White privilege: The root of racism

As of July 2016, white Americans have been the racial majority in the U.S. But what many white Americans have a hard time recognizing is that “racial majority” and “superior race” are in no way synonymous.

A few months ago, I came across a paper written by Peggy McIntosh, an American feminist and anti-racism activist raised in New Jersey. The paper was called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” in which McIntosh defines privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” When I first read this paper, I did not expect that it would change the way I live my life.

Back in September, history class was nothing new (literally). I was learning the same things I had for years: which white men “built” America, which white men came into and out of power, which white men created the first government, which white men lead armies into battle, which white women were sitting quietly by their sides, you get it. Only, back in September, I would not have put the word “white” in all of those sentences. And I’m sure a lot of the people reading this would not have either.

And why is that? For the same reason that I don’t think twice about stopping at a gas station to buy a bag of chips. The same reason others praise me when I succeed without a single reference to my race. The same reason I do not immediately fear for my life when stopped by a police officer. Because back in September, the privilege I so clearly held was invisible to me.

As white people, we were born with an unearned life advantage. No matter how hard people of color work, they will likely never have the same privileges we have, privileges that we have done nothing to deserve.

For hundreds of years, this has been what has divided not only our country, but the entire world, and this is what perpetuates our unjust society every day. The unacknowledged privilege white people hold all over the world is what continues to put people of color at a constant disadvantage, not the other way around.

In her paper, McIntosh talks about this exact idea. She explains how she believes she was raised to view racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, rather than seeing it’s opposite, white privilege, as something that puts her at an advantage. Until white people recognize these unearned advantages and work to reject them, the damaged societal structure we live in will have no chance of ever reaching true equality.

There is no one solution to racism, there is no “quick fix” to this problem. It is a battle that has been fought for thousands of years and likely will not end anytime soon. Yet with the “narrow-minded” slowly fading from our society and so many progressive minds being introduced, the time for change has never been more ideal.

The more people who begin to recognize and acknowledge this “invisible privilege,” the more progress will be made. By rejecting unearned advantages and instead capitalizing on our earned ones, we can slowly begin to break down the social hierarchy that has put white people in power since the birth of our country.

Once white people recognize they are the ones who hold the power and that it is up to them to get rid of it, our country can begin to end our “War on Racism.” Because if one thing is true, it is that without white privilege, colored disadvantage does not exist.

Sources: White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh 

3 thoughts on “White privilege: The root of racism

  1. What you are learning in high school is how the United States of America was founded. You have learned what motivated the people who came here to come here, what they did after coming here, and what they did both right and wrong in the creation of this country. Part of what many did wrong here was that they were racist; incidentally, they were white. Such concepts were common in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century; to understand where slaves — human chattel — came from, you must understand the history of Muslim expansion across Africa — a topic for World History, which is also taught in high school.

    If you think that “white privilege” is the root of racism, then you do not understand racism itself, for each diverse group across the world considers itself the superior, and all others the inferior. Such is an innate feature of every culture — the culture exalts itself as the best solution for a society. That’s why there are so many gang fights between Hispanics and blacks in various high schools across our Nation; the adherents come from honor cultures where insults are to be answered by violence. They are not alone in this; the Scots, who gave to the Southern whites their culture of honor, were the same. If you think that “white privilege” is the root of our problems in general, you have no understanding of the disruptive nature of technology; had the Native Americans been the technologically superior group, they certainly would have used that technology to conquer others, just as the Europeans did. We would now be talking about a different kind of privilege, for the Native Americans were just as warlike as the Europeans. War certainly is not a European invention, just as slavery was not.

    What you learned is that no other country fought a Civil War rooted in slavery; no other country lost almost 700,000 men (almost 1/10th of all the men in the country at the time) in a fight about slavery.

    You rail against an unjust society, yet you do not understand that our society, with all of its warts, is the most just society on the face of the planet today. Here, we disallow discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or national origin; we were the first nation on earth to enshrine that concept into law. That we imperfectly carry out what is in our laws is not the fault of those who made the laws, but is the fault of human failings — failings that we constantly try to make right — even going so far as to discriminate against those we perceive as having privilege — sometimes with disastrous results. When you curtail personal liberty, in the name of some higher goal, you will find many who come to despise your higher goal, because it is synonymous with suppression of liberty. Consider for example the concept that a private party should serve all regardless of race, creed, or national origin. We in the Constitution state that our Government must do this, but when we force private parties to do the same, we violate one of the strictures of our Constitution which was born of the Civil War — the prohibition against involuntary servitude. Oh, it’s for a very good reason, one might say, but once that gate has been opened to violation, then there are any number of ways in which it can be held open and its width increased. The Constitution exists primarily to restrict the acts of Government and governments; it does not exist to curtail the rights of individuals. In particular, it does not exist to curtail a freedom of association. It might refuse to enshrine into property a racial exclusion, but it cannot, without reducing personal liberty, force private parties to sell or buy from those they do not wish to buy.

