White Privilege

White privilege is the concept that European Americans benefit from specific advantages—denied to people of color—solely because of their nonminority status. These are unearned benefits derived not from merit, and these benefits are often taken for granted, if even acknowledged at all. White privilege generally refers to White, male, Anglo-Saxon, middle to upper class, heterosexual, able-bodied individuals.

The concept of White privilege has been evident in discussions of prejudice for some time, but Peg McIntosh articulated it in a way that was able to reach European American counseling students and scholars of all backgrounds. McIntosh, a feminist author writing in the area of male privilege, began to speculate, not about how she was oppressed as a woman, but whether she herself was privileged due to her status as a White person. She used the analogy of a backpack filled with unearned privileges that White persons are given at birth. Her work was seminal and formed much of the subsequent discussions on this topic.

White privilege is best understood when examined in the context of power and oppression. Individuals as well as groups of people can be the victims of classism, sexism, racism, and other forms of oppression. Multicultural competency, a cornerstone of the contemporary counseling paradigm, involves integrating this understanding into practice. However, to achieve this end, it is important for researchers and practitioners to grasp a firm understanding of the dynamics of oppression and its underlying structural components.

Oppression denotes a feeling of being weighed down and kept down by an unnecessary or unjust use of power: Oppression exists symbiotically with power. For oppression to be present, there has to be a stratified system of power differential among people in a society. That is, one person or one group needs to be on top or in a position of power, while another person or group of people is subjugated or kept in a position without power, or at least in a position without as much power as the other group. An integral aspect in the examination of the dynamics of oppression and White privilege is the often overlooked notion that people benefit from oppression without even realizing they are doing so. Many privileged members of the group with power in society do not want to think that they are living their lives in a manner that is oppressing anyone, yet every day they directly and indirectly benefit from the dynamics of oppression.

These dynamics of oppression continue to exist in society because it is difficult to enact systemic change when people are comfortable where they are in their current state of existence. The transaction of empowerment requires a power reallocation; that is, for change to occur, the people with privilege have to surrender some degree of their power. Historically, examinations of oppression have focused on the victims. However, to best understand White privilege, there needs to be an honest and thorough examination of the people who are benefiting from this power, with an emphasis on how it is highly advantageous for them to maintain their power and privilege.

Tripartite Model

The transformation of this definition of racism can be conceptualized by James Jones’s tripartite model of contemporary racism, and this model is quite helpful in illustrating the manifestations of White privilege in society. Three levels of racism (i.e., individual, institutional, cultural) comprise this model. The first level, individual racism, can be defined as any action or attitude—conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional—that subordinates a person or group because of their race. While hate crimes and other highly visible overt acts fall into this category, individual racism also includes the beliefs and behaviors of well-intentioned people who are unaware that their attitudes and actions may oppress people of color.

The second level, institutional racism, resides in the organizations and institutions of society. Institutional racism is defined as any organizational practice or policy in business, government, schools, churches, courts, and law enforcement agencies that is enacted to unfairly subjugate persons of color, while allowing other groups to profit from these policies and procedures. The third level of racism in the tripartite model is cultural racism, which is the individual and institutional expression of the superiority of one group’s cultural heritage over that of another. Cultural racism can be conceptualized as the superordinate umbrella that influences and permits both the levels of individual and institutional racism to exist and flourish.

Evidenced in each level of this model of contemporary racism, the manifestations of White privilege are often subtle, and their hegemonic nature makes them all the more powerful—and insidious. Rarely (if ever) contested, these seemingly invisible incidents of privilege allow White persons to make unlimited withdrawals from the White Privilege bank account without ever having to make deposits or even balance the checkbook.

Individual Level

White privilege at the individual level manifests itself in many forms. It may be a subtle microaggression, perhaps even an unintentional slight, which benefits a White person at the expense of a person of color. One example, from the perspective of a person of color, is the act of a White person being waited upon first even though he or she has come to the counter last.

