White Privilege

“What it is and what to do about it”


There are three main sections.   Each section on White privilege is essential, but the first two are in service of the third.  The goal is targeted sustained action.


White Privilege – What it is and what it isn’t

#1  What White Privilege is

#2  What White Privilege isn’t 


What White Privilege Looks Like

#3  Personal White Privilege

#4  Structural/Systemic White Privilege 


Acting to Counter White Privilege

#5  What We Can do About Countering Personal White Privilege

#6  What We Can do to Counter Systemic White Privilege 

#7  The Pitfalls

“Why must we always talk about race anyway?  Can’t we just be human beings? And Professor Hunk replied – that is exactly what white privilege is, that you can say that.  Race doesn’t really exist for you because it has never really been a barrier.  Black folks don’t have that choice.”

– Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, Americannah 


#1 What White Privilege is


White privilege is a set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble those who dominate the power positions in our institutions.  It is greater access to power and resources as well as supporting our daily quality of life.  It’s a built-in advantage for White people because we are White.  


Having White privilege is not an option.  We didn’t ask for it.  It’s simple – We can’t not get the privileges and we can’t just give them away.   


Most of us  go through life unaware of being white or that it matters.  Privilege is hard to see for those of us who were born with it.  It’s obvious to others.  


We have white privilege even if disadvantaged in other ways – gender, sexual identification, physical.  We still have the privilege of race.  We are not removed from the privileged group.


The freedom not to notice our lack of awareness and knowledge about Black people is a privilege granted to White people. 


We inherited the challenge.  We are not to blame for it.  But, we have not yet successfully met the challenge.  That’s the responsibility and challenge we face now. 


There are Two Different Forms of White Privilege  

This is critical.  These two forms of White privilege are profoundly different and require very different approaches.

  • Personal White Privilege – Extend the advantages to others (advantages “with” vs. advantages “over”).  This is not a matter of White people giving up advantages, but rather a matter of White people fighting for others to enjoy the same advantages in daily life.
  • Systemic/Structural White Privilege  – This is a challenge to “right the wrongs” that have been centuries in the making and change the structures, systems, and norms that fundamentally disadvantage Black people.  Systemic or structural White Privilege does advantage White people “over” Black people and White people will have to give up some advantages.  However, the advantages that we will need to give up in “righting the wrongs” are small in comparison to the opportunities that can open up for Black people. 

It’s Not Pie!

We have a choice.  We can approach countering White privilege primarily as a win/lose – or closed pie issue – where we as White people “lose” when Black people “win.”  We can also approach countering White privilege as a primarily win/win issue, where we expand the pie.  



#2  What White Privilege Isn’t


This is simple, but extraordinarily important.  

  • White privilege is not the suggestion that White people have never struggled or that life is not hard for White people.  It just means that the struggles have not been caused by our skin color.
  • And white privilege is not the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is unearned or undeserved.
  • White privilege is not about being “good” or “bad” people – not about blame or shame.



#3  Personal Privilege


White people are more likely to move through their lives with a natural expectation that their needs will likely be met.  Black people move through the world knowing that their needs are on the margins and have little faith that they will be naturally met. 


Examples of Personal or “Daily: White Privilege

Peggy McIntosh, in White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, identified over twenty-five examples of personal or “daily” white privilege in 1989.  Five of those examples are listed here because even five examples provides a good picture of what white privilege looks like on a personal daily basis.

  1. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  2. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color to not work against the appearance of financial stability.
  3. If a traffic cop pulls me over or the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  4. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out of place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
  5. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.


How is This “Privilege”?

This list looks like a list of experiences that should be normal for everyone in America.  A privilege is a right or benefit granted to a particular group – in this case White people.  These experiences are not rights or benefits granted to Black people.  The only difference is skin color.  


#4  Structural/Systemic Privilege


“Every organization and community is perfectly designed to get the outcomes it gets.”


