What is White Privilege? - Definition, Examples & Statistics

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  • 0:04 What is White Privilege?
  • 1:59 How White Privilege Works
  • 3:10 White Privilege,…
  • 5:20 White Privilege and Employment
  • 6:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
White privilege is a complicated and often controversial issue that has gained attention in recent years. Through this lesson, you will learn how to define white privilege and gain insight into how it operates in society and negatively affects the lives of racial minorities.

What Is White Privilege?

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.

How White Privilege Works

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.

In the past, whites portrayed racial minorities in offensive and degrading ways to validate claims of their inferiority.
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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.

White Privilege, Trust, and Crime

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 the US, the homicide rate has been steadily declining for decades...
homicide

... yet incarceration rates have spiked in recent years, a fact that disproportionately affects people of color.
rates

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