How Whites Misunderstand White Privilege

White conservatives often set out to dispel the idea of “white privilege” with something along these lines:

I worked hard for my college degree and my job. I reject the notion I only got this far because an African American was denied entry to my university or was passed over for an interview or employment due to racial discrimination, allowing me to take his or her place. You can’t prove that, so there’s no reason to take white privilege seriously. It was my qualifications and my blood, sweat, and tears that got me here.

As popular as this sentiment is, it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what white privilege means, not to mention it flirts with obvious logical fallacies.

Saying white privilege exists is simply another way of saying racial discrimination exists (therefore the fact that those who deny racial discrimination is still a serious problem in American society are usually the same people who deny white privilege exists very much makes sense).

White privilege is not “I have my job because my racist boss rejected a black applicant, therefore I benefited from white privilege.” Rather, it is “I, being white, do not have to worry about being rejected as an applicant due to my skin color.”

In other words, due to your whiteness, it is a privilege to be divorced from the very possibility of experiencing anti-black racism. White privilege is the simple idea that a White You is likely going to have a much easier time going about life than a theoretical Black You.

Believe it or not, your blood, sweat, and tears — your hard work — can exist alongside the reality of white privilege. These things are in no way mutually exclusive.  

And what fact is better established through serious research than that the average black American generally has a harder time of things — has to work harder — than the average white person, due to an uphill battle against intergenerational poverty and mistreatment wrought by past and present discrimination?

It starts at birth. Blacks are four times more likely to grow up poor than whites — just by being born white, you have, by sheer chance, won a racial lottery.

When black children grow up, the different way blacks are often treated grows quickly apparent. Experiments show resumes with “black” names are 50% less likely to earn an interview than identical ones with “white” names.

As Tim Wise documents in Colorblind, blacks are less likely to be offered a quality home loan than whites with the same (sometimes worse) qualifications and income levels. Likewise, whites receive better medical care than blacks with identical diagnoses, medical histories, healthcare coverage, and so on. Blacks even earn, on average, less than equally qualified white workers in the same occupational positions.

Blacks are more likely to receive longer prison sentences and the death penalty than whites who commit the same crimes. They are more likely to be pulled over and searched while driving lawfully than whites driving lawfully. Unarmed Americans killed by police are usually twice as likely to be black than white. Unsurprising, as experiments show whites in simulations are much quicker to shoot both armed and unarmed blacks than armed and unarmed whites.

Wise documents research showing about 60% of whites will openly admit to trusting negative stereotypes about lower intelligence, higher aggression, and greater laziness in blacks. 25% of whites say an ideal neighborhood would be free of them. Nearly 90% of whites hold subconscious anti-black biases. As surprising as it may be to those who propagate “white denial,” racism can be measured scientifically.

Obviously, it is a “privilege” to be white and have no chance of experiencing anti-black racism (even if you still have a chance to be gunned down by a police officer, which happens to many unarmed whites as well; these things are not mutually exclusive, either).

So while you may have worked exceedingly hard to get where you are, that does not make anti-black racism and its horrid effects a myth. Even if we could prove you never personally left a black man or woman in the dust in your climb up the social ladder, white privilege still exists and it still applies to you. You are free of the very possibility of such mistreatment. And that is a privilege indeed.

One thing quite amusing about the conservative argument is its naked pride. Now, there is nothing wrong with being proud of your accomplishments…unless that pride drives or “justifies” your argument. Clearly, the use of the argument betrays concern that the idea of white privilege “devalues” one’s hard work and success. And because of that threat white privilege must be dismissed as a myth.

This is a perfect example of argumentum ad consequentiam: not believing x because you do not wish x to be true.

In a way, this is somewhat ironic. If a white person feels threatened by the suggestion white privilege might have contributed to his or her success, one can only imagine how a black person feels his or her success is threatened by its reality — facing the long struggle and dark obstacles placed on the path to success by past and present discrimination.

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