That is the central principle for understanding organizations and communities.  Structural or systemic White Privilege is built into our governmental, community and business organizations – laws, policies, processes, structures, practices, relationships, values and beliefs,  as well as access to resources, power, and opportunities.  


Examples of Structural or Systemic White Privilege

Because white privilege has been built into the fabric of American life for centuries, it lives at a structural or systemic level in a range of domains, each of which can have a significant effect on Black people.  Taken in combination, they can have a profound impact.

  • Wealth – lack of access to real estate, banking and finance, cross-generational transfer of wealth, etc.
  • Healthcare – included in research, culturally appropriate care, care within accessible geographic range, access to insurance, etc.  
  • Education – equal quality, equal opportunities for desired education, culturally appropriate materials, enrollment and discipline policies, etc
  • Criminal Justice System – policing , access to legal help, sentencing, prep for success on the outside
  • Organizations – recruiting pipelines, selection, support, pay, fulltime employment, career inequalities.  


Personal Responsibility

Whether intentional or not, we participate in white privilege.  We are either part of the problem or part of the solution.  There is no middle or neutral ground.  Inaction reinforces white privilege because white privilege is self-sustaining.  



#5  What We Can do About Countering Personal White Privilege 

(Extending the Privilege to Others)


Changing the story of personal “normal privilege” is a primarily a matter of ensuring that others have the same conditions of privilege.  It’s not about “giving up” advantages.  It’s about ensuring that others have the same basic conditions that we have as Whites on a day-to-day basis.  


Five Steps to Effective Sustained Actions


1. Become increasingly aware of white privilege.  Becoming aware of all the ways that the lack of personal privilege affects people who are not white makes it much easier to get off the sidelines and stop being a bystander.


2.Identify specific actions.  If you think about the different scenarios you encounter as you live your life, you will be able to identify a surprising number of actions you might take in different situations to ensure that others enjoy the basic privileges we are granted as White people.  


3. Act.  Just start.  Take the first steps.  Start small, but start.  Don’t get stuck preparing and don’t wait for everything to be just right before venturing out.


4. “Hold the course.”  This is not a sprint and there will be frustrations and setbacks along the way.  


5. Connect with others.  The more connected we are, the better.  That can be with individuals or groups or organizations.  



#6  What We Can do to Counter Structural White Privilege 

(Changing the Built-in Balance of Privilege)


This is a more complex challenge than countering personal white privilege.  It’s about “righting the wrongs” of systemic privilege.  Even though complex, the steps to engage are pretty straightforward.


1. Choose an organization or a topic.  Choose an organization(s) that is engaged in work that counters white privilege or racism in general.  Or choose a topic, such as closing the racial wealth gap or education reform.  The point is to focus your efforts.  


2. Choose your actions and the value you want to add.  It may take some exploration to zero in on the value you want to add and how to add it.  One major pitfall to avoid is selling yourself short.  


3. Act.  Just start.  Take the first steps.  Start small, but start.  You may need to do some preparation to play the role you want to play, but don’t get stuck preparing and don’t wait for everything to be just right before venturing out.  


4. “Hold the course.”  This is not a sprint and there will be frustrations and setbacks along the way.  With complex challenges such as this there is always the need to “learn the way.”  


#7  The Pitfalls


There are lots of potential pitfalls, but four stand out as particularly common and problematic.  Fortunately, they can all be dealt with.


Pitfall #1:  Denial – This is a natural and almost inescapable pitfall.  It’s a normal human reaction to the challenge to counter White privilege.  


Pitfall #2:  “Who am I to…”  This is a big pitfall only if you make yourself small.  You don’t need to be an expert.  You just need to get in the game, act, learn, and grow.  


Pitfall #3:  Not connecting with others or losing connections.  This can be a big pitfall in either form.  Countering White privilege and racism in general is best done with others.  


Pitfall #4:  Becoming discouraged vs. holding the course.  If we are acting outside of our white comfort zones and taking on one of the major issues of the age, we are going to get tired and worn down at times.  We are also going to experience the inevitable setbacks and frustrations of such a challenge.  What White Privilege is