Although the concept of white privilege has been part of the sociological toolkit for at least 30 years, it continues to exert a strong effect on U.S. society. If whiteness is considered the norm or "unmarked" status in terms of race and all other racial identities are "marked" in contrast,...
Although the concept of white privilege has been part of the sociological toolkit for at least 30 years, it continues to exert a strong effect on U.S. society. If whiteness is considered the norm or "unmarked" status in terms of race and all other racial identities are "marked" in contrast, then by extension difference is often portrayed as "abnormal." Suggestions of change to the status quo are then likely to be seen as benefitting only "minorities" or special interests rather than contributing to the general good.
The workings of white privilege extend back to the womb, as prenatal care differs markedly for pregnant women of different races, and carry through the course of one's life into elderly care. The reality of socio-economic distance between different racial groups, however, is just one element of white privilege. The ideologies of racial superiority, including an unwillingness to acknowledge or discuss the underlying importance of race in the historical and contemporary structure of U.S. society—often called "color blindness"—also serve to perpetuate the hegemony of whiteness.
In one of the most influential formulations of the white privilege concept, three decades ago Peggy McIntosh, a white sociologist, referred to it as an "invisible knapsack"—something that a person carries around at all times, full of weighty stuff, but is unaware of. She referred to this stuff as
unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious.
Issues of personal safety, securing employment, and acquiring housing are among the areas in which that "cashing in" occurs. In recent years, attention has also increased to the incidence of racialized difference in apparently trivial aspects of daily life. An example is a manager at a Starbucks calling the police to arrest African Americans but not Caucasians who did not make a purchase. Without the publicizing of such cases, whites would likely not regard hanging out in a coffee shop as radicalized privilege.
Calling attention to isolated incidents and locating them within systemic patterns is one important step in increasing awareness and, in turn, taking steps to challenge the invisibility of which McIntosh wrote. Instituting employee training is another important component. Education at all levels, from an early age through higher education is equally crucial. It is important in public schools where the teacher is likely to be white even in a majority minority student body. As well, social media campaigns can help keep the issues from fading.