If the White waiter takes the opportunity in an ambiguous situation to choose to wait on this White customer before the customer of color, it is difficult to discern intentionality. Perhaps the waiter legitimately didn’t see the Black person enter first. Perhaps the waiter was having a bad day. Perhaps the waiter doesn’t like Black people or thinks that White patrons tip better. On the other hand, if a White patron were to see another late-arriving patron waited upon first, the race-based explanation would most likely not occur to him.

However, sifting through these explanations causes a person of color to expend cognitive energy on the distinct possibility that the waiter chose to disregard societal conventions of “first come, first serve” in favor of extending an unearned privilege to a White person because of their shared racial group membership.

A microaggression is a subtle insult or small act of racism. A microaggression, such as the one in the previously mentioned example, can cause a person of color to mentally rehearse defensive scripts and actions. If the instance is brought up to a friend, colleague, or perhaps even the waiter, a person of color has to prepare to verbally defend himself against the anticipated minimalization of the experience (e.g., “You’re being too sensitive and reading too much into it”). Or the person may have to defend against the flat out denial of such a race-based explanation (e.g., “The ’60s are over. People don’t think like that any more”). Alternately, the person of color may rehearse a defen-sive script wherein he directly confronts the waiter about the slight, thus taking the chance that he incorrectly attributed a racially based explanation (e.g., the waiter doesn’t like Black people) when a potentially benign explanation was more accurate (e.g., the waiter didn’t see the Black person come in first).

Other examples can be seen throughout the culture of the United States. These examples include store detectives specifically following people of color when they enter a store because the store detectives believe people of color shoplift more than White people; automatic denial of loans for automobiles or homes for people of color; or even realtors who do not show homes to people of color that are in predominantly White neighborhoods. Examples such as these contribute to the physiological and psychological distress that people feel. Lack of trust underlies the anxiety and stress people may feel, and anxiety and stress contribute to increased high blood pressure, increased heart disease, and an increase in chronic health problems.

Scenarios like these can cause unnecessary stress and duress for a person of color, whether it is an actual incident occurring or just the prospect that such a situation may occur. This race-related stress can be defined as the race-related transactions between individuals or groups and the environment that emerge from the dynamics of racism. Race-related stress can tax or exceed existing individual and collective resources or threaten well-being. Exposure to race-related stress can have psychological and physiological consequences to a member of a discriminated-against group. The exposure to chronic forms of discrimination has been implicated in the development of several stress-related diseases prevalent in the African American community and among other persons of color.

White privilege at the individual level of racism is the ability to arrive at an explanation—benign or otherwise—to an ambiguous social interaction without legitimately considering a race-related explanation. Thus, White privilege provides White persons with a buffer from the physiological and psychological consequences of race-related stress. This buffer is not readily available to persons of color who, at some level, have to at least contemplate the possibility of a racially based explanation (e.g., skin color contributed to the waiter’s decision to wait on the White person first).

Institutional Level

At the institutional level of the tripartite model of racism, White privilege may be even more difficult to discern because the unearned benefits afforded to Whites at this level do not originate in one-on-one interactions. Rather, these privileges are embedded within societal institutions and organizations. Having had these benefits denied to them, persons of color may be acutely aware of this dynamic. However, having been raised on the dominant ideologies of rugged individualism and meritocracy, White persons may have difficulty acknowledging racism as a system that structurally benefits White persons at the expense of persons of color because doing so would threaten long-standing beliefs about society and beliefs about one’s own accomplishments.

To illustrate the nature of White privilege at the institutional level, a series of compelling questions are offered here. For example, if a White employee makes an unpopular decision at his job, does he worry that his coworkers or customers will assume that a policy such as affirmative action ensured that other more qualified candidates were passed over because his race obscured an assumed lack of ability or qualifications? Is it perceived that his merit or his skin color is the main contributor to his success (or lack thereof)?

