Issue Of The Week VIII Fall 2011-2012: Privilege And Resistance

November 7, 2011
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Abby L. Ferber, Ph.D., is a Professor of Sociology, and Women's and Ethnic Studies. She is the Director of the Matrix Center for the Advancement of Social Equity and Inclusion at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

In her classic article, “White Privilege and Male Privilege,” Peggy McIntosh (1988) offers a long list of examples of white privilege she experiences. She notes that white privilege includes being able to assume that most of the people you or your children study in school will be of the same race; being able to go shopping without being followed; never being called a credit to one’s race, or having to represent one’s entire race; as well as simple details like finding flesh colored bandages to match one’s skin color. These examples highlight the unearned nature of privilege.

People of privilege often do not realize the extent to which inequality is still pervasive. Looking at life from their own narrow experience, they fail to recognize that their experiences are not universal nor simply the result of their own hard work, but instead the result of their privileged status.

For example, many white people believe that discrimination has been outlawed and equality has been achieved. Central to this assumption is the belief in a color-blind society. This perspective argues that we should simply treat people as human beings, rather than as racialized beings. While many people naively embrace this view as non-racist, by ignoring the extent to which race still shapes people’s life chances and opportunities, even life span, color-blindness actually reinforces and reproduces contemporary racial inequality. The reality of inequality today is subtle and institutional, rather than the overt gestures and legal discrimination of the past. Sociologists call this “the new racism.”

It is no wonder that individuals, especially those who are most privileged, often resist acknowledging the reality of ongoing inequality. We are immersed in a culture where the ideology of color-blindness is pervasive. However, all of the evidence suggests that institutionalized barriers to racial equity still exist.

altIndividuals often experience some cognitive dissonance, then, when they start to learn that the values they had previously been taught as truth are in fact myths. Coming face to face with one’s privilege may produce a flood of emotion, including anger, guilt, shame and sadness. As faculty members who have been teaching about race and privilege for the many years, we have seen resistance take many different forms. Some of the common responses we encounter include:

  • “I don’t feel privileged, my life is hard too!” This is an example of minimizing or denying privilege. We often focus on oppressed identities as a means of ignoring our privilege.

  • “My family didn’t own slaves!” This is a way to excuse oneself, but as historians have documented, the majority of whites benefitted from the slave trade and slavery. The economies of many Northern cities were based almost entirely on the slave trade; and generations of whites have been enriched by the forced labor of slaves, the cheap labor of other minority group members, and the land and resources taken, often violently, from Native Americans and Mexicans. These practices contribute directly to today’s tremendous racial wealth gap.

  • “I treat everyone the same!” This type of response shifts the focus to prejudiced and bigoted individuals and allows us to ignore systemic oppression and privilege.

  • “Anyone could succeed if they would just try harder!” This adherence to the myth of meritocracy attributes the failures of an individual solely to that individual without taking into account systemic inequalities that create an unfair system. It is a form of blaming the victim.

  • “We need to move on! If we would just stop talking about it, it wouldn’t be such a big problem!” Systemic inequalities exist and ignoring them will not make them go away.

  • “Stop being so sensitive! I didn’t mean it.” Speaking in a derogatory manner about a person or group of people based on social group memberships can, cumulatively, have a devastating impact. Disconnecting our own language or action is another form of resistance because it minimizes the indiscretion and sends the message that anyone who challenges the language or behavior is simply being overly sensitive.

  • “I am just one person, I can’t change anything!” Seeing oneself as incapable of creating change is a means of excusing oneself from accepting any responsibility. Individuals often conceive of social inequalities as too large to tackle, and thus rationalize their lack of action.

Adapted from: Oppression without Bigots, Sociologists for Women in Society Factsheet, 2010:

What are some other responses you have encountered? Have you developed any helpful strategies to respond to these claims? We can learn from each other’s experiences.

What do you think?

We also recommend a nifty downloadable booklet called Speak Up! Available free from Teaching Tolerance.

