White privilege refers to a certain set of rights, advantages, exemptions, or immunities available primarily to White persons of European ancestry. The degree to which such privilege is available to be enjoyed may depend on the particular government’s social, cultural, political, and economic context in operation at the time. Therefore, White privilege is sensitive to time and location. For example, contemporary American society is rooted in a historical system of legalized discrimination against people of color. Skin color and country of origin were once used to determine one’s right to property (both material and intellectual) ownership and social, political, and economic mobility. In fact, Africans brought to America as chattel slaves were counted as property and were written into the U.S. Constitution as three-fifths human.
Some scholars have even referred to “Whiteness” as property. All people were categorized according to a color-coded classification system, which developed into a hierarchy of social positions ranging from White at the top to Black at the bottom. In addition, observed phenotypic characteristics became the basis upon which expectations of behavior and treatment were determined. The amount of potential reward or benefit available to individuals relied heavily on the appearance of Whiteness and the ability to reflect behaviors and values associated with Whiteness.
Although such legalized discrimination is now unconstitutional, the vestiges of historical racism, prejudice, and bias linger throughout American society. White supremacy is the psychological and material result of centuries of institutionalized White dominance over the minds, bodies, land, and resources of people of color. White privilege is thus the socioeconomic legacy of White ancestors to their White children and is maintained via social, political, and economic institutions and arrangements whose rules ensure Whiteness as the primary qualification for access. Sometimes, the liberal rhetoric of western democratic societies that purport freedom, justice, and equality for all regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, creed, ancestry, and other micro cultural markers can mask the ways in which White privilege is alleged to work in practice in everyday life.
If one accepts the notion that Whiteness sets the standard for moral, intellectual, and sociocultural behavior, then non-Whites and “others” are placed in the precarious position of always having to prove their worth and value according to Whiteness. A corollary relationship is found between males and females. Male dominated societies are said to confer privilege upon men, placing women in the insecure position of having their fates determined by men who freely judge women’s worth and value according to such things as sex appeal or ability to bear children. Evidence that women are paid differently for comparable jobs, are underrepresented in higher level political and business positions, and suffer higher rates of sexual assault than men is used to indicate the reality of male privilege. Females seeking success in male-dominated endeavors may have to strategically reconcile presentation of their masculine and feminine personas.
Similarly, evidence indicating the existence of White privilege can either persuade skeptics or simply describe how it manifests itself in the social, political, and economic spheres. One of the most powerful and privileged bodies of the executive branch of the U.S. government, the U.S. Senate, has 100 senators, of whom 99 are White. More than 97 percent of the chief executive officers of America’s corporate businesses are White males. Black and Brown (Latino) males constitute approximately 13 percent of the general population and more than 65 percent of the American prison population. The three largest public school districts in the country (New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago) are overwhelmingly attended by children of color and poor children. All three struggle to retain and graduate about one half of the students from the twelfth grade. Suggested Bibliography: can provide additional critical and historical analysis of the theoretical and conceptual issues related to White privilege. They can also give further insight into the very practical and seemingly trivial ways that White privilege can affect the everyday lives of White people and people of color.
- Allen, T. (1975). “They would have destroyed me”: Slavery and the origins of racism. Radical America, 9(3), 40–63.
- Almauger, T. (1994). Racial fault lines: The historical origins of White supremacy in California. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Bell, D. (2000). Race, racism and American law (4th ed.). Boston: Little, Brown.
- Chubbuck, S. M. (2004). Whiteness enacted, Whiteness disrupted: The complexity of personal congruence. American Educational Research Journal, 41, 301–333.
- Crenshaw, K., Gotanda, N., Peller, G., & Thomas, K. (Eds.). (1995). Critical race theory: The key writings that formed the movement. New York: The New Press.
- Higginbotham, A. L., Jr. (1980). In the matter of color: Race & the American legal process: The colonial period. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Martinas, S. (1998). Shinin’ the light on White privilege.
- San Francisco: Challenging White Supremacy Workshop. McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women’s studies. Retrieved from http://www.lamission.edu/sociology/mekelburg/SOC2%5CWhite_Privilege_handout.pdf
- Smedley, A. (1999). Race in North America: Origin and evolution of a worldview. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- CTER: http://cterfile.ed.uiuc.edu/index.php/White_privilege
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