White privilege is the advantage possessed by a white person in a racialised society, which they may experience without being aware of it.
We often see the phrase being floated about in the discussions about race and it can feel like an attack – the word ‘privilege’ seems to suggest an absence of struggle.
But just because you have privilege in certain areas, doesn’t mean life is all smooth sailing. For example, many of us are able-bodied or heterosexual – these factors provide privilege as they protect us from certain forms of discrimination, but they don’t guarantee a life without judgement and prejudice. To have privilege just means you have some built-in advantages that others do not.
Dr. Remi Joseph-Salisbury, from the University of Manchester said: ‘White privilege refers to the ways in which people racialised as white experience advantages over non-white people. These privileges are not random, but are the consequence of the systemic white supremacy that underpins our society.’
No matter their personal circumstances, white people will experience some privileges that their people of colour will not. For example, white working-class groups are more likely to move out of poverty than non-white working-class groups.
Dr. Joseph-Salisbury also cites activist Peggy McIntosh who argued in her seminal essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack, that white privilege means being able to enter shops without being racially profiled and followed by security.
It means having school teachers that look like you and having your race and ethnicity represented in (positive ways) in your school curriculums. Ranging from the tiny (invisible) examples to the more obvious, white privilege is cumulative and ubiquitous.
This definition is echoed by journalist and author Dr Myriam Francois, who tells us: ‘White privilege is norms and structures rooted and forged in white supremacy which sustain unequal hierarchies in favour of those racialised as white’.
Acknowledging white privilege can be an opportunity for reflection.
White privilege exists and to be able to become anti-racist, these privileges must be recognised.
What does white privilege look like?
Because white privilege can be subtle and hard to call out, it can go unchallenged, and it’s easy for people to be complacent or willfully blind to their advantageous position in society.
But some white people have noticed how and why white privilege plays a part in their lives, and here are the moments they realised the advantage they have over others:
‘In my teens, I saw first hand the way the police treated me differently to my friends. My best friend is a dark-skinned Nigerian guy. We went to the same school, worked in the same job, wore the same style of clothing, listened to the same music.
‘But he’s been stopped and searched by police more times in one week than I have in my whole life. I also saw the way the police spoke to him in comparison to me and what I was allowed to get away with. It was then that it really clicked and became apparent.
‘I realised I had white privilege in a shop with my black boyfriend when he told me off for taking things in and out of my bag. He would never open his bag in a shop in case he was accused of theft. Even now at the age of 55, he takes a receipt every time he shops at Sainsbury’s where I say no thanks (to save the planet!).’
‘I had done a couple of guest lectures at a university in Ghana. Without having finished my PhD I was offered £35,000 to take over as the senior lecture, ahead of the much more experienced Ghanaian academics who already worked there. I would have been replacing another white academic.
‘The “interview” was a joke – the provost of the university also white, asked me a couple of questions then asked me what salary I’d like.
‘He also skipped me in the queue ahead of Ghanaian students waiting outside his office to talk. The whole thing was very uncomfortable. When I said no to the role, it was offered to my colleague, also white. ‘
‘At LAX there were only two guys screening loads of arrivals and this one guy was mad, he yelled at an elderly Indian couple because they couldn’t understand his accent.
‘When I got to the desk, in my sweetest British girl accent I said “hello sir how are you today?” He totally changed – all the red in his face disappeared, he relaxed and totally calmed down.’
‘At secondary school, POC were definitely the minority with only one black and one Asian family.
‘POC were 100% treated differently. They had to fight harder to be heard.
‘On several occasions when a black boy whose family were from Africa walked in the classroom the teacher would play the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight to taunt him, with classmates joining in the racist bullying.
‘I was aware from a young age that my life may be easier because of the colour of my skin and I’ve never been comfortable with that.’
‘I don’t know if it was the first time, but the earliest I can strongly remember is when I was 11 or 12 and got dreadlocks. I would go into stores and notice clerks constantly watching me and following me around, and realized it was literally because I had a hairstyle associated with black folks.’
What should you do with your white privilege?
The biggest and most important thing you can do is be aware of it.
When you notice that you, a colleague, a loved one is being treated more favourably than a person of colour, vocalise it.
Author and researcher Dr Myriam says we should move beyond thinking about white privilege to think about ‘white complicity’, which recognises the responsibility of people racialised as white to challenge the system that privileges them.
She says it starts with ‘recognising your privilege – white or otherwise (we all have some form of privilege – pretty, male, able-bodied, European, London, middle-class, etc).
‘By making whiteness more visible, you highlight the unequal systems created not by race – which is a construction – but by the system of power it was designed to uphold.
‘This conversation is ultimately about equality and fairness – being aware of your privilege is recognising where some of your attributes are unfairly providing you with an advantage and then both rejecting the parameters of advantage and using your (limited) power to advocate for different parameters.’
If someone feels you have privilege over them, listen to the claim – to understand, not to retaliate.