White Privilege: The Invisible Advantages & Apparent Disadvantages
This article discusses white privilege and the impact it has on whites as well as people of color. White privilege is defined as the differences in power between white people and people of color, including the advantages white people automatically take for granted and the apparent disadvantages for minorities. Ways in which white privilege is able to persist, as well as educational methods that help people acknowledge and better understand white privilege, are addressed.
Keywords: Color-blindness; Discrimination; Ignorance; In-group; Multicultural Education; Oppression; Out-group; Privilege; Racism; White Complicity; White Privilege; Whitewashing
Defining White Privilege
The general concept of privilege, as defined by McIntosh (2001), is "an invisible package of unearned assets" that someone "can count on cashing in each day" (p. 95). Applebaum (2008) suggests however, that most privileged people take their benefits for granted and are oblivious to their privilege. She goes on to explain that privilege is more than just benefits given to certain people. It also includes various outlooks on life and character traits, which for the privileged, are seen as regular everyday experiences that all people have (Crosby, 1997; Hurtado & Stewart, 1997).
Conversely, racial minorities are very aware of the privileges that are continuously denied to them and see this phenomenon as unearned privileges consistently given to the dominant group. For members of the out-group, it is a constant reminder of their second-class citizen status (McIntosh, 2001). This is where white privilege comes in. Though white privilege has been defined in various ways, a common definition describes white privilege as the differences in power between white people and people of color, including the advantages white people automatically take for granted ("Defining Whiteness and White Privilege," n.d.). Additionally, McIntosh (1990) says that the "knapsack" associated with white privilege consists of special provisions such as maps, codebooks, clothes, blank checks, etc., which white people are taught not to recognize or acknowledge.
White privilege has also been described as the other side of racism. Some white individuals find it easier to condemn racist acts than to take responsibility for the privileges that come along with being white. By genuinely examining white privilege, however, one gains a better understanding about who benefits from racism and how those benefits occur. Steps can be taken to dismantle white privilege on an institutional and personal level, once we understand how white privilege truly operates (Rothenberg, 2007).
A Double Standard
Ignorance around white privilege persists as research studies continue to find major differences regarding race relations between Caucasian and African Americans, with white Americans often making light of racist acts against minorities that are often tied to white privilege (Ludwig, 2000). However, when white people feel their racial identity is threatened, they respond with various acts of racism against those in the out-group, as an attempt to protect members of the in-group (Branscombe, Schmitt & Schiffhaer, 2007).
This double standard has persisted for many years, as most whites continue to be ignorant about race disparities and the invisible advantages among their group. For example, though white Americans consistently excel higher than racial minorities overall, from a wealth and social status perspective (Farley & Allen, 1987; Killian, 1990; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999; Sigelman & Welch, 1991), whites generally do not associate their success with being privileged (McIntosh, 1992). In fact, when some are asked to think about their white privilege, instead of discussing their advantages, they feel as though their identity is threatened and, in response, begin to justify various racial inequalities and their own deservedness (McIntosh, 1992; Branscombe, Schmitt & Schiffhaer, 2007).
For example, Rothenburg (2007) describes a study in which people were asked to think about their childhood and when and how they first learned about race. Minorities, including African Americans, Koreans, Chinese, and Latino people, had vivid, specific memories about how they were taught or in some way discovered their own race. Some were painful memories in which they found, after being invited to a childhood friend's house to play, that the color of their skin began to make a difference and they were no longer welcome at their friend's home. Other memories involved minority girls playing with white dolls with blond hair that looked nothing like them. However, when white individuals were asked to think about when they first learned about race, they often drew a blank and could not remember a time when they noticed they were white. Some explained that, for them, being white was the norm and was essentially everywhere (Rothenberg, 2007).
Why White Privilege Continues to Persist
There are several reasons why white privilege is able to persist. Color-blindness is one example. Color-blindness is a refusal to see race or acknowledge white privilege. It is a self-imposed blindness that white people are taught, that instructs them to ignore race. In other words, those who buy into the idea believe that "race does not exist as a meaningful category and posits that the benefits accrued to White people are earned by (gifted) individuals rather than systemically conferred" (Gordon, 2005, p. 281).
Similarly, a state of "not-knowing" is a factor that causes white privilege to persist. May (2006) describes this phenomenon as the things members of dominant groups are taught not to know. There are many things they are encouraged not to see and are rewarded for doing so. Therefore, Applebaum (2008) adds, not-knowing for the dominant group muddles the consequences of an unjust system such that they do not have to consider their role in continuing to perpetuate the injustices placed on those in the out-group and, at the same time, see themselves as "good" (McIntosh, 2001).
Another culprit of white privilege is whitewashing. Whitewashing is a process that denies race and, at the same time, promotes the white culture. In the workplace, whitewashing is responsible for maintaining the white culture as the dominant culture of business politics (Reitman, 2006). The workplace involves meaningful relationships and power politics that have a significant effect on the experiences of employees. So, through hiring, firing, and promotion, the role whitewashing plays in the workplace can be powerful (Wilson, 1996), as day-to-day practices attempt to reject racial politics in the workplace while superimposing the white culture at the same time (Reitman, 2006).
White privilege is also discussed in terms of white complicity. Similarly, white complicity involves unconscious negative beliefs and attitudes toward minorities and the idea that white people benefit from those group privileges of racism that at the same time marginalize people of color. Some posit that all whites are complicit because they are able to benefit from white privilege, even though these privileges have not been asked for and cannot be renounced. The starting point for addressing these issues and creating a shared language with people of color, however, is for whites to acknowledge complicity rather than deny it (Probyn, 2004; Tatum, 1997).
The white complicity philosophy argues that if white Americans engage in discussions about their privileges rather than resist these discussions, there is a greater possibility that alliances can be established between the privileged and nonprivileged. These alliances can ultimately resolve the unjust system that continues to exist in American society (Applebaum, 2008).
Using Multicultural Education to Address white Privilege
Addressing ways in which white privilege is able to persist and educating students and others about injustices associated with white privilege are key to balancing privilege among all groups. Multicultural education, for example, is an educational approach that incorporates four factors that encourage diversity and equality into a curriculum:
- The instruction of students from different backgrounds,
- The study of ethnic and other cultural groups,
- The development of critical thinking skills, and
- A focus on human relations.
Teaching multicultural education requires thinking critically and examining why inequalities exist in the classrooms and schools, as some students are exposed to social justice issues regarding multicultural education. Students, families, educators, and governing boards all face challenges as they grapple with multicultural education (McFeeters, 2008).
Teaching multicultural education, including teachings around white privilege, requires thinking critically and examining why inequalities exist in the classrooms and schools. Helping students learn in diverse cultural settings and determining ways to build on different cultural backgrounds require good critical thinking skills. Teachers who think critically have the ability to challenge societal practices and philosophies like white privilege, which do not embrace democracy, equity, and social justice. They are not afraid to explore alternative views, question biases, and are open to multiple perspectives. In addition, they understand that questioning race, class, and gender inequities is vital to effective multicultural education (Johnson, Musial, Hall, Gollnick & Dupuis, 2004).
Teaching about White Privilege in the Classroom
Teachers who think critically have the ability to challenge various societal inequities are encouraged to teach about white privilege in the classroom. Education seems to be the primary way to address these issues and encourage white people to try to understand and acknowledge their complicity around white privilege and the harm it brings to those outside of the dominant group. The ways in which racism, oppression, structural inequity, and ignorance in general affect individuals and families should be included in curriculums that teach students about cultural diversity in the United States....
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