Why is 'White privilege' such a contentious term and how we can understand it?

20 Mar 2019

In this blog post, Maisha Islam of the Centre for Student Engagement looks at the term 'White privilege' and argues that tapping into the ways in which we are all relatively privileged can lead to productive discussions around race and religion.

Let's talk about the 'P' word. It seems that the word 'privilege' is being used ever more frequently, specifically the term 'White privilege'. However, in taking this into account, I am aware of the loaded connotations that the term possesses. Yet, privilege, in its simplest terms, denotes advantage to a particular person and/or group. I think we can all agree that privilege is a genuine concept, but affixing the word 'White' to the front of it is contentious.

For example, in this Time magazine article titled Why I'll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege, the writer talks about the phrase 'check your privilege' which has been used (in his perspective) to "strike down opinions without regard for their merits, but rather solely on the basis of the person that voiced them".

The writer explores his familial history that includes his grandparents fleeing Nazi Germany, and who, despite this, were able to go to America and build a new life with no English or money, but through hard work and perseverance. Because of this, the writer does not see his own history as one of privilege, but believes that his privilege comes from the values instilled in him - such as education and faith - that have afforded him the place where he is now.

As a person who often uses the phrase 'White privilege', I am interested to understand why there is such discomfort and backlash around the term. It wasn't until having my own thought-provoking conversations that led me to think about the term 'White privilege' from the other side (being a South-Asian Muslim woman). Particularly from the perspective of White individuals feeling that the term implies that they haven't worked hard for their social positions, and that their success is pinned directly to just their skin colour.

If we look more closely at the term 'White privilege', its presence as a concept took centre stage through a pertinent essay written in 1988 by American feminist writer and scholar, Peggy McIntosh. McIntosh describes how she initially viewed racism through the lens of "individual acts of meanness" and not something that in turn gave her an advantage in life. In interviews, she has described feeling shocked at the assertions of Black women who were stating that White women were oppressive to work with.

Upon deeper reflection, McIntosh took the time to write 50 examples of 'White privilege', all of which describe an "invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions" which has given her unearned privilege in life in comparison to her Black co-workers and friends. McIntosh's list is extremely comprehensive, ranging from "I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented" to more eye-opening statements such as "If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race".

Indeed, McIntosh's piece still reads incredibly powerful, as I am sure it did in 1988. However, it wasn't until she'd felt the effects of 'male privilege' - encountering men who had acknowledged the ways in which women can be disadvantaged, whilst ignoring the ways in which they were over-privileged - that she could conceptualise her own 'White privilege'.

In this regard, it is understandable why the term 'White privilege' can seem alienating. First, I do not deny that hard work can lead to success and so those who are successful in life may resent assertions that their success has been handed to them on a plate.

Second, I can imagine the difficulty of being told that you are privileged, if you do not perceive that to be the case. For example, a White working class individual facing financial hardship will find it difficult to see themselves as privileged through being White, because of the difficulties they are currently facing.

In acknowledging this discord, I believe the way to move forward when discussing concepts like 'White privilege' is to use a confidence shaking and confidence building process as described in this article by Ann Curry-Stevens. Firstly, in order to recognise privilege, we must acknowledge how we all suffer in life. In doing so, we can use these feelings of knowing what it is like to be oppressed to empathise with those who face it too, just in ways different to ours.

For example, there may have been a time in your life when you felt like an outsider in a social situation for some reason, for example because you were older or the only female or male present. If you acknowledge that feeling, you can then apply these feelings to your Black, Asian or minority ethnic counterpart who feels this perhaps more strongly and frequently in life. In this way you are able to identify your relative privilege.

I am not saying that we need to be less explicit when discussing the concept of White privilege, as the examples I have provided are very much micro-ways in which being White in society affords you unearned privileges.

Instead, tapping into the ways in which we are all relatively privileged and oppressed can lead to more productive discussions and reifications of terms like 'White privilege' without the concept seeming so far-fetched to those who benefit from it.

Read Maisha's previous blog posts on race and religion here, here and here.

Press Office  |  +44 (0) 1962 827678  |  press@winchester.ac.uk  |  www.twitter.com/_UoWNews

Back to media centre