Skip to content

Is White Privilege a Useful Term?

In class I’ve been asked why people say white people have privilege.

So, let’s talk about it. Here’s my TikTok video and the script below:


♬ original sound – RacialLiteracySolidarity

The concept seems to have come from Peggy McIntosh’s 1989 essay, ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’.

Peggy McIntosh’s list of privileges include things like ‘I can expect people in my neighbourhood will be neutral or nice to me’ or ‘I can see myself represented in the media’.

From Peggy McIntosh Unpacking the Insible Knapsack

Plenty of people have critiqued McIntosh’s use of the word privilege,

For example Zuleyka Zevallos, aka The Other Sociologist, says these some of things are rights not privileges

Also, issues of representation – seeing people like you in movies or TV – are not the same as other things on the list like ‘I can go shopping without being harassed’.

So, how do we explain the fact that whiteness allows people to move through the world more easily and to access what should be everyone’s rights?

And how do we get past the defensiveness that often comes up when whiteness, let along white privilege, is mentioned?

First, whiteness is a structure of power that confers advantages on people who are associated with it.  This is not as simple as saying ‘people with white skin’, as we know from the case of Indigenous people or for example Roma Traveller people some of whom have white skin.

Whiteness is elastic – over time people have moved in and out of whiteness, for example European Jews like me or, in Australia, Greek or Italian migrants, who were not seen as white under the White Australia Policy.

So, understanding whiteness as racialized power, the philosopher Helen Ngo writes that it is better to talk about a system called ‘white supremacy’ over the individualised idea of ‘white privilege’.

She says that under white supremacy, people who are embodied as white develop habits – things that we do not question – that people who are not white cannot. The conditions of white supremacy means the movements, behaviours, opinions and so on of Black, Indigenous and People of colour are policed, and are never thought of as neutral or the norm.

David Roediger referring to W.E.B. Du Bois spoke about the wages of whiteness – a psychological benefit that white workers had, even if they were poor, because they knew that they could never be treated as badly as Black workers. 

To challenge white supremacy Ngo argues we need to question our habits.

Following the ‘race traitor’ collective we might become active ‘traitors to whiteness’ in realisation that while a racially unequal society might give white people advantage in the short term, it is detrimental to us as a whole. 

We might move to actively giving up some of the advantages those of us who are white have in a settler colonial state. We might start by thinking twice before denying that we benefit from the status quo. 

For my teaching pack, ‘Concepts for discussing whiteness’

And for my six-part lecture on Whiteness, White supremacy and white possession see here:

Alana Lentin