Saturday, February 21, 2015

Let’s Talk About White Privilege or Un-earned Social Advantage

People are so offended when the word privilege is used, like I just accused them of holding their pinky finger in the air while they sip tea on the veranda. Put your pinky back down, it’s not like that.

By: Joel Gardner
Executive Director - Whitewashed USA

So to be a little more reader friendly, I will use the term “un-earned social advantage”. Most of the time when someone takes offense to being called privileged, they provide a list of hardships they and their family have been through, along with a list of all the sacrifices they have made, and hard work they have done to get what they have. Everyone can give these examples and should be congratulated, good job! But that’s not the privilege we are talking about. Before we get to the racial part, let me give you an example of the kind of advantage I mean: If I go to college, work hard, get a degree and apply for a job, I will have an earned social advantage over other people that have not put in the same effort and don’t have the same qualifications. Earned advantage is a privilege you get for working hard, and playing the game of life well. But let’s say that a woman with a similar background does the same thing I did, gets the same degree and applies for the same job. Because of the way our society works, I am twice as likely to get that job, even with identical qualifications*. Going a step further - if we both got that same job, I would likely get a %22 higher salary**, not because I was smarter or had a better degree, but just because I happen to be male. This is an un-earned social advantage that men have over women in our culture. It’s a privilege I have, before I even walk in the door.

Of course this example is just one tiny sliver of how our social system advantages men. But think about it –an employment system that was designed primarily by men, would be designed to help men be successful. Not because men hate women or because men are bad, but because we as humans are all naturally bias towards ourselves and others like us. This is because if someone is like you, it is easier to empathize with and relate to their needs. It’s also inevitable that a system you build, will be designed to help your kids succeed, because they are also like you. This is why social systems like our system of employment, which was designed by men like me, will be designed to help me succeed. This is un-earned social advantage; this is also called male privilege.

This is where race and racism come into the conversation, social systems that disadvantage people based on race were not designed by racists for the most part, they were designed to meet the needs of the people who designed them. We happen to live in a country where the social systems were designed by the white, straight, male, Christian, able bodied majority, so if you happen to have been dealt one or more of those cards, congratulations! You won the social lottery and there are thousands of tiny little advantages you have before you even walk in the door.

"Social systems that disadvantage people based on race were not designed by racists for the most part, they were designed to meet the needs of the people who designed them."

Of course every action creates an equal and opposite reaction to balance things out, and no system can create advantage without creating disadvantage at the same time. If you happen to be born with darker skin those thousands of little advantages are now un-earned disadvantages, only it’s different than male female bias. Men didn’t start off the historical relationship hating women, but unfortunately in this country white people started their history here by de-humanizing, owning, beating, working, and breeding black folks for financial gain. When that system was finally outlawed in 1863, white folks were so terrified that the black folks would rise up and start some kind of slavery revenge, that they carefully crafted laws and social systems that would keep black folks from gaining power through social advantages.

Some of these systems have slowly been reformed over the last 150 years, but there are still plenty of things that are just not right, and not right always leads to resentment and anger. Black folks are angry because they have born the burden of living under social systems that were not design by or for them for hundreds of years, and even though there have been vast improvements, they are not fixed yet.

If you happen to have lighter skin, here are just a few of the great bonus features you get from our society for free!

If you are white you can:
  1. Move into any nice neighborhood and not have to worry that you might be harassed because of your skin color.
  2. Go to the store and easily find a Band-aid that resembles your skin tone.
  3. Go shopping anytime and not have to worry about being followed or watched carefully by employees.
  4. Go to a history class and learn about people who look like you doing positive things to help humanity.
  5. Spend most of your time in the company of people from your race, even at work or school if you choose to.
  6. Turn on any media and see people of your race widely represented.
  7. Know that your children will be educated about the history of their race in a positive way in school.
  8. Go to the bank or write a check knowing that your skin color will not be counted against you financially.
  9. Never be asked to speak on behalf of all the people in your racial group.
  10. Remain oblivious to the language and customs of people of color around you without fearing social penalties.
  11. Criticize your government without being thought of as a terrorist or un-American.
  12. Ask for the person in charge and probably face someone of your own race.
  13. Be late for an appointment and be certain it will not reflect on your entire race.
  14. Ask for help from a police officer without fearing that your race might make it a negative or even dangerous interaction.
  15. Feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of life.
Now that I've pointed out a small sampling of daily advantages that people of color don’t get to experience, hopefully you too will begin to recognize the amount of un-earned social disadvantage that people of color do experience daily. To sit back and say it's not my problem is not only apathetic to others, but also no longer an acceptable option. You can help, by becoming more in tune with, and developing an awareness of how others experience the world. Question: If you had the ability to create changes that could repair and heal some of the damage our social structures have caused within minority communities, would you?

Minority communities, especially Blacks whose family introduction to this country was being pulled from those families one by one and sold on an auction block, have never experienced our society collectively reaching out in a loving manner to mend those injuries. One of the reasons I believe we've neglected to reach out, is that same fear of some sort of slavery revenge that generations of Americans have felt before. Isn't it time for us, the collective majority to let go of fear, step out, and step up? Fear is paralyzing, and I am ready to live life fully as a human family without dragging around those kinds of restrictions. No guilt needed, no apologies, just mind your privilege, run towards change, be brave, and open your mouth when you know a situation is just not OK. I believe in the saying "if they knew better, they'd do better". We do know better, we can do better! Right?