    Those who stood by Rosa Parks used this basic right to boycott the bus line in Montgomery, AL until the laws discriminating against blacks were purged from the books and they were allowed to sit anywhere they wanted on the bus. They used the power of the purse — not the power of government — to change things. They carpooled, walked, rode bicycles — they threatened to impoverish the bus company which was discriminating against them. Even had the Supreme Court not ruled against discriminatory laws on the books in Alabama, the fact that 70% of the passengers were black would have caused the change anyway. That was the case with the Woolworths sit-in, in which used the economy, not legal findings, to integrate restaurants across the nation. The Woolworths where the sit-ins had occurred integrated its lunch counters shortly after the students performing the sit-ins went on vacation and allowed their own black employees the right to eat at the counters from which they’d previously been barred. The power of the pocketbook to effect integration can certainly be underestimated. But should laws be used to force equality by weighting the scales differently?

    If you want to understand why there are so many failing public schools in the inner city, know that failing teachers are among the reasons. When educators decided that race and ethnicity identical to the students is essential to a proper education, and they made decisions to give the “role models” they identified advantage in spite of aptitude, they doomed generations of students to an inferior education when those who are inept were gated into teaching positions. I saw one third of a class of elementary school teachers given a “pass” when they deserved a “fail” in a course entitled “Mathematics for Elementary School Teachers”. These students had no mathematical aptitude, and might have made very good history or English teachers in high school, but they were performing coursework preparatory to an elementary school teaching credential, and thus were not right for the job, for an elementary school teacher must be competent in all disciplines, not just one or two. But the person who ordered them passed was concerned about losing one third of his elementary school class — a class he had personally chosen on the basis of color of skin. How did I know this, when I am white? A: He turned me down for the program these people were in — the Teachers Corps — and he did so based on the color of my skin. I, who was to be the teaching assistant for a class on teaching the teaching of mathematics to elementary school teachers was not good enough for his program, based on the color of my skin. So what kind of privilege did this professor exercise in choosing people not by aptitude but by race and ethnicity? Certainly not “white privilege” for he was not white. So how many wrongs go into making a right? And, when the equation is balanced, is it truly balanced, or is such balance a lie? How many generations of black children were taught mathematics badly so that social justice could be attained?

    When 60% of white voters surveyed think THEY are discriminated against, that’s an interesting finding. It says that very few think this society is an equal one, but why isn’t it? Minorities don’t think it’s equal. Whites don’t either. Each sees “privilege” extending to others. Everyone feels discriminated against. We have had progressive policies in place to remedy discrimination for over fifty years, and have they? What draconian measures will fix the problem? Perhaps if Government really did treat everyone equally, we would not have this issue, but Government has fallen prey to the legacy of Jim Crow turned about — it cannot understand that it needs to leave well enough alone and itself merely be the paragon of equality in hiring, in the application of its laws, and let people associate as they wish

  2. I am sorry you seem to have had an unfortunate experience with your teacher training program. Good teachers are essential, and no one should be discouraged from from pursuing that calling if they are capable of becoming a competent professional educator.

    This experience seems to have left you with some seriously misguided ideas about how our society treats individuals based on skin color, ethnicity, and other characteristics. Mailed wrote movingly about becoming aware of just how much that she took for granted about how she was treated is in fact different than someone with different pigmentation is treated.

    White privilege is an undeniable fact in our society, and we must change that if we are ever to have “liberty and justice for all”. How some other theoretical arrangement of privilege might exist in a different society is utterly irrelevant.

    We cannot solve this problem by pretending it doesn’t exist. We cannot say that we have eliminated the most blatantly discriminatory laws and then ignore the miriad ways that we continue to provide unequal opportunities.

    As an individual, you are free to associate, or not, with whoever you choose. As a business given the benefits of legal protection, you must serve everyone equally. You cannot refuse to serve categories of people that you might individually choose not to associate with.

    While we as a society have implemented some programs designed to mitigate the legacy of injustice and denial of equal access to societal rights, we are a long, long way from creating a level playing field. We will only get there if we acknowledge and accept our status inequality, as Maile has has tried to do. Proposing that we just decide that the problem shouldn’t exist, so we should just ignore it, as you argue, won’t get us there.

  3. Yes White privilege is alive and well like it or not. I listen to a blog talk radio show “Conversations Of A Sistah” and last night she touch deeply on the truth of the subject matter. Plain and simple.

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