10 Everyday Examples of the Glaring Reality of White Privilege
Chances are, if you're tired of hearing about White privilege, you've probably spent a lifetime benefiting from it.
What is white privilege?
White privilege is so misunderstood. It’s right up there with cultural appropriation and “Black Lives Matter” among things people keep getting wrong. Contrary to popular belief, White privilege doesn’t mean all White people are rich. It doesn’t guarantee they will have bigger bank accounts than others (though, on average, they do). White privilege means not having nearly every deck of cards stacked against you from the moment you’re born, just because you happen to be a certain race. Poor White people have their trials and tribulations, and they shouldn’t be minimized, but their financial situations are likely due to a number of factors that don’t include race. Their lives, challenging as they may be, don’t typically end up being racism’s collateral damage. That’s White privilege.
“As White people, we are tired of hearing about it because it doesn’t affect us,” Samantha Cocco, a research administrator for the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, wrote in May 2020. “Because we know we can commit a petty crime and not wonder if we’ll make it out of our arrests alive. Because we know we can go jogging and come home alive. Because we can lay down for a nap and not worry about never waking up again. Because our kids can play with toy guns. Because we know we don’t pose a threat to authority figures with tasers and nightsticks and guns for the simple fact of our skin color and what it represents. But we are nowhere near as tired as Black people and POC. Black folks are tired because they’re living it, every day.” Want to help? Here are some small ways you can fight racism every day.
White privilege means not having to dress up to survive
Many Black people—especially Black men—have a story to tell about how they left the house dressed down, only to be mistaken for the person who stocks the shelves, cleans the bathroom, delivers packages, or someone who recently committed a crime. Meanwhile, a White person dressed casually is seen as letting their hair down or loosening their tie. If he’s a man who has long hair and is wearing a hoodie, jeans, and running shoes, he might be described as a sexy, free-spirited hippie. If he’s a Black guy with dreadlocks, he’s a thug—and he’d better beware potentially fatal ramifications. This Black man is even afraid of wearing a mask to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
“In society today, dressing up has become a life or death choice,” Emmett Price, author of Hip Hop Culture and a professor at Northeastern University, told Mashable in 2015. “There’s this notion of African American males who have chosen to dress in a way that disarms the Blackness and the potential for being seen as more Black than human.” That’s something White people never have to think about at night when they’re planning tomorrow’s outfit. It’s a shame that dressing up, for some, is a survival tactic.
White privilege means being able to brandish a loaded gun in public
In June, Mark and Patricia McCloskey stood in front of their $1.15 million mansion in St. Louis aiming guns at Black Lives Matter protesters. They ended up with an invitation to speak at the Republican National Convention. In August, Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, marched through the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, carrying the AR-15 rifle he later used to kill two Black Lives Matter protesters. Nobody stopped him until it was too late, and some White Republicans, including President Donald Trump, tried to paint him as a victim after he was arrested. Imagine if a Black man had done the same thing during an alt-right rally. He probably wouldn’t have lived to face criminal charges. Imagine a group of Black men storming the Michigan capitol to protest lockdown laws as a number of White men did in May. Black men don’t have to be in groups of two or more or even carrying a weapon to be immediately seen as a threat. If they’re armed, they’re immediately seen as dangerous.
“While Rittenhouse is allowed to be young and dumb in this narrative, Black children and teens are not granted the same leeway,” Britni de la Cretaz wrote in a September 23, 2020 Refinery29 article. “Tamir Rice who really was a little boy, at 12 years old, was estimated to be a ’20-year-old male’ by the 9-1-1 caller and responding officers to the park where Rice was playing with a toy gun. Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman for wearing a hoodie and was portrayed as a threatening man.” White privilege strikes again—and kills.
White privilege means growing up with diverse role models
When asking, “What is white privilege?”, another thing to think about is representation. Turn on the TV. Chances are you see White people onscreen doing a number of different things, from being a doctor to being a lawyer to being an academic to being a model to being a superhero. White kids grow up seeing diverse images of people who look like them all over TV, in movies, and in the news media. Black and Latino children, on the other hand, see people who look like them mostly as lower-income essential workers and criminals, if they see them at all. If you’re not White, you’re exposed to a far more limited range of people of your race living their best lives, while the success White people enjoy is presented as being all-encompassing and aspirational—if you’re White. “They put us in a box where we can only be sports and entertainers,” NBA legend Charles Barkley told ESPN in 2015. “White kids grow up thinking they can be doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Black kids don’t think like that.” If you are lucky enough to have good ones, role models can help you uncover your passion.