If a White person is a defendant in court, is there a good chance that a jury of his peers shares his values or even his racial characteristics? Do these peers make implicit assumptions about his guilt or innocence based on preconceived stereotypical notions about other people who look like him? Furthermore, are these notions based on a critical mass of real-life interactions with others who look like him, or are these notions instead based on isolated incidents or derived from movies, news reports, and other popular culture representations?

Extending beyond these issues of merit, consider assumptions that are made about the protection afforded by law enforcement agencies. Is there a systemic manner in which law enforcement is provided to members of different races? Does it take police officers a comparatively longer time to respond to 911 calls in Black neighborhoods? When teaching their adolescent son how to drive, how many White parents need to include instructions on keeping his hands in plain sight on the steering wheel in the event that he is pulled over by the police?

In contemplating the answers to these questions, the subtle and subversive nature of White privilege illustrates how institutional policies and practices unfairly subjugate persons of color, while allowing other groups to benefit. An unopened backpack of White privilege ensures that these unearned institutionally based privileges are neither acknowledged nor articulated, thus ensuring their continued receipt.

Research has shown that serious educational, occupational, economic, and health disparities exist between persons of color and White persons. In the counseling domain, there is a high rate of clients of color underutilizing mental health services and not returning for second sessions. Reasons for these include economic constraints, service access barriers, and cultural mistrust attitudes toward White counselors. When clients leave counseling early, this results in an increase in underdiagnosis and misdiagnosis, which, in turn, does not allow clients to get the help they need. In addition, psychological testing has been developed and based on the majority culture and does not always meet the needs of the client, specifically for a person of color. Testing is not always culturally sensitive, culturally appropriate, or adequate for the care of diverse clients.

Further research in the counseling literature acknowledges these disparities and highlights these institutional practices in terms of microaggressions against clients of color. These microaggressions are often perpetuated by well-intentioned White counselors, even those with extensive multicultural training. These subtle exchanges convey demeaning messages to clients of color, causing damage to the therapeutic alliance and the client’s psychological well-being.

Blaming the victim, dysfunctional helping, and self-righteous assertions of being nonracist are all examples of ways that clients of color can be disserviced and even victimized in therapy by White counselors. To clarify, blaming the victim involves a White counselor employing an intervention wherein the counselor assigns responsibility to the client of color for his presenting concern (e.g., depressive symptoms surrounding current unemployment). This microaggression serves to minimize or ignore the reality of White privilege, perpetuate cultural mistrust, and ignore the role of societal racism as a salient contributing factor in the presenting concern of the client of color.

Institutional practices and policies contribute to these disparities. However, because explicitly racist laws, such as Jim Crow laws, are no longer legal, it is difficult for White persons to acknowledge the systemic nature by which institutions subjugate persons of color. Instead, when disparities are observed, individual attributions are made that are congruent with majority values, and corresponding solutions (e.g., work harder, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, stop feeling sorry for yourself) serve to blame persons of color while effectively absolving institutional policies and practices of any responsibility in the matter. Thus, misattribution and denial allow institutional racism to effectively function without interruption.

Cultural Level

At the cultural level of the tripartite model of racism, examples of White privilege may occur in the form of subtle societal messages that are omnipresent in society and are conveyed through myriad media (e.g., television, radio, newspapers, Internet). These messages perpetuate the belief that White culture is superior and that other cultures are subordinate. A prime example is the societal standard for beauty—blonde hair, blue eyes—that favors pre-dominantly Caucasian characteristics. Those who do not conform to this culturally exclusive standard are not fully represented in media and popular culture and thus do not achieve the same level of beauty.

Furthermore, if an attractive African American woman is acknowledged for her beauty—beauty that deviates from this cultural norm—she may be described as an attractive Black woman. On the other hand, an attractive blonde-haired blue-eyed Caucasian woman may be described as an attractive woman rather than an attractive White woman. This example of asymmetric racial marking sets the beauty of the White woman as the default standard. Her beauty does not require a specific racial designation because it is understood that this beauty (i.e., blonde-haired, blue eyed, White) inherently conforms to the dominant cultural standard.