Author Bio: Abby L. Ferber, Ph.D., is a Professor of Sociology, and Women's and Ethnic Studies. She is the Director of the Matrix Center for the Advancement of Social Equity and Inclusion at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. She is the author of White Man Falling: Race, Gender and White Supremacy, Rowman & Littlefield, (1998); co-author of the American Sociological Associations' Hate Crime in America: What Do We Know? (2000) and Making a Difference: University Students of Color Speak Out, Rowman & Littlefield (2002); co-editor, with Michael Kimmel, of Privilege: A Reader, Westview Press (2003); and editor of Home Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism, Routledge (2004).

Author Bio: Dena R. Samuels, Ph.D., is a sociologist specializing in race, gender, sexuality and social justice curriculum and organizational development and training. She is an Assistant Professor in Women's and Ethnic Studies at University of Colorado - Colorado Springs (UCCS), and received the university's Outstanding Instructor Award. In addition to her own consulting firm: Dena Samuels Consulting, she serves as a Senior Consultant of Diversity Services for UCCS' Matrix Center. Samuels provides seminars and consultation to campuses and organizations nationally and internationally on the processes of integrating diversity and building inclusiveness.


People often say "I don't judge based on race, I judge but what they do" or "I don't mean to be racist but.." They also say "Not to be racist but.." or "I mean I'm not being racist, but that is what they do.." "Its not my fault, they do not try as hard" or "If I can do it so can they" These are all common things I hear being said and have encountered.

I have told people that it is not that minorities do not try, it is that we classify them as unable to do something or a lesser than us. We make it so they cannot accomplish as much as we can. I also tell people that any racial or bias statement is being racist, and therefore, even if you say "I don't mean to be racist but.." you are still being racist and should not say it. Even when people say they judge on what people do, not on race, they are likely still stereotyping or holding minorities to a low level, and not allowing them to be individuals who can accomplish higher level things. Also, things is life are not all equal and fair, and therefore, we cannot all do what someone else does. We may not have the same resources or abilities.

We cannot ignore racism or issues going on to avoid being racist. We need to realize them and work past them! We need to be conscious of what is going on and try to make things better, not ignore them and block them out like they do not exist. they do and it is our job to fix it.

I agree with you, brushing these problems under a rug isn't helping the problem any. Just becasue you ignor problems they don't go away, generally, they get worse. The phrases you brought up, I often hear as well. People commonly think that if they say 'I don't mean to be racist' that we should be like 'oh ok continue your thought...', but that is not thae case. We need to face these issues and stop ignoring them.

I agree as well because many people are afraid to voice their opinions if they do not meet the general consensus of others around them. I think that fear effects why people "allow" others to make racist comments, even if people say its a joke. I also think that many people are afraid of hostility when it comes to these sort of comments. Some people become defensive if they are called out on their faults and sometimes people rather ignore the problem to avoid unwanted issues between themselves and another person.

It is so true that our society will not minorities experience all that life has to offer. This experience includes jobs and standard of living. Because of stereotypes minorities are not given the same opportunities as whites. It is time to progressively approach these issues and make a change.

Often times I will hear someone say something like " but I am not racist" to try to excuse themselves of the situation, or " I would get treated the same by them( a person of another race or ethnic group). I would have never thought about the bandaid situation had it not be brought up and now that i think about it I feel that it is unacceptable. In the hair coloring isle in the stores the hair coloring/styling for African americans is in an isolated section away from the hair color of all other ethnicities. I think that issues as simple as this should be addressd because often times people do not realize the affect they are having. most companies now a days want to please all parties, so why wouldnt owners be more willing to make specific products for different races according to their skin color or hair type, if they are going to crowd pleasing. I think the main problem is that little things like this than can do such harm and overlooked and should be addressed

Thank you for bringing this up. It is amazing how pervasive these ideologies are; you can’t even escape them in the beauty aisle. It’s so easy to just walk around the store, watch television, and interact with people and miss all the things that can have an impact on the well-being of others. I have to mention the Summer’s Eve commercials that were intended to be relatable rather than stereotypical. It would be easy for some of us to laugh at those kinds of advertisements without realizing that there are racial and gender messages inherent in them.

I never really thought about it like that, but you are right. Sections in the store are isolated...many people look at ads and commercials but they do not see the racial profiling and how it can affect those races. Even magazines are generalized towards the white population, especially teen magazines. They rarely include advice for hair, skin, nails etc. for those of minorities.

