As a kid, I remember helping my aunt (also my assistant principal) prepare a bulletin board after school one day. As she squirmed in one of the desks struggling to cut some construction paper, she blurted, “Why is everything designed for righties?” I hadn’t even noticed that as a left-handed person, she frequently had to navigate around products designed to best suit right-handed people—school desks, scissors, her computer keyboard, etc. As a right-handed person, I’d never even thought about those things, but she regularly had to make accommodations that were not just inconvenient but sometimes impacting how quickly or how well she could accomplish a mundane task.
The fact is that right-handed people are considered the default, and they therefore enjoy a privilege. It doesn’t make them evil people. It’s simply a bias built into our society. Unfortunately, when we talk about “white privilege” though, that fairly simple concept can become twisted, exaggerated or widely misunderstood.
While many would argue that the concept of white privilege—that whiteness has historically been a source of advantage in this country—is simply a historical fact and shouldn’t be fodder for debate, online discourse suggests that we’re actually getting stuck at a more fundamental level….confusion on the definition of the term itself and what it’s meant to imply.
Indeed, media personalities and influencers, politicians, corporate DEI departments, even institutions of higher learning have unfortunately misrepresented and sometimes weaponized this fairly simple concept, engendering increased tension and animosity. Seemingly, one such example is a recent article penned by University of Michigan School of Information PhD candidate Christopher Quarles. His The Conversation article “Use of ‘white privilege’ makes online discussions more polarized and less constructive” seems to recast the concept of white privilege in a way that’s arguably misleading and confusing at best and inaccurate and divisive at worst.
Irrespective of how one may feel about the concept of “white privilege,” it’s a term that has been clearly and consistently defined since Peggy McIntosh’s ground breaking 1988 essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
Several well-respected dictionaries offer strikingly similar definitions of “white privilege”:
Merriam Webster: The set of social and economic advantages that white people have by virtue of their race.
Oxford Languages: Inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice.
Cambridge: The fact of people with white skin having advantages in society that other people do not have.
Dictionary.com: The unearned, mostly unacknowledged social advantage white people have over other racial groups simply because they are white.
Even Quarles’ (and Lia Bozarth’s) own research study referenced in the article includes a definition of white privilege consistent with those cited above.
Whether you “agree” with the concept of white privilege or not, its definition should not be in question….yet it seems to be. Arguably, Quarles’ characterization of white privilege in The Conversation article diverges from the widely accepted definition and instead reinforces common misconceptions. First, he labels it “strong language” stating, “Online users who feel strongly about a topic will post about it using strong language, such as ‘white privilege.’ This language will get people riled up toward one side or another. And the people who might be good mediators – such as supportive whites in our study – are less likely to engage.”
Quarles later continues, “Phrases like ‘white privilege’ play on this reasoning by implying that all whites are similar and have the same negative traits.” Again, referencing the concept of white privilege, he says, ”Unsurprisingly, the accusation – even subtly implied – that everyone in your race is ‘bad’ can create strong reactions.”
Given the long standing, widely accepted definition of white privilege, it’s not surprising to find scholars and thought leaders in this area rejecting his characterization.
Describing the term “white privilege,” Director Policy and Director of Washington D.C. Office for the Legal Defense Fund (LDF) Lisa Cylar Barrett explains, “The phrase is not meant to ascribe a characteristic (or trait) to an individual but instead is focused on how society is structured to respond to, support and advantage a particular group of people.”
Countering his characterization, Misasha Suzuki Graham, Co-Founder, Dear White Women adds, “The very concept of it being considered ‘strong language’ is white privilege in a nutshell, which I find ironic. But also I think the article highlights a fundamental misunderstanding about the term – it’s not meant to imply, or even state, that all white people have ‘negative traits’ or are ‘bad.’ On the contrary, it’s highlighting a fundamental advantage that white people have had over time – and for many white people who are alive currently, through no action or ‘fault’ of their own – which is, to not be denied opportunities because of their race.”
