Essay: What is “white privilege”?

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  • What is “white privilege”?
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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” (, 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 (, 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 (, 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.

Firstly, white privilege is a tool for addressing unjust racial discrimination by way of being a property. Charles Mills linked the concept of whiteness to white ignorance which can be understood here as an absence of beliefs or a set of false beliefs . It is important to note here that the term “whiteness” is used to describe people socially categorised as white rather than any biological determinants (Sullivan and Tuana, 2007). Therefore, having whiteness (which is causally connected to both white ignorance and white privilege by association) is a property that one has rather than a power or category that inherently exists: a social phenomenon as opposed to a natural one. Having the property of white ignorance, is not just a collection of individual mistaken white beliefs but an entire world-view or interpretation just as white privilege is a form of holistic, institutionalised racial discrimination rather than being defined in individual acts. Throughout history, white rule was accepted and people of colour have been inferiorised although today white ignorance would seem to be in the form of genuinely accepting non-whites alongside having particular conceptions of other races. Therefore, it would seem by causal connection to white ignorance that white privilege highlights racial discrimination. White privilege has also shown racial discrimination as white dominance has allowed ‘racial erasure’ whereby the past has been ‘white-washed’ and there has been refusal to accept that the legacy of the past has disadvantaged people of colour today. Not only has this further disadvantaged black people but also denied them the truth and prevented the possibility of a path to change. This occurrence of racial erasure is similar to the refusal to accept the acts of the Nazis post world war two as people were embarrassed that racism had been the norm yet today people would be disgusted by those barbaric acts just as in the future people may be disgusted by the acts of white people. Here, white privilege as a property is almost like an allowed acceptance to act in any way one wishes whether it creates racial discrimination or not. Whiteness as a property is like an immunity to distress, violence and so forth which on the receiving end has the power to create racial discrimination. As having the property of being privileged here does not mean being favoured but being dominant, racial discrimination through white privilege is unconscious by virtue of white people being in majority and having this characteristic. Racial erasure is of particular concern here: as a social factor the dominance of white people leads to the implicit oppression of black people.

White privilege is a tool for addressing unjust racial discrimination by being a power. Racial exploitation and barbarity are effectively denied by downplaying the extent of the violence and forced subordination of this power (Sullivan and Tuana, 2007). This inherent power can be seen within political ideology and it would seem that the past few hundred years has been inundated with white racist ideology and domination thus the world should need reformation. European empires have controlled most of the world and white ignorance has occurred through general scepticism about non-white acceptance. The histories and inequalities that our society has inherited from previous ones should be righted through some kind of policy such as reparations. Therefore, it would seem that white privilege highlights racial discrimination as through viewing it as a power, injustices can be seen. Here, racial discrimination can be eliminated more actively than the indistinct solution of white privilege as a property. However, racism as an ideology is usually denied with some arguing that white racism is not ideational but a system of white domination. As an unintentional consequence of this white dominance, white privilege was created and whiteness given inherent power. An example of white privilege as a power in the ideational sense is post-colonial forgetting which is similar to racial erasure, for example: Belgian schoolchildren do not learn that around the turn of the 19th century, King Leopold II was responsible for ten million deaths in the Belgian Congo. Potentially, white privilege can be resolved if we work to spread the positive advantages and eradicate the disadvantages of our racial differences. We should redesign social systems because obliviousness to white advantage, particularly in the US, enables the myth that democracy is availably to all to continue. As a social system or power, white privilege creates racial discrimination through the power of the dominant group, usually through being oblivious or certain political decisions.

After assessing what white privilege is along with how it acts as a tool for racial discrimination both by way of being a property and a power, I have come to the conclusion that white privilege works as a tool for addressing unjust racial discrimination in both of these manners. I found the problem that white privilege is in actual fact a composite indicator (particularly with regards to the concept of intersectionality) a considerable objection even to its definition but ultimately I have found that there are an overwhelming number of convincing arguments particularly within white privilege as a power for the hypothesis which I have supported.


McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College, Center for Research on Women.

Haslanger, S. (2012). Resisting reality. New York: Oxford University Press. (2012). Know your rights: Racial discrimination and vilification | Australian Human Rights Commission. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 Jan. 2018].

Sullivan, S. and Tuana, N. (2007). Race and epistemologies of ignorance. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp.13-35. (2018). Widespread inequality risks increasing race tensions, warns Commission | Equality and Human Rights Commission. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].

NAACP. (2018). NAACP | Criminal Justice Fact Sheet. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018]. (2018). The Wilson Quarterly. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].

YW Boston. (2018). What is intersectionality, and what does it have to do with me? – YW Boston. [online] Available at: [Accessed 6 Jan. 2018].

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