The state of white privilege in 2019

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In October, a Latina author was talking about white privilege at a Georgia college when a student confronted her about whether she had the authority to talk about race on campus. Students at the same university later burned the author’s book. Videos show students gathered around a flaming grill on campus, watching and laughing as ripped-out pages of the novel burn.

The book-burning came after Jennine Capó Crucet spoke to students about her novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, which is required reading for some freshman classes on campus. Crucet’s novel tells the story of a Cuban-American girl who is accepted into an elite university and struggles in a predominantly white environment. The tense and hostile interaction happened during the question-and-answer session, when one white student took the microphone and accused Crucet of being racist toward white people.

“I noticed that you made a lot of generalizations about the majority of white people being privileged,” the student said. “What makes you believe that it’s OK to come to a college campus, like this, when we are supposed to be promoting diversity on this campus, which is what we’re taught. I don’t understand what the purpose of this was.”

Crucet responded, “I came here because I was invited and I talked about white privilege because it’s a real thing that you are actually benefiting from right now in even asking this question.”

After the incident, Crucet tweeted, “This is where we are, America.”

This exchange, while troubling, is one of many similar instances recorded in the media this year. While whiteness is no longer protected by law, as in segregation, the Deep South still has a long way to go when it comes to understanding white privilege and racism as a multidimensional system. So does the rest of America.

But first, let’s start in the ’80s.

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Interest in the phrase “white privilege” exploded in January 2016, especially online with a surge of Google searches, when rapper Macklemore reflected on his whiteness and the Black Lives Matter movement in his song “White Privilege II.” The term “white privilege” even made its way into the 2016 presidential race, when Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton was asked about how she has benefitted from her white privilege. 

Now, white privilege is a common phrase and even dominates discussions around racial inequality. But while Google searches have steadily risen for about a decade, the concept of white privilege is not new. 

It was first popularized by Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh, who in a 1988 essay defined white privilege as a set of “unearned advantages” that work in favor of white people. Her essay wasn’t about blame, shame, or guilt. It was about power, identity, and self-image. Black people had been writing and talking about white privilege for years, but the term took hold. 

“I’m very sorry to say that we haven’t advanced much at all,” McIntosh, who is 84, told the Daily Dot. “I wish I could say that we’ve made great strides.”

McIntosh made a list of her personal privileges in 1988. She said that just about every single one of her original 46 points describing her white privilege is still valid today.

“White privilege is to be pretty sure my voice will be heard, even if everybody else in the group is a person of color,” McIntosh said.

She did acknowledge that “we have made a few modest strides.” McIntosh suggested there’s a greater willingness now to learn and consume, meaning when a person studies up on white privilege and realizes that they have it, they’re more likely to change their behavior in their communities. This could be when a person is curious about another culture or when someone listens to music they were taught not to identify with. 

Understanding racial dynamics and white privilege requires depth and nuance in a world of opinions.

McIntosh, who has spent more than 30 years advancing the concept of privilege as crucial for understanding American systems of race, gender, and identity, has her opinion on where we are now. But there is not an index of white privilege. 

“White privilege is not something we can measure as far as it’s up or down or better or worse this year because it manifests itself whether people are actively providing it or pursuing it or not,” Jason Johnson, a professor at Morgan State University and politics editor of the Root, told the Daily Dot. 

Talking about white privilege also, of course, centers conversations about race around white people—who often are the least willing to listen.

“For myself, I don’t much like to talk about race because there’s so much ignorance and defensiveness. I am a very old person. I have done my part. I am sure many other people, nonwhite people who are of an age, feel the same way too,” Nell Painter, a leading historian and the author of The History of White People, told the Daily Dot.

Painter thinks people need to talk across race lines, on the grassroots level. But white and Black people have distinctly different views of white privilege. Less than half of all whites (46%) say they believe they benefit from societal advantages because of their race, compared to the overwhelming majority of Blacks (92%) who believe whites benefit, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center poll. 

“Most white people don’t know how tired people of color are from decades and centuries of being disrespected.” McIntosh told the Daily Dot. “They haven’t walked a mile in the shoes of a person of color. The reason whites won’t engage in that conversation is that we fear that we will be made to feel bad about ourselves.”

