The Legacy of Race

Conversation Begins Over What White Privilege Means in Society Today

White Privilege graffiti on the sidewalk near the Jefferson Davis Memorial in New Orleans’ Mid-City. (Source: Bart Everson via Flickr)

Earlier this month, in response to the ongoing protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel delivered a monologue on his new acceptance of the term “white privilege.”

“I know that a lot of white people bristle when they hear the word ‘privilege,’ as in ‘white privilege,’ because there are millions of white people who did not grow up with money or a good education or a solid family background or maybe even a family at all,” Kimmel said. “To me, white privilege was what Donald Trump had: a wealthy father and a silver spoon in his mouth. It wasn’t what I grew up with, so I rejected it because I didn’t understand what white privilege meant.”

Now, Kimmel said, he understands what it means.

“People who are white, we don’t have to deal with negative assumptions being made about us based on the color of our skin. It rarely happens, if ever. Whereas black people experience that every day,” Kimmel said.

On Thursday, Kimmel announced he would be taking a leave of absence from his show after clips resurfaced of him performing in blackface on Comedy Central in the early 2000s. This is perhaps a sign of how recently he — and American culture at large — have begun to grapple with the concept of “white privilege.”

The term in its current form has existed for decades. Peggy McIntosh, a professor of Women’s Studies at Wellesley College, defined the term in her 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which is still widely considered a fundamental text on the subject.

“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group,” wrote McIntosh, who is white. “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets, which I can count on cashing in each day but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.”

In the essay, McIntosh lists 26 conditions of white privilege, ranging from “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group” to “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 want to live.”

She wrote, “For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.”

Since McIntosh’s essay was published, the term has gained traction.

A 2016 Washington Post opinion column by Christine Emba, addressing race in the context of the 2016 presidential election, said that “people are finally beginning to talk about what (white privilege) means in their own lives. At a time when minorities are becoming more vocal about the ways in which their experiences in America differ from those of their white counterparts, the term might finally be entering the mainstream.”

The Washington Post

Four years later, the concept’s prevalence in mainstream discourse is hard to deny. Marvel superheroes discuss it between punch-ups; white rappers clumsily address it in their music; Kardashians publicly vow to teach their children about it.

But among the American Right, the concept is still met with skepticism, if not outright rejection.

“I don’t buy into the notion of white privilege,” Rush Limbaugh, a right-wing talk radio pundit, said in an appearance on The Breakfast Club earlier this month. “I think that’s a liberal, political construct right along the lines of political correctness. It’s designed to intimidate and get people to shut up and admit they’re guilty of doing things they haven’t done.”

In a 2014 segment on The O’Reilly Factor, titled “The Truth About White Privilege,” then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly rejected the concept along economic lines. “According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for black Americans is 11.4 percent. It’s just over 5 percent for whites, 4.5 percent for Asians,” O’Reilly said. “So, do we have Asian privilege in America?”

The arguments posed by Limbaugh and O’Reilly — that white privilege is a modern falsehood that, for many, is unmoored from any material impact — are largely contradicted by a look at American history in the late 19th century and early 20th century when, post-Emancipation, former slaves entered the white-dominated paid workforce.

In his 1935 book “Black Reconstruction in America,” W.E.B. Du Bois argued that, despite white and black workers sharing the same low wages, white workers were set apart by a “public and psychological wage” denied to black workers.

“(Whites) were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white,” Du Bois wrote. “They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them.

“White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule,” Du Bois wrote.

He suggested that such privilege ultimately had a negative effect on both races: “The result of this was that the wages of both classes could be kept low, the whites fearing to be supplanted by Negro labor, the Negroes always being threatened by the substitution of white labor.”

The continued prevalence of privilege and tension has continued due to “our nation’s historical failure to address the legacy of racial inequality,” Brian Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, wrote in his introduction to Jim Wallis’s “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.

“The presumption of guilt and the racial narrative that created it have significantly shaped every institution in American society, especially our criminal justice system,” Stevenson wrote. “We expect too much of the marginalized and menaced when we ask them to stay calm and quiet in the face of persistent threats and abuse created by our history of racial inequality.”

That systemic injustice, Stevenson wrote, can be addressed only by an honest assessment — by both privileged and unprivileged — of the inequality subtly, and not so subtly, baked into American society. “No historic presidential election, no athlete or entertainer’s success, no silent tolerance of one another is enough to create the truth and reconciliation needed to eliminate racial inequality or the presumption of guilt,” he wrote. “We’re going to have to collectively acknowledge our failures at dealing with racial bias.”

Only then, Christine Emba suggested in her Washington Post column, can a constructive dialogue actually begin.

“A reminder to acknowledge one’s privilege is just a reminder to be aware — aware that you might not be able to fully understand someone else’s experiences, or that the assumptions you were brought up with may be blinding you to certain concerns,” she wrote. “That awareness is key to any sort of civil discussion, about race, class or anything else.”

If you still don’t understand the concept of white privilege, try this video illustrating it from the Christian youth leadership organization Link Year.


Companion Piece: Vestiges of Segregation Remain. America Is Fighting Over Them Today.