Four Perspectives on White Privilege Briefly Explained

Perspective 1: Discussion tool. When Peggy McIntosh wrote the article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, (1989), I used it as a discussion starter in the Cultural Diversity classes I was teaching at the time. Looking at the list with my students, I didn’t enjoy quite a few of the fifty privileges she listed even though I am white. They were more like class privileges. Many other items clearly identified privileges based on race, some very powerfully. The list raised awareness and created good class discussion.

Perspective 2: Empathy block. In the 2010-2012 period I actively participated in an integrated anti-racism email list set up by the Unitarian Universalist Association. I remember one very painful exchange where a white participant discussed his father’s very hard life. The response from several of the African-American participants was that he was still better off than they were because he had White Privilege. White Privilege was used as an excuse to deny empathy. I heard a similar attitude expressed recently in an invitation to an antiracism program for white people, that white people’s problems would not be a subject of conversation.

Perspective 3: Guilt wedge. In Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, White Privilege means all of the advantages received by participation in “White Supremacy Culture.” White Fragility refers to the defensiveness whites demonstrate when pressed to admit these advantages and their participation in “White Supremacy Culture.” When their White Fragility resistance turns on, Caucasians become emotionally disabled in DeAngelo’s argument. I view this as exactly what happens with Guilt-Based Anti-Racism. The energy available for real social change work is greatly diminished both by the emotional paralysis created by guilt and by the misdirected use of energy required to force Caucasians to own the collective guilt of all white people.

Perspective 4: Resource inventory. From the perspective of Asset-Based Anti-Racism, every privilege, every access to power possessed by anyone – based on class, race, gender, age or anything else – is desperately needed in the struggle to change racist policies. Racist and oppressive policies exist because they support constellations of power that favor one race-class over another. Power responds only to power. We need to value and mobilize, rather than denigrate, all of the privileges, insights, abilities and resources available to accomplish needed policy changes. We need to collaborate with strong personal commitments and relationships across any and all race-class lines to accomplish the goals we seek.

NOTE: The fact that policing organizations in the United States utilize two very different protocols for African Americans and for Caucasians must be changed. It can only be changed if African Americans and Caucasians vigorously work together in local, regional and national venues to change the specific policies that allow, permit, or require differential treatment for African Americans and Caucasians. White Privilege is NOT the root cause of the problem. Rather, to achieve change for greater justice, we all need to use every privilege and power we can muster in collaborative, focused efforts.