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.
Individuals 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.
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.