Color-Blind Approach

White privilege can be thought of as the mechanism driving the color-blind approach to race relations. A color-blind approach is the position often endorsed by members of mainstream White society wherein they purport not to see race-based differences in people. Instead, they see everybody as equals and treat them accordingly. At the surface level, this is a socially desirable perspective because it conveys the sense of a progressive belief in only one race, the human race, a belief that aligns with the perspective of encouraging people of different cultures to assimilate.

However, embracing a color-blind approach is difficult because in doing so, one neglects to acknowledge the role of power in society, insinuating that we live in a purely egalitarian society wherein the American dream is equally accessible to all members of the human race, if only they work hard enough. Furthermore, it assumes that everybody has the luxury to choose not to see differences based on color. Ignoring racial group differences can validate assumptions that minority groups share the same values as those in the majority, thus leading to maintenance of the status quo. Perpetuating this societal status quo preserves the hierarchical system of racial stratification prevalent in American society, thus denying the reality of people of color—a reality wherein racism is very real to them, despite contentions to the contrary by White persons who have the power to purport not to treat people differently based on race.

White privilege is exemplified in this ability to deny another person’s reality without having to acknowledge the ramifications of doing so. This invalidation can be driven by malice, but more often than not, it is driven by naivete or even apathy when the ramifications do not appear to directly affect White persons. Power is the benefit acquired from deciding which reality is valid, and mainstream American society affords this unearned privilege of power to White persons at the expense of persons of color.

Although the colorblind strategy may appear noble and egalitarian on the surface, it conceals the reality of contemporary racism. Examples of overt racism represent only the tip of the racist iceberg. These examples may include the internment of people of Japanese descent living in the United States during World War II, forcing African American people to ride in the back of the bus, or dousing blankets with disease to trade to Native American people. An exclusive focus on these visible acts obscures the emergence of racism’s insidious modern transformation into the invisible default standard of covert racism. Arguing against the colorblind strategy, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva reports that the United States is a racist country and due to the benefits experienced by White privilege, people continue to support racism by continuing to benefit from privilege. He also reports that seemingly innocent comments such as “I am not racist, but. ..” are more passive-aggressive in nature and continue to provide people with a forum to make racist remarks.

The use of American Indians as mascots for school and sports teams provides another poignant yet rarely acknowledged example of White privilege at the cultural level. Indian-themed mascots, such as the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo, exhibit distorted versions that do not encapsulate or even accurately represent how real American Indians act or what they look like. In the absence of any (or, at best, limited) contact with real-life American Indians, mascots are the image that drives society’s perceptions of who American Indians are.

White privilege is the ability to ignore the perspective of those without power or voice and to honor them on terms other than their own. Furthermore, even in the most optimistic scenario, White privilege is manifest in getting all of the facts together, listening to all relevant perspectives, and receiving overwhelming evidence and reasons to make a change. Yet White privilege grants the power to disregard all of this. White persons can rationalize their actions and prioritize other concerns (e.g., tradition, convenience, money) over the denigration of another group of people, even when the implicit becomes explicit and the hegemony of cultural racism starts to unfold. White privilege thrives in this space between.

Extension to Other Groups

Theorists have extended the concept of group-based privilege beyond race. As stated earlier, the notion was first developed within the context of male privilege and then extended to race. Now it has been used to describe Christian privilege. An example of Christian privilege would be the ability to assume that an individual will not be required to work on a holiday that is celebrated in your religion. It has also been extended to nondisability privilege. A graphic example of nondisability privilege is the fact that an amniocentesis test showed that you did not have Down’s syndrome, so you were allowed to be born, as opposed to some people who may decide to discontinue a pregnancy because of the existence of a disability. In addition, it has been extended to heterosexual privilege. A salient example of heterosexual privilege is the fact that, if you are a heterosexual individual, you are allowed to marry and benefit from all of the legal and social positive aspects of the recognition of such a union.


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