By Brooke Adams, communications specialist, University Marketing & Communications
The concept of “white privilege” is at the center of many ideological clashes taking place across the country. Some, such as commentator Ben Shapiro, argue that privilege isn’t a matter of skin color but of parental upbringing, good values and wise choices in life. Other scholars, such as Peggy McIntosh, believe it does exist and most white people aren’t aware of the ways their whiteness gives them advantages in Western societies. Understanding what the term means may help inform your analysis of current debates, the aim of this Q&A based on interviews with ethnic studies faculty at the U.
What is meant by the term “white privilege?”
Privilege is a term that identifies social, cultural or economic advantages that are unearned, exclusive or socially conferred. Because of the power of race in the U.S., privilege is mostly associated with race and, in particular, whiteness. Also, privilege is an invisible structure, so privileges and advantages are normalized. A system of white privilege means it is white-dominated. This doesn’t mean that white people (people whom society identifies as white) will have an easy life, be rich or automatically happy; it means that being white improves odds in one way or another so that the chance of bad things happening are lessened. As sociologist Allen G. Johnson explains, in the U.S. white privilege means white people occupy positions of power, culture defines “whiteness” as the standard for human beings and society tends to be “white-centered.” We can see this in small ways every day. Who is on the cover of magazines? Who occupies leadership positions locally or nationally? And, if whiteness is a race, why are only non-whites considered as possessing race? See this essay by McIntosh.
How is this term applicable to current events?
The U.S. is a country that has a long history of constructing and policing of racial categories. Thus, race and privilege are always applicable to any national event. Most recently, this debate has included controversy over confederate statues, white supremacy and immigration bans. Being able to make the case for white supremacy as a culture white people have the right to hold on to is the ultimate form of white privilege.
What are some tools or questions that are helpful in becoming more aware of the inherent advantages that come with being a white person in today’s society, particularly in Utah?
Taking a cue from author and speaker Margaret J. Wheatley, be willing to be disturbed. Learn not to affirm what you already believe but to explore the edges of knowledge. Ultimately, it is that open mindset that is necessary in making privilege visible. So, the best thing to do is to ask questions about your own experience. What are the things you take for granted? But most importantly, when someone shows you your privilege — a privilege they do not possess — no matter how uncomfortable you might initially feel, believe them.
How can an individual use privileged status to amplify the voices of underrepresented members of our community and be a force for creating an inclusive campus?
Being a good ally is key to building an equitable society and transformative learning environment. One of the invisible tools of privilege is authority, so showing up and following the lead of others is important. Going beyond the walls of the U to engage the local community is also a great way to give back. None of us chose to be born into a racialized society and we don’t have to sit comfortably within its categories. We can challenge ourselves to dismantle racial hierarchies in every interaction by just being aware of our privilege.