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What is White Privilege?

By Lee Oglesby, YWCA Racial Justice Coordinator Assistant
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White privilege is an idea that’s central to understanding the way that racism works in the United States. Still, it’s a concept that may be difficult to grasp or define. What does it mean?

Definition of Power

Let’s start with a definition of power. A group of people who have power have the ability to write rules and make decisions that others will follow. Power is about the ability to influence others. A person or group of people in a position or power can design systems that affect how everyone in a community lives, and they can reasonably expect that those decisions will not be questioned or challenged.

Privilege: Membership in a Group that Has Power

Privilege comes with membership in a group that has a position of power. When we’re talking about race, membership is not like joining a club. It’s defined by innate characteristics that we cannot control. It’s the tone of our skin, the curl of our hair, and the shapes of our eyes and noses.

Unquestioned Authority

In the United States, white people have always been in a position of power. Historically, power has been gained by force or violent means. For hundreds of years, white people on the land that we call the United States have primarily been the ones to define systems of government, the language we use to communicate with each other, the art that is deemed valuable, the standards of beauty we aspire to achieve, the hallmarks of intelligence, the behavior that is considered appropriate, the personality traits that define success, and the list goes on. White people in positions of power have even defined who is considered to be “white.” Because that power was gained by a long history of force and violence, white people in positions of power have a reasonable expectation that their self-appointed authority will not be questioned or challenged. This is white power!

For hundreds of years, white people on the land that we call the United States have primarily been the ones to define systems of government, the language we use to communicate with each other, the art that is deemed valuable…

Benefiting Whether You Want To or Not

All of this is a lot to swallow, but people who are interested in racial equity understand these facts. How does white power relate to white privilege? Privilege comes to all members of the group in a position of power. In the United States, that means white privilege is granted to all people who have physical characteristics of whiteness. You may benefit white privilege whether you want to or not.

Not an Invisible Shield from Suffering

It’s important to recognize that white privilege is not an invisible shield that protects a person from suffering. Many white people struggle to get by, even in systems designed by white people in positions of power. For example, a white person going through homelessness may not feel particularly privileged. The struggle and the adversity they face are real. However, understanding white privilege means knowing that white people going through homelessness are significantly more likely to make it out of that experience and into stability that people of color in those same circumstances. That’s because the financial and social service systems that keep people in stable housing are primarily designed with white people in mind.

It’s important to recognize that white privilege is not an invisible shield that protects a person from suffering.

Contributing to Meaningful Change

If you have white privilege, that doesn’t mean you have to participate in oppressive systems. In fact, your privilege gives you access to influence systems that hurt our communities. By working in solidarity with others who have a range of privileges and power, you can contribute to meaningful change.

Learn More about YWCA Racial Justice Programs