Explaining White Privilege To A Broke White Person

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Photo Illustration by he Daily Beast

Years ago some feminist on the Internet told me I was “privileged.”

“THE F&CK!?!?” I said.

I came from the kind of poor that people don’t want to believe still exists in this country. Have you ever spent a frigid northern-Illinois winter without heat or running water? I have. At 12 years old were you making ramen noodles in a coffee maker with water you fetched from a public bathroom? I was. Have you ever lived in a camper year-round and used a random relative’s apartment as your mailing address? We did. Did you attend so many different elementary schools that you can only remember a quarter of their names? Welcome to my childhood.

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 12.46.06 PM
This is actually a much nicer trailer setup than the one I grew up in.

So when that feminist told me I had “white privilege,” I told her that my white skin didn’t do shit to prevent me from experiencing poverty. Then, like any good, educated feminist would, she directed me to Peggy McIntosh’s now-famous 1988 piece “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

After one reads McIntosh’s powerful essay, it’s impossible to deny that being born with white skin in America affords people certain unearned privileges in life that people of other skin colors simply are not afforded. For example:

“I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”

“When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.”

“If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.”

“I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”

If you read through the rest of the list, you can see how white people and people of color experience the world in very different ways. But listen: This is not said to make white people feel guilty about their privilege. It’s not your fault that you were born with white skin and experience these privileges. But whether you realize it or not, youdo benefit from it, and it is your fault if you don’t maintain awareness of that fact.

I do understand that McIntosh’s essay may rub some people the wrong way. There are several points on the list that I felt spoke more to the author’s status as a middle-class person than to her status as a white person. For example:

“If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area, which I can afford and in which I would want to live.”

“I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.”

“I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.”

“If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.”

And there are so many more points in the essay where the word “class” could be substituted for the word “race,” which would ultimately paint a very different picture. That is why I had such a hard time identifying with this essay for so long. When I first wrote about white privilege years ago, I demanded to know why this white woman felt that my experiences were the same as hers when, no, my family most certainly could not rent housing “in an area which we could afford and want to live,” and no, I couldn’t go shopping without fear in our low-income neighborhoods.

The idea that any ol’ white person can find a publisher for a piece is most certainly a symptom of class privilege. Having come from a family of people who didn’t even graduate from high school, who knew not a single academic or intellectual person, it would never occur to me to assume that I could be published. It is absolutely a freak anomaly that I’m in graduate school, considering that not one person on either side of my family has a college degree. And it took me until my 30s to ever believe that someone from my stock could achieve such a thing. Poverty colors nearly everything about your perspective on opportunities for advancement in life. Middle-class, educated people assume that anyone can achieve their goals if they work hard enough. Folks steeped in poverty rarely see a life past working at the gas station, making the rent on their trailer, and self-medicating with cigarettes and prescription drugs until they die of a heart attack. (I’ve just described one whole side of my family and the life I assumed I’d be living before I lucked out of it.)

I, maybe more than most people, can completely understand why broke white folks get pissed when the word “privilege” is thrown around. As a child I was constantly discriminated against because of my poverty, and those wounds still run very deep. But luckily my college education introduced me to a more nuanced concept of privilege: the term “intersectionality.” The concept of intersectionality recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not privileged in others. There are many different types of privilege, not just skin-color privilege, that impact the way people can move through the world or are discriminated against. These are all things you are born into, not things you earned, that afford you opportunities that others may not have. For example:

Citizenship: Simply being born in this country affords you certain privileges that non-citizens will never access.

Class: Being born into a financially stable family can help guarantee your health, happiness, safety, education, intelligence, and future opportunities.

Sexual orientation: If you were born straight, every state in this country affords you privileges that non-straight folks have to fight the Supreme Court for.

Sex: If you were born male, you can assume that you can walk through a parking garage without worrying that you’ll be raped and then have to deal with a defense attorney blaming it on what you were wearing.

Ability: If you were born able-bodied, you probably don’t have to plan your life around handicap access, braille, or other special needs.

Gender identity: If you were born cisgender (that is, your gender identity matches the sex you were assigned at birth), you don’t have to worry that using the restroom or locker room will invoke public outrage.

As you can see, belonging to one or more category of privilege, especially being a straight, white, middle-class, able-bodied male, can be like winning a lottery you didn’t even know you were playing. But this is not to imply that any form of privilege is exactly the same as another, or that people lacking in one area of privilege understand what it’s like to be lacking in other areas. Race discrimination is not equal to sex discrimination and so forth.

