Here's what white privilege sounds like:
I am sitting in my University of Texas office, talking to a very bright
and very conservative white student about affirmative action in college
admissions, which he opposes and I support.
The student says he wants a level playing field with no unearned advantages
for anyone. I ask him whether he thinks that in the United States being
white has advantages. Have either of us, I ask, ever benefited from being
white in a world run mostly by white people? Yes, he concedes, there is
something real and tangible we could call white privilege.
So, if we live in a world of white privilege--unearned white privilege--how
does that affect your notion of a level playing field? I ask.
He paused for a moment and said, "That really doesn't matter."
That statement, I suggested to him, reveals the ultimate white privilege:
the privilege to acknowledge you have unearned privilege but ignore what
That exchange led me to rethink the way I talk about race and racism
with students. It drove home to me the importance of confronting the dirty
secret that we white people carry around with us everyday: In a world of
white privilege, some of what we have is unearned. I think much of both
the fear and anger that comes up around discussions of affirmative action
has its roots in that secret. So these days, my goal is to talk openly
and honestly about white supremacy and white privilege.
White privilege, like any social phenomenon, is complex. In a white
supremacist culture, all white people have privilege, whether or not they
are overtly racist themselves. There are general patterns, but such privilege
plays out differently depending on context and other aspects of one's identity
(in my case, being male gives me other kinds of privilege). Rather than
try to tell others how white privilege has played out in their lives, I
talk about how it has affected me.
I am as white as white gets in this country. I am of northern European
heritage and I was raised in North Dakota, one of the whitest states in
the country. I grew up in a virtually all-white world surrounded by racism,
both personal and institutional. Because I didn't live near a reservation,
I didn't even have exposure to the state's only numerically significant
non-white population, American Indians.
I have struggled to resist that racist training and the ongoing racism
of my culture. I like to think I have changed, even though I routinely
trip over the lingering effects of that internalized racism and the institutional
racism around me. But no matter how much I "fix" myself, one thing never
changes--I walk through the world with white privilege.
What does that mean? Perhaps most importantly, when I seek admission
to a university, apply for a job, or hunt for an apartment, I don't look
threatening. Almost all of the people evaluating me for those things look
like me--they are white. They see in me a reflection of themselves, and
in a racist world that is an advantage. I smile. I am white. I am one of
them. I am not dangerous. Even when I voice critical opinions, I am cut
some slack. After all, I'm white.
My flaws also are more easily forgiven because I am white. Some complain
that affirmative action has meant the university is saddled with mediocre
minority professors. I have no doubt there are minority faculty who are
mediocre, though I don't know very many. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. once
pointed out, if affirmative action policies were in place for the next
hundred years, it's possible that at the end of that time the university
could have as many mediocre minority professors as it has mediocre white
professors. That isn't meant as an insult to anyone, but is a simple observation
that white privilege has meant that scores of second-rate white professors
have slid through the system because their flaws were overlooked out of
solidarity based on race, as well as on gender, class and ideology.
Some people resist the assertions that the United States is still a
bitterly racist society and that the racism has real effects on real people.
But white folks have long cut other white folks a break. I know, because
I am one of them.
I am not a genius--as I like to say, I'm not the sharpest knife in the
drawer. I have been teaching full-time for six years, and I've published
a reasonable amount of scholarship. Some of it is the unexceptional stuff
one churns out to get tenure, and some of it, I would argue, actually is
worth reading. I work hard, and I like to think that I'm a fairly decent
teacher. Every once in awhile, I leave my office at the end of the day
feeling like I really accomplished something. When I cash my paycheck,
I don't feel guilty.
But, all that said, I know I did not get where I am by merit alone.
I benefited from, among other things, white privilege. That doesn't mean
that I don't deserve my job, or that if I weren't white I would never have
gotten the job. It means simply that all through my life, I have soaked
up benefits for being white. I grew up in fertile farm country taken by
force from non-white indigenous people. I was educated in a well-funded,
virtually all-white public school system in which I learned that white
people like me made this country great. There I also was taught a variety
of skills, including how to take standardized tests written by and for
All my life I have been hired for jobs by white people. I was accepted
for graduate school by white people. And I was hired for a teaching position
at the predominantly white University of Texas, which had a white president,
in a college headed by a white dean and in a department with a white chairman
that at the time had one non-white tenured professor.
There certainly is individual variation in experience. Some white people
have had it easier than me, probably because they came from wealthy families
that gave them even more privilege. Some white people have had it tougher
than me because they came from poorer families. White women face discrimination
I will never know. But, in the end, white people all have drawn on white
privilege somewhere in their lives.
Like anyone, I have overcome certain hardships in my life. I have worked
hard to get where I am, and I work hard to stay there. But to feel good
about myself and my work, I do not have to believe that "merit," as defined
by white people in a white country, alone got me here. I can acknowledge
that in addition to all that hard work, I got a significant boost from
white privilege, which continues to protect me every day of my life from
At one time in my life, I would not have been able to say that, because
I needed to believe that my success in life was due solely to my individual
talent and effort. I saw myself as the heroic American, the rugged individualist.
I was so deeply seduced by the culture's mythology that I couldn't see
the fear that was binding me to those myths. Like all white Americans,
I was living with the fear that maybe I didn't really deserve my success,
that maybe luck and privilege had more to do with it than brains and hard
work. I was afraid I wasn't heroic or rugged, that I wasn't special.
I let go of some of that fear when I realized that, indeed, I wasn't
special, but that I was still me. What I do well, I still can take pride
in, even when I know that the rules under which I work in are stacked in
my benefit. I believe that until we let go of the fiction that people have
complete control over their fate--that we can will ourselves to be anything
we choose--then we will live with that fear. Yes, we should all dream big
and pursue our dreams and not let anyone or anything stop us. But we all
are the product both of what we will ourselves to be and what the society
in which we live lets us be.
White privilege is not something I get to decide whether or not I want
to keep. Every time I walk into a store at the same time as a black man
and the security guard follows him and leaves me alone to shop, I am benefiting
from white privilege. There is not space here to list all the ways in which
white privilege plays out in our daily lives, but it is clear that I will
carry this privilege with me until the day white supremacy is erased from
Frankly, I don't think I will live to see that day; I am realistic about
the scope of the task. However, I continue to have hope, to believe in
the creative power of human beings to engage the world honestly and act
morally. A first step for white people, I think, is to not be afraid to
admit that we have benefited from white privilege. It doesn't mean we are
frauds who have no claim to our success. It means we face a choice about
what we do with our success.
Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism in the University
of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at email@example.com.
School of Journalism
University of Texas
Austin, TX 78712
work: (512) 471-1990
copyright Robert Jensen 1998
first appeared in the Baltimore Sun, July 19, 1998
[This essay builds on the discussion of white privilege from Peggy
McIntosh's essay "White
Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See
Correspondences Through Work in Women's Studies."]