Essay: What is “white privilege”?

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  • Subject area(s): Human rights essays
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  • Published on: August 9, 2018
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What is “white privilege”? Critically assess this concept as a tool for addressing unjust racial discrimination.

For this essay it is my intention to analyse the concept of white privilege to decide whether it really exists as a tool for highlighting racial discrimination. “White privilege” is defined by McIntosh as an ‘invisible knapsack’ and this metaphor implies that white persons enjoy unearned privileges compared with those of different races in the same economic, social and political circumstances within unequal societies (McIntosh, 1988). These inequalities may include more superficial matters such as not being able to find plasters or bandages in one’s skin colour. But, at the extreme this can include one person of a racial minority being required to speak for their whole race as a result of their insufficient representation (McIntosh, 1988). It is also important to define what is meant by the term “race”, here it is the social distinction of those marked with different characteristics (Haslanger, 2012) with a few examples of these characteristics being: ancestry, cultural traits and physical traits. Subsequently, racial discrimination is “when a person is treated less favourably than another person in a similar situation because of their race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin or immigrant status” (Humanrights.gov.au, 2012). I believe that this question is a significant one because people are often ignorant to the existence of white privilege in the modern world and its possible power to create racial discrimination. By answering this question, perhaps others will reconsider how white privilege has benefitted them at the expense of others and this could lead to reformations and decreased inequality between racial groups within unequal societies. In short, ending white privilege would lead to a more justified and happy society. I will answer this question by first outlining the exact dimensions of white privilege. ‘Whiteness’ includes having white privilege and can be considered an inherent property or socially-constructed power and thus both forms will be examined. I will examine how and if white privilege acts as a tool for highlighting racial discrimination by way of being a property and then an ideology or power. Finally, I shall support the hypothesis that white privilege does indeed work as a tool to address unjust racial discrimination.

The origins of white privilege come from the transatlantic slave trade as even after its abolition former slaves were never given equal opportunity and over time this inequality between black people and white people has only widened. White privilege is also linked to white ignorance which is a similar concept whereby the perspectives and viewpoints of non-white peoples are disregarded and the historical achievements of people of colour are ignored (Sullivan and Tuana, 2007). According to the volitional account, white privilege is resultant from subtle and institutional racial discrimination contrary to the common idea of racism coming in the form of overt, specific acts. Opponents of the concept have argued that white privilege as a form of institutional racial discrimination is an unearned advantage for the few which should be rectified as unearned entitlement for all. However, in reality and as can be seen throughout the world’s history, where people have reaped the benefits of discriminatory social systems there have been few gainers truly concerned enough to give proper thought to the plight of the oppressed minority. For example, where it does not disadvantage them, there are very few men today who are truly concerned enough about an unearned male advantage and dominance whether socially constructed or not to decide to personally commit to making a change for the better of society. Despite sexism being the given example here, race and sex are not the only advantaging social systems of the present day: age, physical ability, religion and so forth are too. But, the disapproval and challenging of these systems will not lead to their termination nor individual acts even though they may lead to greater awareness. The essence of white privilege is within an entire nation of white people and its implications and unless entire social systems are reconstructed, white privilege will remain deeply ingrained within the world’s unequal societies. A concise list of examples of how white privilege has indeed created unjust racial discrimination follows (Equalityhumanrights.com, 2018):

Within literature, white people are never described as such because it is considered the norm

In the UK, 6.3% white British are unemployed compared to 12.9% ethnic minorities

Black people with degrees have been have been found to earn 23.1% less than whites

6% of black school leavers went to Russell group universities

Black Caribbean pupils are permanently excluded 3 times as more as white British pupils

White people are less likely to be victims of crime

Black people in the US are imprisoned at more than five times the rate of whites (NAACP, 2018)

However, there are some concerns with white privilege that should be highlighted. Firstly, there is an empirical concern. Considering that McIntosh in particular wrote about white privilege in a specific context, namely the USA in 1989, this may have biased the content written. Discrimination against people of colour was much more rife and therefore white privilege may have been more prevalent and significant than it is today (Wilsonquarterly.com, 2018). Furthermore, a theoretical concern with white privilege is that the meaning of ‘privilege’ is ambiguous to the extent that some consider the concept to be over-simplistic. However, I would personally respond to this by highlighting that as the concept is defined as the unearned privilege for some which should be instead the unearned entitlement for all, it is implied that this privilege comes in the form of what should be universal rights. Therefore, in this context the term ‘unearned privilege’ could be interchangeable with ‘universal rights’. Once again, the concept is thought to be over-simplistic but due to the fact that not all white people enjoy such privileges and not all non-white people lack such privileges along with the fact that not all non-white people are disadvantaged solely by racism. However, turning to the idea of intersectionality (the idea that different forms of privilege and oppression can interact with each other in complex ways (YW Boston, 2018)) we may admit that yes it is hard to find a certain distinct factor which has caused an inequality but that the concept is obviously not over-simplistic and is not flawed in being the opposite as there are evidently still factors which work together to create racial inequality. Whilst all of these concerns are important to highlight, they should not diminish the value of the concept: white privilege can still be seen as a tool to highlight racial discrimination. Whilst it may have some flaws in itself, this does not necessarily affect the gravity of the inequality which it creates.

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