White privilege and racial inequality have a long history.

By Claire Gillespie
January 25, 2021
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The idea of white privilege isn't new. In the 1930s, W.E.B. Du Bois, an American sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist, described the "public and psychological wage" that allowed poor white people to feel superior to poor Black people. In the late 1980s, Wellesley scholar Peggy McIntosh listed 50 examples of white privilege in an essay, covering everything from how white people have access to better housing, health care, and education because of the color of their skin.

Since George Floyd's death at the hands of a white police officer in May 2020, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic laid bare the health care disparities between white and Black Americans, white privilege has become an integral part of a wider conversation.

What is white privilege?

White privilege is distinct from other types of privilege many people enjoy, such as the privilege of economic advantage, sexual orientation, gender, or disability status, Deborah N. Archer, professor of law and director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at New York University School of Law, tells Health. "Someone can be economically disadvantaged yet still have benefited from white privilege," Archer says. "At its core, white privilege does not mean that a person has not suffered disadvantages. It means that their race has not been the source of that disadvantage."

Talking about their inherent privilege can be uncomfortable for many white people—particularly if they haven't been brought up to discuss or even acknowledge it.

White privilege is not the same as racism, but it's linked

Jennifer Harvey, PhD, author of Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America, calls white privilege "the logical and to-be-expected partner" to racism.

She sums up white privilege as "unearned and unequal access to social goods that those of us who are white experience simply because of our race—whether we want to or not," Harvey tells Health. "If there are those among us who experience lack of access, harmful treatment, or negative stereotypes because they are a person of color, then those of us who are racially 'white' experience the inequitable distribution of more access, being given the benefit of the doubt, unearned positive stereotypes 'credited' to us, and more."

Acknowledging white privilege doesn't mean you didn't work for your success

It's a misconception that if a white person acknowledges the existence of white privilege, they're agreeing that they didn't earn or work for anything they're rewarded with. "As a white person I can and do work hard, and my efforts do have something to do with what ends up resulting in my life in terms of social goods," Harvey explains. "White people seem to worry that if we acknowledge white privilege, we're saying white people have never worked for anything. That's not it. But white privilege means whatever work we do (or don't do), there's always wind at our back, making those efforts get us further."

In contrast, people of color in a racist system always face headwinds. "Their hard work won't yield the same results—and when people of color achieve mightily, as they do, it also means having worked even harder, because those headwinds were still there," Harvey says.

White privilege affects health in a big way

"I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me," McIntosh wrote on her list. Yet extensive research shows that Black people and other minority groups in the US experience more illness, worse outcomes, and premature death, compared with white people.

Disparities related to race and ethnicity exist in every facet of health care. Babies born to Black women in the US die at more than double the rate of babies born to white women. Black people in the US are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease as white people. And with COVID-19 never far from our thoughts these days, it's important to be aware that Black Americans are dying from the virus at 2.4 times the rate of white people.

With the term white privilege now part of the American lexicon, more health officials are starting to understand it—and move toward change. In 2016, in response to the rhetoric of the presidential election and an increase in hate speech, a group of US physicians published an open letter to their patients. "We believe that the oppressive structures which harm people of color in American must be dismantled," they wrote. "Racism and xenophobia adversely affect our patients' health on multiple levels." The letter was co-signed by 6,261 US health care professionals.

What can we do about white privilege?

If you're a white person, Harvey recommends beginning the process by reading what people of color have to say about white privilege. "Learn about how they see and experience it in our collective social lives (eg. workplaces, school systems, neighborhoods/housing, health care)," she says. Believe what they say—this is their true, lived experience.

To use your white privilege for good, commit to antiracism. This will look different depending on your personal circumstances, but it ultimately involves challenging and helping to reduce the power and presence of white privilege in what Harvey calls our "spheres of influence"—your workplace, your school, your church, or wherever you spend your time.

Not being racist simply isn't enough. "When most people think of racism they think about a person, or maybe a group of people, who dislike people of a different race, and then act on that dislike," Archer says. "Or they talk about implicit bias, where someone is acting on unconscious feelings. But thinking of racism only in those terms misunderstands the true nature, power, and persistence of racism and completely overlooks the centuries-long impact of race-based laws, policies, and practices that have caused and perpetuate racial inequality."

Archer says that limited understanding of racism means that we are using tools that are too small and too narrow to be effective. "Personal commitments to not discriminate are welcome, but they are simply insufficient to rid this country of systemic racism," she says.

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