What is White Privilege?

“What is White Privilege?”

I was asked that question the other day by a white family member. It’s a great question. I didn’t have a ready-made answer, but I decided a question that important needs a thoughtful answer.

It was hard for me, as a white person, to wrap my head around the concept. I thought of myself as color-blind, non-prejudiced, accepting of all. I worked hard to get where I am. Indeed, as a trans woman, I’ve had to fight to overcome barriers. How could I possibly have any special privileges?

My Lutheran church recommended a book, Waking Up White. That led me to a novel, Small Great Things. As I read them, the light bulb gradually lit up. I’ll probably never be fully “woke”, but I’m getting there.

I’ve had many breaks in my life. I was born on American soil. God gifted me with a good brain, a talent with math and computers that happens to be in high demand. I enjoyed an outstanding education in suburban schools and large prestigious universities. Upon graduation, I went right into a great job. I was given the gift of an opportunity to move from Ohio to San Diego in 2007, when housing prices had dropped just enough to afford the move. I live in a safe community, relatively insulated from the pandemic and the sporadic violence. I work in a job where I can easily work from home with no cut in pay. Where would I be without all these breaks?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that, as a white person, I am far from being an expert on race relations. But I’ll give it a go, as best as I can articulate. Here’s my take on a few examples of white privilege.

  • White privilege is growing up in the suburbs, away from the crime, drugs, and crowding of the inner city.
  • White privilege is being born in a country conquered by Europeans, who killed most of the indigenous people living here, and drove the rest onto the least desirable lands.
  • White privilege is living in a culture where the images, values, and faces we are constantly bombarded with are like my own.
  • White privilege is getting to graduate from high school and go on to college, instead of having to go to work to support my mother’s extended family.
  • White privilege is knowing people who know people, who get me job interviews for good jobs right out of college.
  • White privilege is being able to go into a bank and get a loan for a car or a house, without being turned down at a rate 3 times higher.
  • White privilege is paying lower insurance rates for my home, my car, and my business.
  • White privilege is getting to work from home in a pandemic, not risking my life by going to work in a meat packing plant, a factory, or a grocery store.
  • White privilege is having great health benefits, so if I do get sick I can get proper care.
  • White privilege is not having to have “the talk” with my sons, about how if a police officer interacts with you, you must behave in a certain way so you don’t get killed.
  • White privilege is like going through life with a tailwind, instead of constantly struggling against headwinds.
  • And so on, and so on. I’m sure others would have many more examples.

There are also male privilege, able privilege, straight privilege, cis privilege, and many other privileges. I believe white privilege is more powerful than all the others.

If you’re interested to take a bit more time to learn about white privilege and implicit bias, here are some resources.

  • If you have 20 minutes, take the Harvard Implicit Bias test.
  • If you have an hour, read the Sunday, June 7, 2020 edition of the San Diego Union Tribune. If you’re reading this after the fact, this one story gives 10 perspectives.
  • If you enjoy great novels and want a realistic depiction of white privilege at work, read Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult. Or watch the movie when it comes out.
  • If you prefer great nonfiction, I recommend Waking Up White, by Debby Irving. She tells of her own “aha!” moment when she realized how her entire life had benefited from white privilege.