Sunday, August 8, 2010

What is White Privilege, Anyway?

(If you're like me you don't read long blogs. For the point, skip to fourth paragraph below.)

On July 22, Senator James Webb (Democrat) published an opinion column in The Wall Street Journal titled, "Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege." In essence, Senator Webb seems to be saying that yes, slavery was bad, and that the civil rights movement and affirmative action were at one time necessary. But that's all over now and anyway, recent immigrants didn't suffer at the hands of the American government like African American slaves did, and so they should not benefit from governmental diversity policies that take the focus off African Americans (divide and conquer strategy here?) and ultimately hurt whites (especially from the South). Whew!

Far more adroit bloggers than I have commented on Senator Webb's article. Read it for yourself if you want at

Some of Senator Webb's statistics are a little old (1974), and his comparisons of groups are questionable. But here's what jumped out at me -- what is white privilege, anyway? Even if I agreed with Senator Webb's assertions (which I don't), I could point out that white privilege involves more than employment and education stats. What about all the little, immeasurable benefits that I receive every day simply because I'm white?

Here's an example. I went apartment-hunting with my daughter last week. We saw two apartments -- both in houses in residential, white neighborhoods. Both landlords were friendly and anxious to have us sign on the dotted line. Both shared the same basic sentiment -- "We want the right person in here. We want someone we can trust. We don't want any riffraff" (actual word used). Apparently, my daughter was the right person; one landlord even called her later to lower the rent. What made us so right? They knew nothing about us -- not income, not employment, not education. They did not ask for references. They certainly have not seen how my daughter keeps her room. But they did know one thing for sure. We're white, and evidently that's enough. We all know that racial discrimination in housing is illegal. I also know that, as usual, our whiteness worked in our favor last week. That's white privilege.


  1. So would you make the jump that your daughter's would-be landlords are racists?

  2. Not at all -- I have no real way of knowing that based on our brief encounters. What I'm saying is that our whiteness worked for us in unseen, invisible ways. That's white privilege, as I see it -- not the ugly racism of the past, but a quiet, unspoken trust between whites by which we transfer every day benefits to one another.

    Other factors were at play, too -- my daughter is pretty, petite, and blonde, for example. I was conservatively dressed (I left my boa home that day!). We exuded middle-classness. Probably, in this case, gender worked in our favor, too, as they most likely assumed that girls are calmer, more trust worthy, less impulsive than guys at that age (although many people who have raised daughters would disagree). All of this together made us seem like "the right kind of people."

  3. I might make that jump. I will attach below my favorite article on racist narratives versus racist practices (for all those people in power who say, "I'm not racist," please read Pager and Quillian's employment audit published in the top journal in sociology). I'll add the link below or at least the citation if the link is not an option.

    Marianne this is such a great example. And I'd guess that if you were middle class women who were Black - you still might have had a different experience... And like you allude to: it's important to remember that "racism" in the US is systemic elevation of whites over all other races/ethnicities - racism is power+privilege and elevates whiteness. Prejudice is a different thing. Perhaps their actions were either consciously or unconsciously prejudice, but the impact was part of a larger systemic issue (racist housing practices) - thus racist...

    The citation: a MUST read:

    Great article. I like reading blogs - so I didn't skip to the end.

  4. I am an apartment manager. The scenario you described is so strange to me. I start out by saying to all prospective tenants, "We obey all California and United States housing laws. On the wall behind you is a poster that lists some of them. Specifically, we do not consider race, religion, ethnicity, sex, familial status, sexual preference or identity, or national origin when we make decisions about your application. What we do look at is your income, work history, rental history, and debt level. We process completed application in the order we receive them."

  5. Interesting -- my scenarios took place with private owners, and two or three family private homes, in suburban neighborhoods. There was no mention of any of the things you listed, nor of housing laws. It was, after all, just between us white folks.