I really liked your example it was really something I have noticed but wouldn’t have thought much about. I personally don’t really find this very offensive. The majority of African Americans don’t need to by hair die, and if they do they will need specific products of their specific type of hair. The same can be said vice versa you wont see too many “white” women needing black products like hair mayonnaise. They are really two different worlds of hair products. They could probably all go in the same section but most people will need products that are meant for their type of hair. As I said I think it is a awesome observation and I understand the main idea behind it but sometimes I wonder if people think two deeply into things. Are these hair products separated for reasons related to privilege or to make one race feel less important than another? Or is it because they are meant for completely different types of hair and therefore are considered different sections.

White privilege is hard to recognize because it has been established as the standard for all social institutions in America. At this point the major, overt life changing rules around race in America have came and passed to create our present day, normalized, and deeply ingrained culture of 'White is better' (or best). There's no reason to feel depressed or helpless about it. Any change made by man has to first start as an intellectual change and that is something everyone is capable of doing regardless of their external conditions. That's the real responsibility we have as utilize our intellect and recognize injustice when we see it. Then we can start leading by example, and when enough people start living like they respect and value racial difference and begin rejecting unjust social norms we will undoubtedly begin seeing systematic, institutional level changes. Knowledge is only respectable power if our conscious is alive.

I agree with you, if everyone made a tiny step to improve, our generation could make a huge difference. People think that one person can't make a difference, but others will follow that one person, and a change can emerge.

“I/Someone I know lost a job to someone because of affirmative action. It just isn’t right to give someone a handout because of their race.” – I’ve heard a lot of this particular phrase lately. This takes the focus off of systems of privilege and oppression and focuses instead on the experience of the individual. When this has come up recently, I’ve tried to be calm and informative. If a white person with a criminal record is more likely to get a call back on a job than a black person without a criminal record, there’s something bigger going on. Studies like this have been done and it is clear that, regardless of the experiences of individuals, there is systemic inequality that needs to be addressed.

I definitely agree with you. I think a lot of people don't believe there is still institutional discrimination, especially in the job market. I absolutely take for granted how easy it is for me to get a job over any person of color. It is so easy to not think about the real reasons we get jobs or other opportunities. In order to be competitive, people of color need to "act white". I know as a person of privilege in this arena that it is easy and comfortable to live with blinders on. Ignorance truly is bliss, yet this bliss is at the expense of others.

The one on the list that caught my attention was "stop being so sensitive, I didn't mean it." I think that is a big part of the problem right there. The white people who consider us all to be equal don't think its a big deal to make racist comments, and they think that people are too sensitive. People shouldn't have to hear cruel comments about their race. In todays society a lot of people think its ok to racial slurs because they hear their peers and people they look up to doing it. That is where the change needs to occur.

Today’s society does make racial slurs seem ok at times. People how have never experienced being on side of a hurtful comment may just think it’s a joke. People who constantly have to put up with society acceptance of these hurtful comments are supposed to be able to accept them willingly. For the people who think these slurs ok I can understand somewhat that they don’t fully understand how much they truly can upset people this like most issues goes back to the idea of raising awareness. Maybe if just once someone where to explain to them why their comment is not “just a joke” and why it should be taken more seriously they will start to come to a realization and reduce their harmful words.

This is a great point! The people that make these jokes and say oppressive things do so because they aren't putting themselves in the shoes of the other. They do not know what it is like to live a life in which your capabilities, motives, etc are questioned every day. They aren't being constantly stereotyped in such a negative way and thus cannot empathize with a minority or respect them. If people could take the time to open their minds a little bit more this could create a lot of change. It is another good point, though, that we need to help these racist/close minded people make this transition. They won't be able to change on their own.

All of these excuses resonate with me. I have heard them all, and I have honestly probably used most of them myself at some point in my life. It is much more comfortable to dismiss ways in which I contribute to oppression. The phrase, "ignorance is bliss", is very true. Life is so much more peaceful and pleasant for ourselves when we don't look at the impact we have on others' lives. However, this bliss is at the expense of others. I would therefore rather have awareness and discomfort if it means I can help small change against oppression as a white individual.

