White privilege – An example of exactly how not to think about racial inequality.


Over the last few hundred years, Western liberalism has enjoyed a long series of well-deserved moral victories over the evils of  slavery, sexism, racism, ableism, ethnic bigotry, religious prejudice, anti-LGBT bigotry, and a host of other social ills.  All of these battles were fought to advance the principle that every person deserves an equal opportunity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And so Western liberals found themselves repeatedly fighting for the rights of the downtrodden, the minorities, the oppressed.  These victories were hard fought and rife with misery, to be sure, but we in the West undoubtedly live in a better world today due to the efforts of our liberal forebears.  And there are many more battles to fight – more work to be done.  Remnants of the old prejudices and bigotries still influence many people to this day, though it is far less socially acceptable than it once was*.

Despite these many victories, I’ve begun to notice a faction within the Western political left (a bastion of western liberalism  since the latter part of the civil rights movement) that has begun to see the world through what might be called “oppression-tinted” lenses.  To many on the western political left, we continue to live in a bigotry smorgasbord of sorts.  And while I strongly identify with the desire to support the downtrodden and oppressed, I must also recognize that not everything can be reduced down to a binary description of oppressors and the oppressed.  Being a big fan of John Stuart Mill’s idea that a person who knows only their own side of a case knows little even of that**, I will do my best to summarize the opposing side’s arguments in a way they would accept before criticizing those arguments.  In my first post of this series, I’ll be discussing the concept of “privilege.”


A privilege is generally understood as a right or benefit given to one person or group, but not to another person or group.  In teaching their children, for example, parents use privileges all the time.  A child might be given regular healthy food for dinner, for example, but have to earn the privilege of getting dessert by behaving well or doing homework/chores.  In this case, all of the children are treated equally with respect to receiving the necessary basics (healthy food), but some might receive the privilege of dessert based upon the quality of their behavior.

But I don’t think that modern leftists are really referring to this type of privilege.  Instead, they describe a wide range of advantages given to some – but not others- due to systemic inequalities in the legal and social arena.  They sort these categories of privilege into things like white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, Christian privilege, cis-gender privilege, and many others.  They argue that our society is structured to provide these privileges in a systematic fashion to only certain groups.  To return to the parenting analogy above, many modern leftists seem to be arguing that some children are receiving the necessary basics (healthy food) as the default while others must earn the healthy food – and let’s not even get into desserts.  And many modern leftists encourage those benefitting from privilege to “check” their privilege.  The intent here is to get someone to understand how they benefit from their privileges and how the lack of those privileges affect others.  You can even check your own privilege here.


In this short piece, I won’t have time to go into every version of privilege on offer.  So I’ll instead talk about the most common privilege mentioned – white privilege – and discuss implications from there.  In her influential piece “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“, Peggy McIntosh lists 50 privileges that she thinks she is afforded due – primarily – to her white skin.  I doubt McIntosh would claim that her list is exhaustive, but since it is nevertheless quite extensive I’ve reproduced it here in the below three columns:

  • I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  • I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  • I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
  • I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  • I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for  advancement than to jeopardize mine.
  • I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  • If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
  • I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
  • If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
  • I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
  • I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
  • I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
  • Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  • I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  • I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fi t school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
  • I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
  • I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  • 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.
  • I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.
  • I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
  • I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
  • If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
  • I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps,  professionally.
  • I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
  • I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
  • I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  • I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
  • If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
  • I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
  • I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
  • I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
  • My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.
  • I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.
  • I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.


You may be wondering why the left column has so many items listed and so few are listed in the middle and right columns.  That is because I recognized some common themes in the items and sorted them by column accordingly.  The column on the left can be thought of as the “healthy food” column.  I think it’s entirely fair to say that – in an ideal society – everyone should have these.  Race should be completely irrelevant to whether a person experiences the items in the left column.  No one should need to earn these.  Like healthcare in the US, having them should be the default as they are (largely) a prerequisite for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The middle column might be thought of as the “dessert” column, in that they shouldn’t be the default (or available at all, really).  In an ideal society, no one’s race should give them extra credibility, or an increased chance at getting accepted at University, or give them an excuse to be ignorant of other cultures.  (I won’t get into the topic of affirmative action at the moment, but suffice to say I can see legitimate concerns on both sides.)

The right column contains items that I was genuinely confused by.  I’m not sure that it’s just because they’re worded poorly or if they’re just really situational.  For example, as a Caucasian I shouldn’t expect to see members of my race widely represented on the television if I move to Kenya, Mexico, or South Korea.  Academic departments should focus on the published work relevant to their disciplines (and related disciplines) rather than the race of those doing the work.  Being able to avoid people who I’ve been trained to mistrust (or who have been trained to mistrust me) isn’t necessarily a good thing.  Maybe my training was based on an unwarranted stereotype or prejudice?  And the same could be said about those who mistrust me.  Lastly, I’m not confident that anyone should be able to arrange to be protected from the negative consequences of choosing to ignore minority perspectives.

The most interesting thing about the above table to me is that the items are disproportionately “healthy food” items.  Which, if we grant McIntosh’s premise that white people are receiving a disproportion number of benefits in our society, means that the majority of McIntosh’s so-called “privileges” of being white are actually just necessities that most white people are appropriately receiving – but most racial minorities aren’t.  In an ideal world, we would expect everyone to have these.  Which makes them not really “privileges” at all.

So I would suggest that the way forward isn’t to alienate potential white allies by calling them out for having what everyone should have (e.g. “How dare you have the privilege of healthy food to eat!  Check your privilege!”).  It’s to ensure that everyone is, in fact, getting what they need.  From McIntosh’s list, it seems that white people are already largely where they should be in terms of having access to necessities.***  The important work is in bringing other racial minorities up to that same level.  That is where our outrage, our passion, and our efforts should be focused.

And the next time someone suggests the presence of some form of inappropriate privilege, think critically about it.  Are they talking about some benefit that is being unfairly given to someone on an arbitrary basis? (e.g. race, religion, sex, gender, disability, etc…)  If so, this “privilege” may well be something worth our concern.  On the other hand, are they really just using “privilege” to talk about something more like healthy food?  If that’s the case, then perhaps it’s time to delve a bit deeper with that person and help them explore the unhelpful consequences of this idea.



*Imagine the response you’d receive today, versus 100 years ago, if you spoke in favor of racial apartheid in, say, a job interview.


*** Though anyone who has spent any time amongst poor white people will rightly call this into question as well.