The concept of white privilege was first contextualized in Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which pioneered putting the social construction of privilege in the theoretical frameworks of power, gender, race, class and sexuality. Highlighting the advantages associated with her identity as a white, cisgender, able-bodied American woman, McIntosh demonstrated that there are invisible forces that condition society to believe in and behave according to a particular status quo — we work to create and sustain a community that is meant to serve only a subset of the diverse population. Per her article, white privilege is evidenced in the satisfaction of being widely represented in the mainstream media, freedom from racial profiling and selective entitlements that surely are not transferrable to all. This notion that privilege — namely, white privilege — is an unconscious threat to diversity has since taken a strong foothold across all sociopolitical movements in the United States, with politicians promising to recognize it, industries designating diversity offices to acknowledge it and schools designing curricula to teach it. 

These interpretations and relative understandings, however, do little to inspire action.

Subsequently, McIntosh’s version of white privilege has primarily been interpreted as highlighting issues of cosmetics and inconvenience. Hence, white privilege has become a new buzzword to be casually tossed in political discourse, a definitive answer to layered issues. Considering how white individuals find representation in entertainment or live their entire lives without being subject to police brutality, this definition can be grossly ignorant of the racialized origins of oppression. Everyone has the right to equal pay, the right to bodily autonomy, the right to a presumption of innocence and the right to police protection regardless of their identitiy. Terming these selective rights as privileges takes away from what McIntosh argued all along: That our understanding of entitlement itself stems from a legacy of racism. So, rather than addressing these social phenomena as privilege, we should ask why others act upon the same claim. 

Framing inequalities in the context of rights rather than privileges is the first step in achieving large scale systemic change, a position McIntosh opposes. As it pertains to white privilege, for instance, is a white woman subject to the same privileges as a white man? How does this label apply to the different strata of socioeconomic status? The discourse of privilege creates intangible, abstract dichotomies that offer no leverage for systemic change and unnecessarily pits minority groups against each other and everyone else. Our energy as individuals and as a collective whole should instead focus on a productive understanding of rights certain groups lack and how we can even out the playing field so all can achieve those rights. After all, most of the rights that we consider privileges today are a result of systematically depriving other populations of those rights. Addressing these will have a greater impact in the long run, one that stems beyond making others contemplate and feel guilty for what they have. 

Dialogues around privilege tend to establish a pretentious hierarchy, as well. In a recent study analyzing the privilege and reception of white women and women of color within the Peace Corps, the crux of the argument is based on how privileges between the two groups vary, and which group is able to better identify with and assist underrepresented communities. The study concluded that white women are awarded a certain degree of “male” privilege, thus making them less capable of connecting with other communities simply because of their race and nationality. By focusing on which group of women has more privilege, the study does not properly demonstrate how we can overcome those differences and stand with other populations, regardless of the intersections of identity. 

Surely, there are many privileges that are beyond basic fundamental rights. For example, the privilege of being taken seriously in a conversation, of being screened in a job application because of gender or race and so on. These, among others, are the undeserved benefits of having certain life experiences, not entities that every subgroup is inherently guaranteed. We should be conscious of these privileges, and in turn, act upon them by recognizing how much space we take up and fostering a drive to eradicate unfair advantages. Beyond these, however, the distinction between unfair privileges and basic rights has been blurred to the point where advocacy is doing little to serve the most vulnerable. Hence, we need to use our privileges to create a world of more equitable rights.

Divya Gumudavelly can be reached at gumudadi@umich.edu.

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