You say that you would rather have awareness and discomfort if it means that a small step towards stopping oppression, if everyone had the same attitude as you than it would make a big difference. If everyone had that same awareness than it would be less uncomfortable for everyone in that it would be more natural of a topic than it is now. Just think of how much of a difference it would make if everyone started to think in that same positive way!

I too have heard and used all of these excuses, and I also understand about being blissful and ignorant. I fell into the sociology field I had no idea what it was about, I thought it was about other peoples cultures much like anthropology. I have to say that I almost quit after my first class, which was about white privilege. I was so pissed I couldn't even talk But I stuck it out and realized that just because I was born with white skin I had privileges I never knew about. I also realized that those born without white skin were oppressed, and even when they tried to act white they faced obsticles. I don't know if I will make a difference, but at least I am aware and I will do my best to educate those in my little circle. I will teach my kids and grandkids about white privilege and how it hurts those who are ot part of this elite group,.

My Favorite!
I have never ever hear anyone say “My family didn’t own slaves”, but if I did I think I would find it kind of humorous if I heard someone say it. That’s taking a major huge piece of history and trying to claim that you didn’t take place in it, of course you weren’t there. How would someone even know for one thousand percent sure if their family had slaves or not? That is an outrageous saying in my opinion. People trying to take personal blame off themselves is hinting at the fact that they may feel guilty or feel like they are being accused of something. This personal way of looking at things can present a major problem. Saying I “didn’t do this” or “I don’t do that”, I believe to be a counter productive way of approaching things. What happened is absolutely important as the articles mentioned because it greatly impacted the way things are now, but equally if not more important is what is going on now. What do you do? How do you approach the privileges and inequalities that are going on today?

I honestly am very naive when it comes to worldly issues, and when I hear of instances of racism I am taken aback. My naivety stems from lack of awareness, and I realize the need to actively pursue knowledge. I was not aware of the issues for the "non-privileged" races by society standards because the issues are not present in my daily life. It did not occur to me the the bandages I see, if they are not cartooned, they match my skin color! Or when I am driving I do not worry about being pulled over if I am not speeding or breaking any traffic violations. I feel embarrassed that I have not been aware, thinking all was happy and great. The world's attitude does not reflect what the attitude I see on campus. I will stop using lack of knowledge as a reason to promote the new age of racism. America has accomplished so much in the past centuries; I believe bridging the gap between races can be done as awareness increases.

So many of us in the world today are naïve to think about how we are lucky to not face as much discrimination compared to others. I know there are sometimes in my life when I have thought on how lucky my life is with not receiving much discrimination. This occurs to everybody at least several times in their life. We are all naïve at some point. After seeing discrimination against a member of a minority, I always thought of how lucky I am to not receive any discrimination. When I hear stories of minorities being pulled over for speeding or just driving a really nice car, I am always saddened. It’s hard to believe that there are cops out there that have a badge and that will pull a member of the minority group over for just driving a fancy car. We need cops that uphold the law in the most respectable way possible. It’s so hard to end prejudice and discrimination in our world today. Hopefully, some day discrimination and prejudice will not exist in our society anymore, but it will be a long time before we see the end of this. We just have to remember that people in our society today will always be discriminated against, and that we need to always keep our eyes open to help these people out in anyway possible.

These responses are not new to me considering I am part of a group that receives privileges. When I was younger I used some of these responses as well. Most people don't want chaos in their life and because of this they choose to remain ignorant when it comes to privileges and discrimination in the United States. These groups with privileges overlook these prejudices because their lives do not show hardships in terms of racism and oppression. These groups need to be educated about these differences to try to make changes. Although this awareness will probably bring discomfort to many people it is necessary in order to start making changes.

I agree with you that the most common reason for using these types of reasoning to subdue the realities that minorities have to face in American society is because it is simply easier. It is difficult to face the fact that you are part of the reason why others are living their lives, being discriminated against daily. Most people would rather pass off the blame on someone else; this way, they don't need to realize the privileges that they have personally, nor recognize ways that they, personally, could change the lives of those who are discriminated against daily.