That’s called “white fragility,” a term coined by the sociologist and educator Robin DiAngelo in 2011 to describe defensive moves, including emotions like anger, fear, and guilt, that white people exhibit when their ideas about race or racism are challenged or when they’re called out for their sense of white superiority.

Painter told the Daily Dot that things have changed as “more and more people have their eyes open,” but a “big outstanding privilege of whiteness is to be willfully ignorant.” Still, the fact that DiAngelo’s book is a New York Times bestseller gives Painter hope.

“That is an indicator that makes me more optimistic. The fact that this book is a bestseller is a big deal,” Painter told the Dot. “We have two things going on. One is a question of education. Other is willingness to learn. I am looking more at bestsellers because I know that textbooks are not the whole story.”

Having real conversations around white privilege means white people need to grapple with the history and existence of this country. Beyond arguments on American campuses, where people clash and sprout real-world problems, white privilege is everywhere, deeply embedded in our institutions and the fabric of our society.

Tim Wise, an anti-racist writer and activist who has been working on racial justice issues for the last 25 years, spoke to the concept that’s more recently entered mainstream consciousness: taking aim at institutional racism.

“We obviously can look around and see the way that white privilege continues to manifest in all of our institutional spaces, egged on by President Trump,” Wise told the Daily Dot. “Regardless of qualifications, people of color are far more likely to be unemployed. The absolute position of people of color over the last 10 years has improved, but we haven’t seen real changes in health outcomes, educational outcomes.”

Like many activists, Wise is calling to dismantle and destroy the existing institutions that allow for racist policies to take place.

Despite efforts for more radical action, conversations around white privilege were omnipresent in 2019. As a social media buzzword and an overarching narrative for major events in pop culture, the catch-all term blanketed the web. What follows is a rundown of moments that exemplified race in America, detailed by the experts who studied them. 

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Viral white privilege in 2019

1) The college admissions scandal 

Hollywood actress Felicity Huffman was the first parent sentenced to jail in the college admissions scandal that saw affluent parents use illegal means and bribery to get their children into elite universities.

“That’s a very clear example of white privilege and class privilege and how those two interact,” Wise told the Daily Dot. 

White privilege isn’t just about being white. It’s a term that describes systemic inequalities in government, education, healthcare, economy and culture that was born under a system of white supremacy.

“Our entire education system is built on white supremacy,” Johnson told the Daily Dot. “Our entire education system is built on an unfair system of government.”

Huffman’s 14-day sentence is a small punishment for our culture of incarceration that puts people in jail for years or even decades for small offenses. 

“The fact that these people only got two weeks compared to a Black woman who is put into jail for 10 years for voting in the wrong location, it’s not an example of white privilege, it’s an example of a twisted and unjust criminal system,” Johnson told the Daily Dot.

Wise knows there’s privilege involved in the lighter sentence. But he doesn’t think harsher punishments for hyper-wealthy parents is the solution.

“It’s not that Huffman needs to do more time in prison than people who she’s being contrasted to who are doing years in prison for far less things,” Wise told the Daily Dot. “The problem is we have thousands upon thousands of lower-income folk who have gone through an unjust criminal system. The fairness means more sentences like the one that Huffman got for poor people of color.”

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2) Green Book’s big win on Oscar night

The film Green Book took home the prize for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards, but the movie was mired in controversy over its oversimplification of decades of racial dynamics in America. Green Book depicts the friendship between a well-off Black classical musician and his working-class Italian-American driver as they travel through the Jim Crow South in the ’60s on a concert tour. 

Critics of the film, which is based on a true story, saw it as another in a line of white savior movies, one that glorifies a racist and puts him in charge of telling a Black man’s narrative.

“It’s a garbage movie,” Johnson told the Daily Dot. “The only way you make a movie like Green Book is if the history of Black people in this country is routinely erased, that stories about American history are always authenticated through a white gaze.”

Wise also saw problems with Green Book for lacking richness or nuance. “This version of the story was only partially correct. There are a lot of issues with how it was presented. It’s privilege in the way that stories get told in Hollywood,” he told the Daily Dot.

