Understanding white privilege: 20 everyday examples

Ella Alexander
Photo credit: Spencer Platt - Getty Images

From Harper's BAZAAR

The horrifying murder of George Floyd and the justifiable anger that has ensued has made many of us reevaluate how we might inadvertently benefit from structural racism. It's an uncomfortable truth that white privilege means actively benefitting from the oppression of people of colour, whether being the dominant representation in the media or not being questioned about your citizenship.

It's a subject that was first written about extensively in 1988 by a then Wellesley College women’s-studies scholar called Peggy McIntosh. In a paper entitled White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies, she listed 46 examples of white privilege. She asked herself, "on an everyday basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn?", resulting in a clear list based on personal experience that helped people to understand how privilege works. These examples have been pored over by students and academics ever since and are among the most globally cited on the subject.

Today, McIntosh is 85 and is founder of The Seed Project, which helps teachers and community members to create a“gender fair, multiculturally equitable, socioeconomically aware, and globally informed" curricula.

"In order to understand the way privilege works, you have to be able to see patterns and systems in social life, but you also have to care about individual experiences," said McIntosh in a 2014 interview with The New Yorker. "I think one’s own individual experience is sacred. Testifying to it is very important—but so is seeing that it is set within a framework outside of one’s personal experience that is much bigger, and has repetitive statistical patterns in it."

Here, we share 20 of McIntosh's examples of white privilege based on daily experiences that we often take for granted, in the hope it offers a better understanding of this complex subject. Let us learn from this moment and to be less oblivious to unearned racial advantages.

  1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbours in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilisation,” I am shown that people of my colour made it what it is.
  7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
  9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
  10. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin colour not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  12. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
  13. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of colour who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  17. I can criticise our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behaviour without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  18. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
  19. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.

    Read the full list at Nationalseedproject.org.

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