This matter of race still being an issue within society today no matter how much progress our country has made is very true. Although many people who are not colored nor from a foreign nation try to play down the issue of racism, many times people are still judged by the color of their skin and this is not directed just towards African Americans. White people do feel a need to excuse themselves when they make a racially biased comment, so that tells me that even if they interact and associate with colored people they still identify themselves as different and potentially better or privileged. I was quite taken by the comment McIntosh made in her article about how whites feel privileged because they even have bandages that match the color of their skin. WOW. Ignorance is not bliss. Although, she may think whites are the only ones who are light skinned she must be ignorant to the fact that many people from other races and cultures have “white” skin.

Something that is very interesting about white privilege is that most white people don't know that it is even going on because it is so part of our culture these days. Black people notice these different types of privileges because it is obvious to them. They have to deal with it everyday. I just think that if white people became more sensitive to the issue of white privilege then it would start to lessen in our society.

White privilege is not the most appealing concept to people who have it. It's hard to admit that you have had things "easier" than others. And instead of realizing how we have been privileged, we have focused on oppression. We cannot solve this by only looking at one side of the issue. Privilege is crucial to helping resolve racism in our country. We must understand it and act against it as much as we can in order to get the full picture. Ignoring privilege will only contribute to farther gaps between the privileged and the oppressed.

I think this is a very valid point that often gets overlooked. People with privilege are often blinded to it, consumed with their own problems. And, by this turn, we tend to forget that there are almost always people who have experienced less privilege than we. For example, I am a young woman currently playing my own way through college. It's tough! But on the other hand, I have the privilege of being white, of being fairly smart, and of having a job that has placed me in a relatively secure finacial position. Many people in my position would focus on the struggles that come with my percieved "problems," making all other issues secondary or not even visible. But it is easy to forget the ways in which you have it easier than someone else when you’re busy focusing on how you think you have it worse.

The first step in solving this issue is taking a step back from the seat of privilege and looking around. Being conscious of socially manufactured differences between people is the first step to neutralizing their effects. While it is easy to think "The system is working for me okay!" it is important to remember that
other people might have different experiences.

One response that I hear regularly is essentially, "I work hard for what I have- other people could do the same!" When I hear this excuse, I usually try to explain that even if minorities did work equally as hard, they most likely would not experience the same privileges from working hard. I try to explain it to people as a race that white people (and other people with privileges) have gotten a five minute head start on, leaving the rest of society in the dust. Even if a minority tried really hard to get ahead in life, it still takes a lot of effort and luck to get to where they want to be.

I can appreciate your point here. I agree that life is like a race and privileged people have gotten a headstart. How are we to expect oppressed groups have the abilities to catch up? Not only are they already behind, they also would have to far overcompensate for the gap that has been created.

As a lot of people commented, I, too, have heard all of these excuses used numerous times and, in all honestly, I have probably used most of them as well. Before I started learning about the ongoing cycle of American privilege and oppression, I had no idea that phrases like "I'm not privileged; I work hard, too!" and "Anyone can get ahead if they try harder!" were just that: phrases. And EMPTY phrases, at that. Because the thing is, I was completely closed off from the institution of oppression here in the United States; I didn't understand anything the systemic inequalities that create an unfair system. But now that I AM aware of it, I realize just how harmful those phrases of resistance can be. Sure, I work hard to get what I want in life. But the fact that I'm white has, I'm sure, played a role. A large role, most likely. And no, not everyone just succeed by "trying harder." When there are so many obstacles in the way, just because of race or culture, "trying harder" isn't always enough.

It is easy to fall back on these oft-used sayings regarding the supposed dissapearance of racism because SO MANY people are completely ignorant of the ways that racism manifests itself. It isn't just in name calling and slurs; it is in denied privileges and wage gaps and missed opportunties. It's believing that racism is gone, and so the fight is over. It's saying things like, "How is America racist? We have a black president."

The biggest roadblock on the path to equality is people who deny the fact that changes still need to be made. Like the article states, pretending that racism doesn't exist doesn't mean it goes away; it just means things are going to take longer to fix once we finally acknowledge the fact that modern racism is a big deal.