Back To CourseSocial Psychology: Help and Review
9 chapters | 226 lessons
As a member, you'll also get unlimited access to over 70,000 lessons in math, English, science, history, and more. Plus, get practice tests, quizzes, and personalized coaching to help you succeed.Free 5-day trial
Over the last several years in the United States, a greater degree of attention is being paid to the racial inequality that still exists in a variety of social spheres. These discussions have produced a renewed focus on the ways in which racial minorities continue to be marginalized, but, more recently, they've also introduced a new, somewhat contentious phrase into the American lexicon: white privilege.
The concept of white privilege refers to the ways in which white people benefit from the fact that they aren't a racial minority. According to the concept, white privilege extends into every aspect of our social and cultural lives, but it can also be a challenging concept for many people. In fact, the idea of white privilege is that the social and cultural privileges that accompany whiteness go unnoticed by those that benefit from them, which can make accepting their reality somewhat difficult. Moreover, the context in which this privilege is often discussed can be framed in a negative way, leading some people to feel as though they're being accused of capitalizing on racism or engaging in racist behavior, though that likely has less to do with the concept itself and more to do with poor way it's being communicated.
It's easy to understand why someone might bristle at the mention of the white privilege concept; after all, most people don't like to think of themselves as being racist, and the two concepts, rightly or wrongly, have become very easily intertwined. It's important to remember that, according to its proponents, white privilege isn't something that a person actively cultivates; rather, it's the product of a culture that's built on what's known as white supremacist ideology. While white privilege is seen as being generally unconscious, it's also capable of being manipulated and exploited, which is why it's important that we know how to identify it and understand how it affects people of all races, including white people.
In simple terms, white privilege is a reaction to a racial construct, which is an idea or a theory about a race of people that is used by others to define or understand that group. For instance, in the United States there's a long history of racial minorities being defined as being inherently inferior to whites, unintelligent, or even dangerous. While most people have evolved out of those erroneous ideas, the social system has been slower to respond. This means that people may not actively practice racism or bigotry, but they still may unconsciously have prejudices, biases, or other lingering anxieties about different races that influence their behaviors.
How can someone not be racist but still have unconscious racial biases? Good question! This is largely due to what is referred to as institutional racism, a term that describes less obvious acts of racism and racial bias within social institutions like government and education. A college history professor, for example, might advocate for racial equality and speak out against injustice, but then teach a class about American history that is told entirely from the perspective of white people.
In a recent study from Australia's Queensland University, participants of various races were asked to board a public bus and inform the driver that they lacked the fare, then record whether or not they were allowed to ride for free. Taking into account certain variables like time of day and weather conditions, the researchers collected data on over 1500 interactions, finding that, while 72% of whites were allowed to stay, only 36% of blacks were given the same accommodation.
One area in which white privilege is fairly evident and has serious consequences is in law enforcement and incarceration. Consider this: people of color make up around 30% of the US population, yet they comprise nearly 60% of the US prison population. In fact, the homicide rate has been steadily declining for decades, but incarceration rates have spiked in recent years, a fact that disproportionately affects people of color. Based on these numbers alone, one could easily assume that people of color are simply caught committing more crimes. This assumption, however, is highly questionable, because the incarceration spike is too abrupt to account for the steady decline of homicide rates.
In reality, people of color are responsible for far less crime than some people may assume, yet there is evidence that shows that they're disproportionately targeted by police and other law enforcement. This is because (according to the idea of white privilege) that, regardless of whether or not a person is actively racist, they still live in a culture that constantly tells them that people of color are dangerous, violent, and something to be feared. The idea is that, whether or not they consciously believe this, those messages still linger in the back of their heads and unconsciously affect their behavior and opinions.
Because of there being so many different variables at play with regards to law enforcement and crime, such as individual psychology and socioeconomic status, it's difficult to say that there's a causal relationship between unconscious racial biases and arrest rates; however, the evidence has shown that there is indeed a correlation, and is therefore a matter to take seriously.
Crime and law enforcement are complicated issues made more complicated by white privilege. A 2002 study on racial bias in hiring practices, on the other hand, provides much clearer data on the matter. The researchers randomly sent out 5000 resumes to 'help wanted' ads in Boston and Chicago. The content of the resume was exactly the same, but the names on the resumes varied - some were 'Emily' or 'Brendan', while others were names like 'Lakisha' and 'Jamal.' The study found that, on average, the resumes with white-sounding names were 50% more likely to receive an interview than those with black-sounding names.
Given that the resumes contained exactly the same information (save for the applicant's name), the primary conclusion that can be drawn is that employers are more likely to hire a white person than a person of color. This is because, having never met or seen the 'applicants,' employers act on preconceived ideas about different races that unconsciously influence their behaviors. Like crime and law enforcement, these unconscious ideas benefit white people, who are more likely to be hired, and place people of color at a greater disadvantage.
Let's take a few moments to review what we've learned about the concept of white privilege. White privilege refers to the ways in which white people benefit from the fact that they aren't a racial minority. It's the lingering product of old racial constructs - or ideas about a race of people that are used by others to define or understand that group - and institutional racism, or a term that describes less obvious acts of racism and racial bias within social institutions, like government and education. White privilege continues to have a profound effect on modern society. According to the theory, while most white people don't actively seek to be racist, they benefit from their skin color, particularly being seen as more trustworthy and less likely to commit crimes, which has been shown in various sociological studies conducted in recent years. While white privilege comes up frequently in discussions of law enforcement, it's present in almost every aspect of Western society, such as hiring practices that favor white applicants over people of color.
To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account
Already a member? Log InBack
Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.
To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page
Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.
Back To CourseSocial Psychology: Help and Review
9 chapters | 226 lessons
Next LessonDownward Social Mobility: Definition & Factors