Additional reading - White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack – By Peggy McIntosh


  1. How do you feel about "racial quotas" at jobs and schools and the like? For example, say a company is striving to reach a certain percentage of minority employees. How do you feel about a highly qualified "white" person being turned away because the company has not yet met their quota of minorities?
    My children attend a school that is very racially diverse. At the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, their student body was made up of 56% minorities. That number is slightly smaller this year I think, but I couldn't find the exact number. I'm raising my children to see people and not skin colors. We try to teach our children to be "color blind." Do you see the coming generations becoming more tolerant of skin color? Do you think this is a problem that will lessen in time? Obviously, I whole-heartedly agree that we need to set good examples for our children and those with whom we associate.
    I think one of the things that society needs to do is figure out how to get rid of the "ghettos". Those children live as they have learned. Some are not taking the opportunities to further their education and get themselves out. It's a vicious cycle. I think the whole welfare system and prison system need to be reformed in order for things to really and truly change.

    1. Thanks Tonia, you bring up several really good discussion points, I Should probably tackle each one in a separate reply so they don't get jumbled. Now about racial quotas - Like the article above talks about, we as humans tend to gravitate towards other humans that look and act like us. This has some real down sides for businesses, because if all your employees come from similar backgrounds, your products and services will naturally be designed for other people who look and act the same. Companies all over the country are scrambling right now to put in diversity hiring programs because study after study has shown that the more differences you can get in your employees, the wider variety of customers you can attract and the better your products are because they are more rounded and better thought out from different directions. This is the same for schools, in the last decade the supreme court ended the busing programs that forced us to integrate in the 1960's. In the last few years our schools have been naturally segregating again at an alarming rate, the result of this is that it's easier for our kids to choose to only associate with their own race for comfort reasons, that's puts our kids at a disadvantage in the world the same way choosing to not take any English or math classes for comfort reasons. The outcome is kids who are only comfortable around their own culture and are socially not equipped to work in those diverse companies, and interact in diverse social groups where they can learn the most and be better people. Another way to look at racial quotas is that if you have 10 jobs, and you say 2 of them have to go to a person from a minority group, you are really saying "we are setting aside 8 out of every 10 jobs for white people" that still seems unfair, but not for us. Once people get more comfortable with diversity and change, quotas won't be needed, because employees would naturally be a big mix of cultures to match our society. We're just not quite there yet.

    2. I need to be blunt about the second part, color blind sounds like a great idea, but the unintended consequences have been really bad. The trouble is that a long time ago people invented this thing based on skin color and called it "race". Then in this country they used it to cause a lot of damage to families, cultures, and people for hundreds of years. Thomas Jefferson once said that "we cannot free the slaves, because white people have committed too many crimes, and black people have too good of a memory". The damage was so bad, that even after slavery stopped, it caused ripples for generations that are still going. This includes a lot of the problems you see in black communities like poverty, lack of education, and unstable families that were created in slavery and then reinforced by laws and social rules in every generation since then. When someone is being punched, you can't just stop punching and say we're even now, you have to provide some medical care and healing before you can move on as equals. That community was badly broken. That's not your fault or mine, but collectively as a country we are all still paying for not fixing the damage. Once that damage is fixed, color blind might be a good option, but right now it feels like we are saying "I don't see your color, your history or your injuries, we're even now". That's why you will see most black people cringe every time they hear that phrase. I'm telling you this as a friend, because I wouldn't want you to offend someone without knowing what happened.

    3. For the last part, you are right, culture change and fixing this is a massive undertaking that will need work on all sides. Luckily the work we need to do is all on our side of that fence, we just need to really identify our personal bias, and then push for changes in our society that remove some of the road blocks for minorities and invite everyone into a stronger, more diverse middle class.

  2. I would just like to say, that of all those statements on your list, I maybe be able to do 1 or 2 things as White person. The rest is out the door. I live in a heavily populated minority community; my college is over 75 %minority and growing. I have never had the so called "white privilege" in my entire life. The list itself would be considered racist against the white population. You(the writer) when referencing this list; are speaking on behalf of an entire race;which I do not agree with. Your article dose not align with current statistics, I would be interested to see how you will debate these.

    Interesting theory. ...

    1. Thanks for posting Anonymous person, the thing with priviledge that is hard to understand is that it's not just a white thing, every single one of us has some advantage in different circumstances, this article focuses on white priviledge, but the general idea is that we all identify ourselves in multiple ways - by gender, religion, race, age, etc. and we are all of these things at once. if any one of those things aligns with the majority group in charge, then you will have some advantage that you did not earn, take age for instance, if you are 14 years old and decide to go see a PG-13 action movie with a friend who is only 10, you will naturally have an advantage at the theater to get in and see the movie. Not because of anything you did, just because you were born 4 years sooner. This would be age privilege. Our society happens to be majority white, male, Christian, straight, etc. so if you call yourself any of those things you have an advantage in that way. Oh, and I speak just for me, and i'm right, but that's beside the point.


Comments welcome! Be respectful, your viewpoint is welcome, attacking someone else is not.