White privilege means not having to be judged by the actions of other White people
When you are Black or Latino or Asian American, in many ways, you’re always, in a sense, your brothers and sisters’ keeper. White people are never called an asset or disgrace to their race because their actions are seen as their own. Nobody else’s actions reflect poorly or positively on them. Although some White people take every discussion of racism personally and end up defending the indefensible, when non-White people talk about racism, they’re usually talking about the system and specific individuals, not White people collectively. That sort of blanket racism is a specialty fostered by White privilege. If White men commit 20 murders in one day, it doesn’t affect how people see White men in general. If one murder is committed by a Black man, every Black man becomes a suspect and a target.
In 2019, Liam Neeson sparked controversy after recalling an incident from years ago where he trolled the streets looking for a random “Black bastard” to assault in order to avenge a friend who said she had been raped by a Black man. “Instead of being consumed only by the innate horror of the act of rape, or by the pain of knowing someone he knew had been so horribly violated, Neeson zeroed in on the Blackness of the perpetrator, desperate to seek some form of revenge, regardless of whether he had the right person or not,” Kuba-Shand Baptiste wrote in the Independent at the time.
White privilege means growing up with constant positive reaffirmations of your beauty
White girls are raised seeing themselves reflected in Barbie, in fairytale princesses, and in teen queens. That’s not to say they don’t end up with their own insecurities, but unlike Black girls, they at least are presented with a certain level of hope, a blueprint for attainable beauty. Black girls get Aunt Jemima. Asian and Latino girls get no-one. They are all judged by the White standard of beauty, which makes them the underdogs in pageants, in dating, and in love. “The easiest way to confirm society’s belief in Whiteness as beauty is to look at the most common images presented as ‘beautiful women,'” Maisha Z. Johnson wrote in a 2019 article on the website The Body is Not an Apology. “Glance at a Google image search, a rack of fashion magazines, or advertisements, and it’s clear that selling the image of ‘beauty’ usually means taking pictures of white women.” The advertising industry is one of the main offenders when it comes to whitewashing beauty.
White privilege means not having to fear the police
When a White person sees the flashing lights of a police car behind them, they might worry about getting a ticket and how to get out of it. They probably don’t give a second thought to possibly losing their lives. That’s the first thing many Black people in the same situation think about. If they panic and act irrationally, it’s because they are frightened for their lives—and tired of constantly feeling that way. Every time another unarmed Black person is shot by the police, someone, usually White, asks why they didn’t just obey the orders of the cop and acquiesce to being demeaned and dehumanized. That they just don’t get it is a prime example of White privilege. If you don’t have to live your life feeling like a target because of the color of your skin, you probably can’t truly understand why Black people react the way they do when staring down the barrel of a police gun.
According to a 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Black men and boys are killed by police at a rate of 96 out of every 100,000 deaths, compared to a rate of 39 for White men and boys. “Black communities are often over-policed and over-profiled, which can even lead to fatality, as recent cases have shown us,” Dr. Michael Lindsey, who directs the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University, told PBS in June 2020. “Will an interaction with the police result in an outcome characterized by physical harm or unequal treatment by the court system? That is a real concern for black Americans.”
White privilege means having access to inherited money and opportunity
Old money is White money. Black people in this country have been free for 155 years. They’ve had civil rights for only 55. White people had a head start of several centuries to accumulate wealth that they’ve been able to pass along to later generations of White people, the main beneficiaries of nepotism in the United States. It’s the story of how Donald Trump achieved the high profile that led to his becoming President of the United States, a story that rarely applies to Black or Latino families. According to research cited by a 2018 article in The Atlantic: “Among college-educated Black families, about 13 percent get an inheritance of more than $10,000, as opposed to about 41 percent of White, college-educated families.” The average inheritance for White families is, on average, over $150, 000 from the previous generation, while for Black families, it’s less than $40,000. “The enduring legacy of slavery and centuries of de jure and de facto segregation have led to a wealth gap that is practically insurmountable,” wrote the article’s author Adam Harris. One way to help change the broken system is to support black-owned businesses.