Furthermore, Dr. Michael Ralph, Chair and Professor, Department of Afro-American Studies, Howard University astutely reminds us, “The idea that ‘white privilege’ gets people ‘riled up’ or suggests that all white people have ‘negative traits’ detracts from the structural advantages white people enjoy in U.S. society. A man does not have to harbor negative attitudes toward women to benefit from patriarchy. In a similar way, people who are recognized as ‘white’ and claim that identity do not have to embrace ‘privilege’ to benefit from the economic and political advantages that derive from centuries of exploitation and discrimination.”
While University of Michigan (including its Center for Racial Justice) did not respond to a request for comment for this article, Christopher Quarles did respond. When asked about his characterization of white privilege in the article, he responded, “The meaning of language comes from our shared understanding of it. It sounds like you have a certain interpretation of the term ‘white privilege,’ which has been informed by your work and your experiences. Other people have different interpretations, informed by their own experiences. Some of them feel like ‘white privilege’ is an extreme, offensive bit of language. I’ll let you read their words.” He then shared several online comments reflecting negative attitudes about the term and continued, “If you’re interested in stronger statements, you may want to look at the comments from the (rather inflammatory) article from The Daily Mail.”
Dr. Peniel Joseph, author of the upcoming book, The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century however rejects Quarles’ view insisting, “There are not two sides to the issue of white supremacy and the white privilege that radiates from this system of structural racism, violence, domination, exploitation, and punishment.”
Admittedly, there are too many white people buying into the views espoused in Quarles’ article. Their misguided interpretation of white privilege is the type of misguided rhetoric that can create unfounded fear and hysteria about an anti-racism concept that’s simply misunderstood (like critical race theory). So let’s debunk some common white privilege misconceptions once and for all…
White privilege does not suggest or imply that all white people are bad.
Remember, right-handed privilege doesn’t imply that right-handed people are bad. White privilege simply acknowledges that whiteness has historically been a source of advantage in a country that has been largely defined by racial hierarchy either explicitly or implicitly throughout its history.
White privilege doesn’t mean that white people do not experience hardship.
It does however mean that racism has not been one of those hardships. Obviously, part of the human experience is managing difficulties and hardships, and whiteness provides no immunity to that, but white people collectively have been virtually exempted from the specific hardship of racial discrimination.
White privilege doesn’t mean that an individual white person hasn’t worked hard to achieve success.
It does however mean that as a collective group, white people have not been subjected to the additional barrier of race-based discrimination/oppression. “You can have white privilege and still have had to work very hard to get to where you are today,” explains Suzuki Graham. “I think white people have been taught that ‘privilege’ relates to financial privilege alone – but when I’m using that word in this context, I mean you were not denied any opportunity because of the fact that you are white. That’s it. It has nothing to do with money, or where you grew up, or how much of a work ethic you have. Once that definition sinks in, I think people are more open to hearing more. Words matter, and definitions do too.”
Unfortunately, The Conversation article also misses a valuable opportunity to educate readers on the historical context for the term. “As we discuss racial inequality there will have to be a conversation about the history of this country and the systems and structures that were designed to explicitly favor or ‘privilege’ one group of people (white people) while systemically and deliberately disadvantaging and discriminating against others (Black people and other people of color). This is what the term ‘white privilege’ is meant to convey or connote,” explains Barrett. “For example, when you look at the history of redlining in this country (see Richard Rothstein’s book, The Color of Law) and you see the fact that government policies (local, state and federal) created segregated neighborhoods in the country and ensured that neighborhoods populated by Black people were under resourced, then you must acknowledge that those policies and practices severely limited the opportunities of Black people while subsidizing opportunities for white people. And, you have to confront the racial inequity and the ‘privilege’ or advantage afforded to one group.”
Anti-racism is serious work, and these are complex nuanced issues. Words matter. Facts matter. Sources matter. Unfortunately, these anti-racism concepts can easily become distorted and contorted by misinformation, regrettably at times from seemingly prominent sources possibly fueled by a toxic combination of ignorance, bias and fragility, so do your own homework.
Resist the temptation to adopt someone’s incendiary interpretation of an anti-racism concept. Resist the visceral urge to reject something outright simply because you initially feel triggered. Google is free. Seek information from true scholars and experts, not random online commentary. Lean in and learn for yourself.
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