white privilege, a social
1. a. A right, advantage,
or immunity granted to or enjoyed by white persons beyond the common
advantage of all others; an exemption in many particular cases from
certain burdens or liabilities.
special advantage or benefit of white persons; with reference to
divine dispensations, natural advantages, gifts of fortune, genetic
endowments, social relations, etc.
privileged position; the possession of an advantage white persons
enjoy over non–white persons.
3. a. The special right or immunity attaching
to white persons as a social relation; prerogative.
b. display of white privilege, a social
expression of a white person or persons demanding to be treated as a
member or members of the socially privileged class.
4. a. To invest white persons with a privilege
or privileges; to grant to white persons a particular right or
immunity; to benefit or favor specially white persons; to invest white
persons with special honorable distinctions.
b. To avail oneself of a privilege owing to
one as a white person.
5. To authorize
or license of white person or persons what is forbidden or wrong for
non–whites; to justify, excuse.
give to white persons special freedom or immunity from some
liability or burden to which non–white persons are subject; to
WhitePrivilege.com in order to make the structures of white
privilege—its causes and effects—less socially invisible,
primarily by pointing out instances in U.S. society where it is or seems to
be at work. I needed, therefore, a good working definition of the social
phenomenon I was looking for. I hit upon the long, detailed
definition—which has been used in antiracism education in many
educational contexts, including a wide–range of colleges and
universities and even PBS—one day, rather suddenly, while talking to a
friend of mine, the philosopher Bijan Parsia, who’s spent a good deal
of time working on the philosophical theory of oppression. “White
privilege is after all,” Bijan said,
“a form of social privilege per se.”
If that’s true, one good way to define racialized social privilege
is by reference to social privilege generally. In other words, you can
figure out what white privilege is in part by figuring out what any
social privilege is. So I walked over to my copy of the Oxford English
Dictionary, looked up the word “privilege”, and after
reading it through a few times, I realized that if I rewrote the
definition of privilege to refer to white people, rather than people
in general, I would have the basis of a working definition. And so
that’s what I did, with a few modifications and changes as seemed
In that sense, the definition is like a working hypothesis, subject
to change and adjustment as we accumulate and study more and more
facts. I have from time to time tried to make the defintion less
verbally complex (because I initially didn’t realize that the OED’s
language is a bit stilted for everyday use) but its main conceptual
claims have remained stable.
Why is it important to define “white privilege” so
carefully? Because, in part, many people want to deny that it exists
at all, especially in response to other people’s assertions that
it is at work in some particular situation, that it exists unjustly
and so should be dismantled. This pattern of assertion and denial is
itself racialized: for the most part, people of color say white people
enjoy white privilege, while white people for the most part deny not
only that they have it, but that such a thing even exists. I have been
assured countless times by white people that there is no such thing as
white privilege and that the very idea is nonsensical.
(For example, among the objections to the idea of white
privilege, there is one which deserves some consideration here. Given
the fact of a systematically unjust society, such as is the case in
the U.S., the differential possession of basic human and political
rights becomes a privilege. Yes, every person by virtue of being a
person has the right to enjoy and possess certain rights. But, in
fact, over the long course of U.S. history only white people have
enjoyed and possessed the rights which they loudly proclaimed were
fundamentally human rights. I think it is fitting and
accurate, in such an unjust situation, to call the racially
differential possession and enjoyment of human rights a privilege
arising out of particular social relations.)
In studying historical examples and theories of oppression, it
becomes clear that social (in)visibility is an important strategy. Early
feminists make this point over and over. If men and women equally
believe, for example, that women are by their very nature
subordinate to men, then gender oppression seems natural, inevitable,
timeless. If you can design structures of oppression which are
invisibile, which seem natural, they will be more effective
than structures which are visible. If you can convince everyone, but
especially members of the oppressed group itself, that the way things
are is natural or inevitable or unavoidable, people will be less
likely to challenge the way things are.
If that idea is correct, then we should expect the very idea of
racialized social privilege—that is, social privilege which
attaches to a group or groups which are identified racially (whether
one understands ‘races’ culturally or scientifically)—to be
invisible socially. We should expect that members of the dominant
group, the one which has the privilege, to deny that it exists or that
it could exist. Which is precisely what we white folks do
(for the most part) when faced with claims by people of color that we
enjoy social privilege by virtue of the social fact that we are taken
to be white.
To sum up, (1) white privilege should be defined carefully because
it is contested; (2) that contestation is itself racialized, (3) which
is what we should expect, since (4) socially invisible structures of
oppression are more effective and enduring than socially visible
We define it in order to make it a problem for white people,
to show that it is an unjust, historical creation.
Whatever has been made by human hands can be unmade by others.