A White Person on White Privilege

My friend and former student Danielle Bonilla asked me for my take on “white privilege.” This phrase, which Peggy McIntosh famously unpacked in her 1989 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,”  has received a lot of attention lately, positive and negative. In this post, with Danielle’s permission, here are her questions and my responses.

What is your perspective on white privilege?

“White privilege” is when white people, because we are white, often don’t suffer certain things people of color often suffer and, instead, sometimes even benefit directly or indirectly from the suffering of people of color.

Well, this is definitely a real thing, and it’s not good. And while I didn’t ask for it, I do feel that I have a responsibility for what I’m going to do about it, whether to revel in it or to deny it or downplay it or to work for a more just world.

I want a more just world.

How do you see it positively & negatively affect your daily life?

It’s hard to say. But part of working for a more just world involves the kind of analysis that answers this question. Frankly, I’m just beginning this work.

What role did my race play in all of the lucky breaks I’ve ever been given, large or small?

What role did my race play in all of the bad breaks I’ve avoided, large or small?

How much has not having to worry about being a racial minority in this country freed up my physical and intellectual energies to enable me to accomplish what I’ve accomplished?

What material resources have been available to me, at least in part, because somewhere in history some white people took them from some people of color?

In what ways has it been easier for me to compete for things like admission to grad school, awards, and jobs because some of my competitors bore the additional burden of being people of color in this society while other potential competitors, for the same reason, never even got to where they could compete?

These questions are usually impossible to answer on the level of the individual person. But on the statistical level, it becomes very clear that my race isn’t working against me and is almost certainly benefiting me.

But, yes, there are negatives too.

I’m hurt by the fact that at least some of what is good in my life comes at the cost of good in the lives of others.

I’m hurt by the fact that white privilege isolates/segregates me to a significant degree from people of color, with whom I might otherwise have mutually enriching relationships.

I’m hurt because there are people who I love, including my wife and daughters, who are disadvantaged by white privilege.

And, finally, I’m hurt simply because the world would be a better place altogether if people were not advantaged or disadvantaged by race.

How does it shape your worldview?

I think that the main effect white privilege has on the way white people see the world is to establish whiteness as the standard of normalcy and then to let us forget that that has happened, to let us think it’s natural when it’s not.

Because of white privilege, I don’t have to see myself as white and someone else as Latina. White privilege would have me think that I’m just a person, and you’re a Latina person—you’re the one who’s non-standard, abnormal even.

This false definition of “normal” revolving around me results in a lot of double standards and blind spots, the biggest of which may be the idea of individualism, which lets me ignore the larger, systemic effects of race and racism and chalk up everyone’s successes and failures to their own personal gumption. I get to look at my life and attribute where I am, for better or worse, to my own choices and efforts.

I don’t have to consider how if I were not white the same choices may well not have been available to me and the same efforts may very well not have yielded as positive results.

But since I reject white normativity and white supremacy, I’m working to dismantle their effects on the way I see the world. I think that the first step is to start noticing things related to my race and to stop taking them for granted as natural or normal.

A small example, a time when I’ve become particularly aware of being white, is when I’m breaking small rules, like jay walking. I know that there’s virtually no chance I will suffer any serious consequences for that. And I shouldn’t. No one should. But I’m realizing that some people do and that race is one key variable.

A bigger example might be when I apply for a mortgage at the bank and my application’s treated fairly. I was rejected for a mortgage right before the great recession, at a time when many banks were practicing predatory lending in racially discriminatory ways. Later, when house prices were at their lowest and I was in a much better financial position, I got a loan no problem. In both cases the right thing happened to me, not getting the loan when I shouldn’t have, getting it when I should have. And that’s what should happen to everyone. But I realize that it doesn’t always and that race is one key variable.

So I think that paying attention and realizing these kinds of injustices are the first steps in dismantling a worldview framed by white privilege.

What is your natural reaction to the system of white privilege?

I don’t know if there’s a “natural” reaction. The are several understandable reactions.

Perhaps the most common is no reaction at all, that is, to simply not recognize white privilege as a thing, since part of the privilege of being white is not to have to think about being white.

If the issue’s forced, as it has been lately for a lot of people, then it’s understandable to become defensive; the concept of white privilege contradicts many white people’s individualistic interpretation of our experience. So what we’re hearing just doesn’t line up with what we “know” to be true from first-hand experience.

But we actually need more than first-hand experience to realize how we’ve benefited from white supremacy, white normativity, and white plunder of people of color. This is where having conversations and reading books comes in. We can have more to go on than our own biased view of our lives.

But without that, then I can see how it’s easy to feel personally and falsely attacked when someone points out white privilege. Ironically, becoming defensive about white privilege kind of proves the point. Here there’s this massive problem with racism, hurting billions of people, and we might be most concerned with making sure people know it’s not our fault—that’s a very “privileged” stance to take.

I can also see how a white person who does come to recognize white privilege might start feeling really guilty about it. I don’t think that’s helpful either. Most of us didn’t ask for this. We don’t need to beat ourselves up for the sins of our forefathers and foremothers.

But we do need to decide what we’re going to do now about the world they left us. While I don’t recall all the ways I’ve reacted to white privilege over time, my reaction now, or at least I want it to be and I work for it to be, is to work to make the world a more just place.


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