The Most Common Misconceptions About White Privilege
Examining what the social context of privilege *does not* mean
Privilege. Who knew that one harmless word might end up being received as such divisive, toxic vitriol — a creation by “the leftist liberals” — in order to shame others and engage in some haughty virtue-signalling? That’s not at all what it means to acknowledge your privilege, but it’s assumed as such by those with a fundamental misunderstanding of what the term means in its social context.
It’s a common (and understandable) misconception. It’s not easy to separate words from all the baggage that seems to come with them. Words become loaded with life experiences, assumptions, and prejudices that each and every one of us brings to them. Often, white folks like myself hear “privileged” and tend to disassociate; we infer notions of those who were “born with a silver spoon,” or had it easy, or never scrapped their way to the top. That’s not my experience at all, we might think. Especially if we’ve struggled economically or otherwise throughout life.
But it’s so much more than that. Time and again I see and hear it. Members of my own race will argue vehemently against terms like ‘privilege,’ but especially, ‘white privilege.’
Why is that?
Well, there are a few things going on. Primarily, the word ‘white’ in reference to skin color creates a level of discomfort in many white people because we are not at all accustomed to being defined, described, or characterized by our race (or perceived skin tone).
Unfortunately, racism was built into the very fabric of American society, and it’s so pervasive, we refer to it as systemic racism. In the United States, white people are currently the majority racial group. Moreover, white people in the U.S. are seen as the “default norm,” or even the “favored” — and please understand, this isn’t me as a person saying this, but rather, it’s the collective mindset of the many institutions that uphold us as a society.
What I mean by that is how us white folks can see ourselves reflected, generally, everywhere we look — speaking as authority figures, heads of medical fields, government, or large corporations; portrayed as heroes in movies, TV shows, fiction and nonfiction literature, or even as spokespeople in advertisements; as central characters everywhere from history books to romance novels; and even just milling about in public. We almost always see our race portrayed, if not reflected.
So for most of us, being defined by our perceived race or skin color feels superfluous and unnatural.
Aside from that, many white folks have a special disdain for the term ‘white privilege’ largely due to their own biases. Let’s say someone’s reading an article; they come across the term ‘white privilege” and immediately get defensive and angry. It’s a word they don’t connect with on any level. Because they’re applying their own bias, assuming ‘white privilege’ implies something that it doesn’t actually imply. Of course it’s going to make them feel insulted and angry.
But, rather than stopping, thinking, and trying to learn more, they don’t take the time to read any further, or to chew on or digest, or otherwise try to understand the real intent of the word. Their walls are already up; it’s a non-starter. And their reaction only serves as proof to others that they don’t know what ‘white privilege’ means. And the cycle repeats. Again and again.
I get it. I’m not proud to admit this, but I didn’t get it until I was approaching my 40s. Perhaps worse, I didn’t get it until I experienced a loved one struggling — my own trans non-binary child — to have their basic human rights and their place in the world established. And honestly, I’m ashamed that it took something so personal to open my eyes and see things through the lens of a very non-privileged, minority community. I don’t even live it, I just see it through a filtered lens, but still, it’s like swimming against the current… all day, every day.
And I have to say that when other people don’t get it, over and over again, that becomes exhausting, too.
If you’re cisgender (meaning, not transgender or trans non-binary), you wouldn’t comprehend what it feels like to have to justify your mere existence to both strangers and family alike on a day-to-day basis. You wouldn’t know what it’s like to be misgendered multiple times a day in public. You wouldn’t know the anxiety of single gender public restrooms — of having to plan all your social outings with a building map in hand, knowing the location of the closest bathroom at all times, as well as having to judge which would be the safest option for you to use under the circumstances in any given moment.
Not having to worry about these things? Not having to even think about these things? That’s exactly what’s meant by privilege. And that shouldn’t anger any of us for our own personal reasons. It should make us feel a sense of relief and gratitude, and most importantly, it should give us a sense of wanting to develop compassionate empathy. As in, compassionate empathy for those who do have to worry about these things. This goes beyond cognitive empathy and emotional empathy, because compassionate empathy moves you to take action.
It seems reasonable enough. But many people will still fight back against what they don’t understand. Many will maintain that using the word privilege should be dropped altogether because they say it “shuts down dialogue.” They believe the word privilege makes those who might be allies end up feeling attacked from the start, and then unwilling to be allies at all.
Others want to swap it out for a gentler-sounding word — again, without doing the work of learning what ‘privilege’ in a social sense means.
And this is where many begin their arguments against privilege: from a place of fundamental misunderstanding. Which makes for a very flawed argument.
The thing is, we can’t really make an informed argument against the term without truly understanding the term itself. We can’t reject the idea of privilege if we don’t even have a correct understanding of what it is.
So let’s dissect it. Let’s examine ‘white privilege’ specifically, because that concept feels like perhaps the most misunderstood right now. Let’s look at some of the most common misconceptions, the things that ‘white privilege’ doesn’t mean, and clear those up here and now so that we can — hopefully — get to the business of thinking better, doing better, and being helpful in truly useful, tangible ways, i.e., having compassionate empathy.
