Understanding and Defining White Privilege

The U.S. Racial Hierarchy in the 21st Century

Young man looking out of window at night

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White privilege refers to the collection of benefits that white people receive in societies where they top the racial hierarchy. Made famous by scholar and activist Peggy McIntosh in 1988, the concept includes everything from whiteness being equated with being "normal" to whites having more representation in the media. White privilege leads to white people being viewed as more honest and trustworthy than other groups, whether or not they have earned that trust. This form of privilege also means that white people can easily find products suitable for them—cosmetics, band-aids, hosiery for their skin tones, etc. While some of these privileges might seem trivial, it's important to recognize that no form of privilege comes without its counterpart: oppression.

White Privilege According to Peggy McIntosh

In 1988, women’s studies scholar Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay about a concept that has become a mainstay in the sociology of race and ethnicity. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” provided real-world examples of a social fact that other scholars had acknowledged and discussed, but not in such a compelling way.

At the heart of the concept is the assertion that, in a racist society, white skin allows for an array of unearned privileges unavailable to people of color. Accustomed to their social status and the benefits that accompany it, white people tend not to acknowledge their white privilege. Learning about the experiences of people of color, however, may prompt whites to admit to the advantages they have in society.

McIntosh's list of 50 privileges includes being regularly surrounded—in everyday life and in media representations—by people who look like you and having the ability to avoid those who do not. These privileges also include not being interpersonally or institutionally discriminated against on the basis of race; never feeling afraid to defend oneself or speak out against injustice for fear of retaliation; and, being viewed as normal and belonging, among others. The key point in McIntosh’s list of privileges is that Americans of color do not typically enjoy or have access to them. In other words, they experience racial oppression—and white people benefit from this.

By illuminating the many forms that white privilege takes, McIntosh urges readers to consider how our individual life experiences are connected to and situated within large-scale societal patterns and trends. In this sense, seeing and understanding white privilege is not about blaming white people for having unearned advantages. Rather, the point of reflecting on one’s white privilege is to recognize that the social relations of race and the racial structure of society have created conditions in which one race has been advantaged over others. Further, McIntosh suggests that white people have a responsibility to be conscious of their privileges and to reject and diminish them as much as possible.

Understanding Privilege Beyond Race

Since McIntosh solidified this concept, social scientists and activists have expanded the conversation around privilege to include sex, gender, ability, culture, nationality, and class. This expanded understanding of privilege stems from the concept of intersectionality that Black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins popularized. This concept refers to the fact that people are simultaneously recognized as, classified by, and interacted with on the basis of various social characteristics, including race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, class, and nationality. Thus, when determining the level of privilege one has, sociologists today consider a number of social characteristics and classifications.

White Privilege Today

In racially stratified societies, understanding one’s white privilege is still deeply important. Given that the meaning of race and the forms that racism takes are ever-evolving, it is important to update the sociological understanding of how white privilege has changed over time. While McIntosh's work is still relevant today, white privilege also manifests in other ways, such as:

  • The ability to hold onto wealth during economic crisis (Black and Latino families lost far more wealth during the home foreclosure crisis than did white families);
  • Protection from the lowest wages and most dangerous labor conditions cultivated by the globalization of production;
  • Believing in and cultivating sympathy from others for “reverse racism";
  • Believing you worked hard for and earned everything you have without receiving any help or advantages;
  • Believing that people of color who have achieved success have been given racially motivated advantages;
  • The ability to adopt a victim status rather than engaging in critical self-reflection when accused of racism;
  • The belief that cultural products and practices that come from communities of color are yours for the taking.

There are many other ways in which white privilege manifests today. For people of color, it is difficult to ignore how political elections affect race relations, to deny that racism exists, or to simply "get over" racism. Members of marginalized groups can't even share their views about a topic publicly without being challenged in some fashion. And many bear the brunt of climate change, with people of color in the global south disproportionately affected.

White people have the privilege of avoiding many of the problems that people of color endure. With this in mind, take a moment to think about the forms of privilege you can see in your life (if you're white) or in the lives of those around you (if you're not).