White privilege means being able to break the rules and get away with it
According to a 2016 update to the 2012 Booker Report, Black male offenders receive, on average, prison sentences that are 19.6 percent longer than those received by “similarly situated” White male offenders. In other words, being caught dealing drugs or cheating to get your kid into an Ivy League university is likely to have a far more profound negative effect on a Black or Brown life than a White one. In a June 2020 Vice UK article, writer Niloufar Haidari offered a cutting example of how the disparity works with women, too: “Shanesha Taylor, a homeless Black woman who left her children in a car for 45 minutes so she could attend a job interview, was arrested and faced losing her kids. Brenda Nesselroad-Slaby, a White woman whose daughter died after she left her locked in her car for eight hours, was not indicted, as her behaviour did not meet the definition of ‘reckless conduct.'”
White privilege means your ancestors are the heroes of revisionist history
Most of the great American heroes we learn about in school are White. Even the ones who weren’t all that heroic, like the Confederate soldiers who fought against the United States in the Civil War, are presented as supermen. According to what many of us were taught, they weren’t fighting to preserve slavery. They were fighting to preserve states’ rights. Give them a medal—or a monument. Considering the egregious whitewashing of history, it’s no wonder people like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are still so revered in parts of the country. Meanwhile, aside from Martin Luther King Jr, there are scant Black, Latino, Asian American, or Native American heroes in the regularly circulated version of American history—only victims. Even King was killed by a White shooter.
“Just imagine, you’re a White kid and all of a sudden, everybody’s Latin and everything they’re teaching you is Latin and you don’t hear anything about yourself or about your contributions,” actor John Leguizamo told HuffPost in 2015. “You don’t hear about George Washington, you don’t hear about Thomas Jefferson, and you feel like you haven’t contributed anything. How would you feel? How would you think of your future? How would you think of your participation in American culture? You feel like an invisible person screaming in the woods and nobody hears you. And it’s really weird and unfair because we had huge contributions.” Unfortunately, whitewashing makes people in minority groups feel inferior. Think about this aspect next time you wonder, “What is white privilege?”
White privilege means being able to pretend White privilege doesn’t exist
Let’s face it. It’s easier to downplay the effects of racism or pretend racism isn’t really that big of a problem if it’s not something you have to face every day. Non-Whites don’t have that luxury. They have to live with side-glances, prejudices, and presumptions all based on the color of their skin. They have to live with constantly feeling other-ed and having to assimilate to fit into a world that places a higher premium on White than any other color. It’s easy to dismiss people in minority groups as “crybabies” who make everything about racism when your race is at the top of the power structure making laws and that will likely put you first.
“For White people to dismiss the benefits they’ve reaped because of their Whiteness only goes to show how oblivious—and privileged—they really are,” Kelsey Borrensen wrote in HuffPost in June 2020. In the same article, Abigail Makepeace, a marriage and family therapist who specializes in trauma, is quoted as saying: “The mere assumption that someone does not benefit from systemic privilege reveals how inherently unaware they may be of systemic racism. Ignorance of complicity indicates that someone has been protected from and sheltered by the system—a luxury that POC have never had.” Until now, White privilege has meant not having to face the harsh reality of race in America. Finally, that ignorance seems to be changing. White privilege, though, is so ingrained in American culture, it will be tougher, if not impossible, to usher out of it. For an in-depth look at white privilege and other complex issues surrounding race, read these 15 essential books for understanding race in America.
For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.
- Ignatian Solidarity Network: “Fellow White People, About Your Inherent Racism”
- Mashable: “Black Armor”
- Refinery29: “Why Are Republicans Painting Kyle Rittenhouse As An Innocent Teenager? White Supremacy.”
- ESPN: “Up from Leeds”
- The Independent: “What does Liam Neeson’s desire to avenge a woman raped by a black man tell us about society and race?”
- The Body is Not an Apology: “10 Ways the Beauty Industry Tells You Being Beautiful Means Being White”
- PNAS: “Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race–ethnicity, and sex”
- PBS: “Two-thirds of black Americans don’t trust the police to treat them equally. Most white Americans do.”
- The Atlantic: “White College Graduates Are Doing Great With Their Parents’ Money”
- USSC: “Demographic Differences in Sentencing: An Update to the 2012 Booker Report”
- Vice: “50 Examples of White Privilege to Show Family Members Who Still Don’t Get It”
- HuffPost: “John Leguizamo Says High School History Makes Latino Students Feel ‘Invisible’”
- HuffPost: “6 Things White People Say That Highlight Their Privilege”