Using the term ‘white privilege’ is not racist
First and foremost: Having white privilege and/or acknowledging its existence are not racist actions. Some white people tend to argue “Well, I’m tired of black people using it in a derogatory manner!” Well, here’s the thing: once we understand what it does and does not mean, then we can stop repeating the (often unconscious) behaviors that perpetuate it, and then no one will have any right to use it in a derogatory manner.
Having white privilege does not mean that you need to feel guilty about anything
As white people in America, things like white privilege and systemic racism, (or institutional racism) are largely invisible to us. These things operate covertly. That’s exactly how our institutions were set up to work, and how they continue to work to this day. In the U.S., black people, indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC) are largely excluded from most white folks’ every day consciousness.
Many of it is so subtle that most of us don’t even notice it. It’s why we don’t give a second thought to, or find it odd that the color “nude” (as in makeup like foundation or lip tint, skin care products, hosiery/undergarments, band-aids, crayons, and the like) matches nude Caucasian skin and not the nude skin of black, indigenous, and other peoples of color.
We shouldn’t feel guilty about things we aren’t even aware of, or we maybe don’t even care about. But the more important aspect of this misconception is that no one — literally no one — is asking white people, or expecting white people to feel guilty about any of this. None of us here today had any part in designing the institutions upholding our society. No one chooses the race or skin color they’re born in, and no one has anything to feel bad about in that regard.
However, if you’re someone who craves knowledge and empathy, once you do learn about various social privileges, once you do come to recognize and acknowledge the existence of something like white privilege, you might feel guilty if you choose willful ignorance. If you continue denying that it’s there. You might feel guilty if you fail to understand how you may play a role in keeping those systems of power in place to the detriment of others.
Similarly, acknowledging your privilege doesn’t mean that you “owe” anything to anyone. But many people find it extremely helpful to better understand these social issues. If anything, fully understanding white privilege has alleviated many white Americans of an unnecessary anger and bitterness that they hold on to (often without realizing), and it has helped foster meaningful dialogue and build bridges between different race communities. Which is pretty powerful to witness or experience.
Having white privilege does not mean that you’ve never struggled
White privilege doesn’t mean that you’ve never struggled financially or otherwise, that you’ve never suffered or endured hardships, that you didn’t pull yourself up by the bootstraps or work your butt off to get where you are in life.
Because of intersectionality (meaning the interconnected nature of social categories and how they overlap and/or create unique categories of privilege or disadvantage), you can be both white and economically disadvantaged. No one is saying all white people were born with a silver spoon in their mouths. You can be white and grow up in poverty, or suffer from intense physical or psychological abuse inside your home. Having white privilege does not negate other types of discrimination you might endure. You can be oppressed in other ways — classism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc., but skin color simply isn’t one of them.
By virtue of your perceived skin color and other Eurocentric features, you will have opportunities that BIPOC in America will not ever have. Like what?
For one example, if you’re white, you can rest assured that you (or your children) will be taught history in public school that is largely in accordance with your race’s historical belief system. This is not the case for Native Americans, who know that public schools will downplay or whitewash — not accurately represent or teach — their version of historical events, nor will public education accurately teach about the contributions of their people.
Another example I can give is by using my oldest child, my 19-year-old son: a white male. When my son turned 16 and earned his driver’s license, I didn’t have to sit him down and have “the talk.” My black friend who also had a 16-year-old son at the time, did. As a white mother in America, I can rest assured (generally speaking), that if my white son is pulled over for a routine traffic stop, he will not end up losing his life at the hands of an officer with a gun. Yet black mothers across America live in constant fear of this very real possibility.
Having/recognizing white privilege does not mean you’re a bad person
Your intentions don’t matter when it comes to social privileges. You might legitimately despise racism. You might be a great LGBTQ ally. You might be a wonderful person with a heart of gold. But privilege has nothing to do with your intentions.
Privilege is not something humbly offered to you that you get to choose whether you’ll take or turn down. Privilege is something automatically bestowed on you by American society whether you like it or not, whether you want it or not. And it will always continue to be given to you — usually, without you even noticing.
That is, until you do notice, do begin to see the injustices at work, and actively do something — anything — to shake up and dismantle the systems of power that currently control American society. Even if that thing is simply just that you start developing compassionate empathy for the less privileged in society. It’s a start. And we all have to start somewhere. No action is too small.
Martie Sirois (“sir-ROY”): Flawed human. Gen X. Laughter addict. Have gone viral a time or two. Gender from the Trenches editor-in-chief. Mom of 3 who kneels for #BlackLivesMatter and stands up for trans rights. Found a home on Medium after learning I could earn $$ writing the same stuff I’d been posting on Facebook, for free (that’s it, that’s my secret!) Now writing at the intersection of culture, politics & equality w/work featured in HuffPost, Scary Mommy, etc.; heard on NPR affiliates, SiriusXM, TIFO Podcast, and elsewhere around the ‘net. Connect with me further: