Dictionary definition: N/A
Antiracist definition: a set of unearned advantages that whites experience relative to non-whites, by virtue of their skin color
The term ‘white privilege‘ was popularized by Peggy McIntosh in her seminal 1989 paper “Unpacking the Knapsack.” She defined it 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.” (McIntosh, Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, 1989, pp. 10-12). Under ‘white privilege’, McIntosh includes items like:
“1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
10. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
19. 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.
23. I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
26. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more less match my skin.”
“‘White privilege‘ refers to the myriad of social advantages, benefits, and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race. Imagine a black man and a white man, equally qualified, interviewing for the same position in a business. The interviewer is white. The white candidate may feel more at ease with the interviewer because of the social connections he enjoys as a member of the same group… This example becomes especially telling when one considers that most corporate positions of power, despite token inroads, are still in the hands of whites.” – Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, p. 89-90
“A group of white teenage boys donned their MAGA hats — which are overt and intentional symbols of bigotry, racism and ignorance — attended a right-wing Christian rally aimed at denying women their reproductive rights, then happened upon a group of “Black Israelite” cartoon bigots, and in retaliation decided to harass and insult a Native American by yelling “war whoops” and making “tomahawk chop” gestures. They did so because white privilege had trained them from birth that they would likely be able to act in such a way without consequences.” – Chauncey DeVega, “White victimology, white privilege and the Covington Catholic rules of race,” Salon, 1/25/2019
If we define the term carefully, ‘white privilege’ is an empirically observable phenomenon. For example, it is uncontroversial that white men are overrepresented in courses on U.S. history, or that blacks experience mistreatment because of their race, or that it is difficult to buy Band-Aids that match darker skin. Moreover, carefully controlled experiments show that blacks do still experience racial discrimination in hiring, in public accommodation, etc… All of these phenomena are “unearned advantages experienced by whites” that therefore qualify as ‘white privilege.’
One major mistake that conservatives often make is confusing relative privilege with absolute privilege. A common response to statements about ‘white privilege’ is the retort that many whites are poor, uneducated, and otherwise disadvantaged. While that observation is certainly true, it misses the point of ‘white privilege,’ which does not claim that all whites are privileged over all people of color in some absolute sense. Instead, the claim being made by educators like McIntosh is only that a white person will enjoy certain advantages over a non-white person all other things being equal. (To be fair, some antiracists do confuse absolute privilege with relative privilege.)
Given this careful definition of white privilege, I think the concept itself can be helpful. Reflecting on ‘white privilege’ can make us aware of how blacks and other people of color can feel alienated from the majority culture and how they are adversely affected by circumstances that are largely invisible to whites.
The biggest conceptual shortcoming of ‘white privilege’ is its failure to acknowledge the importance of context in shaping what is experienced as privilege. Attributes that confer ‘privilege’ in one social context may confer disadvantage in another. For example, being an evangelical Christian might confer advantages in a rural Southern town, but will confer distinct disadvantages as a job candidate at a progressive university. Speaking about ‘white privilege’ as if being white is a universal advantage in all circumstances and in all social locations is misleading. In certain situations, being white or male or Christian or heterosexual can be a liability rather than an asset.
Another major problem with ‘white privilege’ is that it badly conflates moral and non-moral categories. If we consider the items on McIntosh’s list, we see “the absence of dark-hued Band-aids” listed alongside “being mistreated because of racism.” These phenomena are not morally equivalent. In a perfectly moral world, racism would not exist, but it might be just as hard to find Band-Aids that match dark skin in a predominantly white-skinned society.
Finally, the biggest dangers of ‘white privilege’ come not from the term itself but from the ideology of critical theory, which often underlies it. Critical theory divides the world into ‘oppressed’ and ‘privileged’ groups. Among other things, it insists that oppressed people have special access to truth that is unavailable to privileged people. Consequently, privileged people must never question or challenge the statements of oppressed people. When ‘white privilege’ is employed to underwrite such an epistemology, it must be forthrightly rejected. Social location does not provide anyone with infallible access to the truth and belief that it does is a species of the genetic fallacy. While social location will shape our beliefs, all claims must be open to the scrutiny of reason and objective evidence.
If we define ‘white privilege’ carefully and use it descriptively rather than prescriptively, it is not problematic. However, we should avoid prescriptive claims like “we should dismantle all systems which perpetuate ‘white privilege'” given that some (but not all) forms of ‘white privilege’ are the morally-neutral result of living in a society which has white majority. Finally, we should reject the ideology of critical theory for multiple reasons, not least of which is its erroneous epistemology.