The views expressed by the author are their own and not the views of the Community Voice, the U.S. Coast Guard, or any other organizations the author references.