He means “privilege” to generalize how this movie was made, but our education system props up a wider system of structural racism, he said.

“We have generations and generations and generations of Americans who have never been taught social, political, and economic consequences of slavery,” Johnson told the Daily Dot. “It’s an example of white privilege because you have an uneducated population. They’re uneducated because there’s a dedicated system of white supremacy that says you will not learn actual history.”

3) Chelsea Handler’s woke documentary leaves more questions than answers

Comedian Chelsea Handler confronted her white privilege head-on in a Netflix documentary, Hello, Privilege, It’s Me Chelsea. The former late-night talk show host explored her newfound awareness that white privilege has helped her career. After the film’s release, Handler faced backlash from people who questioned her motives and argued that a white person doing a documentary about white privilege is a privilege unto itself.

“It’s really important for white folks who watch this documentary to understand that just because you start to see some things and speak out about some things, doesn’t mean that everything is good,” Wise, who is in the documentary, told the Daily Dot. “You’re still able just by virtue of your whiteness to get heard in a way that people who have been talking about this for 30 years haven’t been heard.”

Johnson, who admits he hasn’t seen the documentary, sees an upside to Handler’s approach. 

“Is there a value in people actively choosing to address their privileges and use that to become more sensitive, more inclusive members of society? Yes, there is,” said Johnson.

Handler is a comedian, not a public official or a thought leader who is using her platform as an entertainment talk show host to discuss her own views, Johnson added.

“Simple recognition of privilege doesn’t give you credit. Doing something about it and developing a plan to counteract it is where praise comes into play,” Johnson said. 

4) The sentencing of Amber Guyger

Moments after former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing an unarmed Black man, Botham Jean, while he was watching TV and eating ice cream in his own apartment, an emotional scene went viral on social media. It was a hug between Guyger and the victim’s brother, which the mainstream media framed as a story of forgiveness or a family overcoming tragedy. Critics—especially among Black Twitter users—saw that narrative as a lie.

“It’s an example of white supremacy,” Johnson told the Daily Dot. “That is to tell the victims of white violence that they have to respond to it in a different way. The story was presented as a story of white forgiveness, instead of a story about privileges and holding police officers accountable.”

White supremacy, according to Johnson, demands that we all believe that white people at their core are free to behave however they want, and that it’s up to the rest of society to find a way to deal with those consequences.

Guyger’s case tells us a lot about white innocence, as well. “The notion of white innocence is what allows many people to look at her, see her as deep down a good person who did a bad thing,” he said. “It’s just the contrast between how she’s viewed and treated in the press versus the way most defendants of color on trial are treated. Why aren’t we responding to the same way to tears of Black defendants and their families?”

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Defining the problem as white privilege and reporting its prevalence is one thing. But how useful is the term when it comes to dismantling institutional racism like deep inequalities of wealth and income?

According to Painter, “there’s no jurisdiction on language,” which means if it’s useful for people to use the term, they should use it. “Language, like the idea of race, is about how people use it. We can’t make rules or laws about language.”

And yet social media has changed the way people engage and talk, for better or worse, about race. 

“You can see people say stupid things way more. You didn’t always see their absurd, racist beliefs, but now I get on Twitter, YouTube, and see so much vitriolic stupidity being spewed every day,” Wise told the Dot.

With all the spewing, it’s difficult to take the temperature on race-centered conversations. But when it comes to white privilege, the internet seems to simultaneously stunt and expand progress. 

Painter said she sometimes gets asked if she thinks race and racism would ever disappear. She doesn’t think so. “Race is in the American DNA. It’s too deeply embedded. That isn’t to say it’s going to be all-powerful,” Painter said. “It’s no longer all-powerful. But, if it were to disappear or subside somewhat, whatever replaces it will be worse.”

Noorulain Khawaja

Noorulain Khawaja

Noorulain Khawaja is a multimedia politics and global affairs reporter based in New York City. She graduated from Columbia's mid-career international affairs reporting program. Previously, she worked with Al Jazeera English in Washington, D.C., and Doha, Qatar, before moving to Nairobi, Kenya, to work as a freelance journalist.