What is white privilege? the origins and meaning of the term used amid Black Lives Matter debate - and why it’s misunderstood

While the phrase is not a new one, the Black Lives Matter campaign has thrown the concept into the international spotlight

By Stephanie Rendall
Monday, 7th September 2020, 4:02 pm
Peggy McIntosh who popularised the term, wrote "I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group." Pictured: A young protester at a Black Lives Matter protest in Swindon.

The death of Minneapolis man, George Floyd, at the hands of the police, has put the injustice of racial inequality to the forefront of the world's attention in recent months.

During lockdown, thousands took to the streets to take part in protests, as well as voicing their opinions on social media, signing petitions and taking part in fundraising events.

While this was going on, one concept that had began to gain particular focus within the conversation on race, was the concept of ‘white privilege’.

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People on social media have highlighted the stark difference in demand's between the Black Lives Matter protesters and the predominantly white demonstrators who protested coronavirus lockdown measures in April.

But what does this mean exactly?

What are the origins of ‘white privilege’?

Kehinde Andrews, a professor of black studies at Birmingham City University, and founder of the Organisation of Black Unity, believes the term was coined by the famous black civil rights activist William Du Bois in the 1930s.

Du Bois used the term to try and explain how white workers in America benefited from the colour of their skin and racial segregation.

Jameela Jamil posted an image on her instagram, comparing the cases of Chase Legleitner and Lamar Lloyd, reading “Same crime, same courtroom, same judge, same criminal history, 1300% difference in sentencing”.

The term “white privilege” came to further prominence after anti-racism activist and writer Peggy McIntosh published her groundbreaking essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in 1988.

In the essay, McIntosh shared her experience as a white woman, and her growing awareness of disparities between the races and systemic racism.

She writes, “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.

"I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”

The essay was celebrated for its clear and tangible examples of white privilege, and included 46 examples of this, such as the following:

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

2. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

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

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

5. When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my colour made it what it is.

Why is the term ‘white privilege’ criticised?

While many celebrate the phrase for its succinct ability to point out the reality of racial inequalities, the word has also been rather polarising.

A main criticism is aimed at the use of the word ‘privilege’ which has caused some to misinterpret the term as an unfair claim that all white people are well-off, and have lives free from struggle.

The mayor of Middlesbrough, Andy Preston, was criticised last week for denying the existence of white privilege by stating white families also struggle with deprivation.

In a series of Facebook posts, the mayor wrote: “Don’t listen to careless talk in the media about white privilege - look at the awful situations so many white and non-white families face in Middlesbrough and other places. Deprivation here appears to be colour blind.”

In a comment to another user he added “How can [white privilege] be true when so many white skinned people do so badly in our society?

“How can it be true when some of the least diverse/most white boroughs are the poorest?"

However, Du Bois and McIntosh did not use the term to claim all white people have easy lives free from struggle.

Prominent Black Lives Matter activist Emmanuel Acho, a former NFL player, and current analyst for Fox Sports 1, recently clarified the meaning of the term.

In a candid conversation about racism with his fellow Fox Sports coworker, Charissa Thompson, this month, Acho said: ‘This [definition] resonated with the most people. White privilege is not saying that as a white person your life hasn't been hard. White privilege is simply saying your skin colour hasn't been a contributing factor”.

He revealed his own personal experiences as a black man, and explained that, unlike black people, white people do not have to be acutely aware of their skin colour in their everyday lives.

“As a black man living in an affluent neighbourhood in Austin Texas, and when I pull up to the mailbox I sit in my car if I see a white woman walking up, because I don't want her to perceive me as a threat”

“I have to live my life calculated. White people get to live their life unconsciously. So, white privilege is also that ability to live your life unconsciously.”

One Twitter user expressed her frustration over the common misinterpretation, writing: “White privilege does not equate to financial privilege. Does not mean you’re free from challenges in life. Your skin color is just not another challenge in your daily life.”

What are some examples of “white privilege”?

In the UK recent statistics from the Home Office and Ministry of Justice have revealed that in 2018-19, black people were over nine times as likely to be stopped and searched by police as white people.

They were also more than five times as likely to be subjected to force at the hands of the police as white people.

Meanwhile, it has been revealed there is an overrepresentation of BAME people in the prison system, compared to their representation in society.

A quarter of the prison population are from BAME backgrounds, while 50 per cent of those in young offenders institutions are from BAME backgrounds, despite accounting for only 14% of the population.

Additionally, despite making up only 3% of the population, black people make up for 8% of deaths in police custody in the UK.

In the US, the Black Lives Matter protests across the US have seen several reports of police brutality since they began in Minneapolis in May.

Many supporters of the Black Lives Matter campaign have since taken to Twitter to point out the difference in the police’s approach to the Black Lives Matter protesters and the predominantly white demonstrators who protested coronavirus lockdown measures in April.

One user posted images of white protesters holding placards reading “We demand haircuts” beside images of the signs held by Black Lives Matter protesters reading “We can't breathe” - paraphrasing Floyd’s final statement “I cant breathe”.

Accompanying the images, the user wrote,

“Still think white privilege isn’t real??? The white people on top [of the image] didn’t get tear gassed or shot with rubber bullets, they were protected by police even when protestors were screaming in their faces. Check your privilege. #BlackLivesMatter”

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In addition to this, several celebrities have been quick to point out disparities in the recent sentences given in criminal cases between white and black people who have been found guilty of the same crime.

Jameela Jamil, an actress and activist best known for her role in NBC’s The Good Place, posted about the existence of white privilege in the American criminal justice system on her instagram.

The Good Place star posted an image to her followers which read “Same crime, same courtroom, same judge, same criminal history, 1300% difference in sentencing” alongside the images of Chase Legleitner and Lamar Lloyd.

Both Chase Legleitner and Lamar Lloyd were charged with two counts of “robbery with a deadly weapon”, and sentenced by Florida Judge Sherwood Bauer Jr.

However, while Chase Legleitner, who is white, received less than 2 years in prison, Lamar Lloyd, who is black, received a total of 26 years.

The comparison between the two cases first gained attention in 2016, but has since come back into the spotlight following the recent Black Lives Matter protests.

A brief history of racial oppression

For hundreds of years, black people were abducted and enslaved, and unable to vote or buy land or property.

By the 19th century black men in America were finally given the right to vote in 1870 with the signing of the 15th Amendment.

In comparison, both rich and poor white men could vote 40 years prior, by 1830.

Additionally, white men of various economic backgrounds could own property in America since the Homestead Act of 1862, while under English feudalism, white men of high economic status had owned both land and property for hundreds of years.

Black men could not own property until black Americans were finally given citizenship in 1866, along with the passing of the Southern Homestead Act that same year.

Even then, equality was far from achieved and such settlements faced racially aggravated attacks, such as the 1921 Tulsa race massacre and the 1923 massacre in Rosewood, which saw both towns destroyed and citizens brutally murdered.

It also wasn’t until the 20th century, that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 officially outlawed racial segregation and discrimination in voting, schools, employment, and public housing in America.