And listen: Recognizing privilege doesn’t mean suffering guilt or shame for your lot in life. Nobody’s saying that straight, white, middle-class, able-bodied males are all a bunch of assholes who don’t work hard for what they have. Recognizing privilege simply means being aware that some people have to work much harder just to experience the things you take for granted (if they ever can experience them at all).

I know now that I am privileged in many ways. I am privileged as a natural-born white citizen. I am privileged as a cisgender woman. I am privileged as an able-bodied person. I am privileged that my first language is also our national language, and that I was born with an intellect and ambition that pulled me out of the poverty that I was otherwise destined for. I was privileged to be able to marry my way “up” by partnering with a privileged, middle-class, educated male who fully expected me to earn a college degree.

There are a million ways I experience privilege, and some that I certainly don’t. But thankfully, intersectionality allows us to examine these varying dimensions and degrees of discrimination while raising awareness of the results of multiple systems of oppression at work.

Tell me: Are you a white person who’s felt uncomfortable with the term “white privilege”? Does a more nuanced approach help you see your own privilege more clearly?



    Her essay is superfluous bullshit.

  • rgaura

    Thanks for the reasoned explanation of intersectionality. I think that it gives us a framework for diffusing the blaming, shaming, and polarizing conversations promoted in mainstream media. One reason I admire socialist governments like Cuba, or the old green revolution of Libya, is that they emphasized the equal rights of people, irrespective of superficial and temporary categories that are so often used to pit groups against one another in predatory capitalist systems. Its really a spiritual view that sees value in every human being, and accords them equal respect.

  • Aquifer

    Great piece! – To my way of thinking, explains and re-enforces why we should be emphasizing that All Lives Matter ….

  • badkitty61

    Honestly, I wonder if most of you are younger than me. I’m white, 65, and I grew up in Berkeley with the Black Panther Party. I live in what might be called the “black” area of Berkeley, and I don’t have a problem with walking down streets in “black” Oakland. As a blonde, blue-eyed 19 year old who was 5 feet tall and weighed 85 pounds, I was beaten up by four policemen (still not sure what I did wrong, although I know I did walk partially by a police car without noticing there were four policemen in full battle gear inside–this was People’s Park). Twenty-five years ago my husband told me he was uncomfortable in a room with only white people, because we live in a very mixed society. But what I want my point to be is that the Panthers put great emphasis on cooperating with white people. If I were BLM, I would not publicly attack someone who attended the great rally in in Washington. A unified presentation with Bernie and BLM would have been much more persuasive. If you’re having a problem with race relations, I suggest you study the Black Panther Party. And if you really want to shut the NRA up, you can always carry guns, the way the Panthers did to Sacramento in 1967. And always remember, it’s not the color of the skin that matters, it’s the ideas in people’s heads.

  • Bill Rood

    This is a great piece. I long believed in “white privilege” until I saw the comments of Jacqueline S Homan on another article here. It then occurred to me that “white privilege” exists, but that not all whites are beneficiaries. Gina’s concept of intersectionality allows me to further refine those thoughts. Yes, when considering privileges that are based solely on race, all whites are to some degree privileged as described in this article, though a poor white might be victimized by our criminal injustice system just as viciously as a black person.

    Also, there are some blacks who benefit from privilege of one sort or another. A few have inherited wealth. Our President is the son of an elite Kenyan and an upper middle class mother with a PhD in anthropology who worked for USAID. He was raised by his grandmother, who was a bank officer.

    I am supportive of affirmative action recruitment programs. However, is a young African American from the upper middle class more worthy of recruitment than a poor white? Should universities and employers be competing to recruit a limited population of already class-privileged minorities, thereby piling more privilege on individuals who are already more privileged than the average person? Is that really a cure for racism?

    It’s undeniable that blacks and Hispanics, no matter how privileged by class, genes or upbringing are more likely to be targeted by our institutional and structural racism than whites. This needs to be fixed, and it can be fixed without piling more indignities on working class and poor whites. In fact, fixing our criminal injustice system and brutal police tactics will benefit poor whites as much as blacks and should be a source of unification rather than divisiveness.

  • Jon

    Gina, Thanks for an honest and strong article. I speak as a straight white elder male who in Hawai’i married a first generation Filipina and now have two adult mixed race children, including a daughter who married a man with Jamaican ancestry and has two brown-skinned grandchildren who are adorable and full of vital energy, so far at least. I acknowledge all of your points.

  • Dan Tonner

    Such bullshit.

  • riverside57

    It is a misnomer to call it “white privilege” it is more accurate to say “class privilege.” It really is all about how much your family earns, not so much about skin color in 21st century America.