The Reason 'White Privilege' Makes White People Furious

April 14th 2016

The word "privilege" carries a lot of meaning on its own, but if you put the word "white" in front of it, people freak out.

The top definition for white privilege in the Urban Dictionary, a glossary of slang words and phrases, describes the term as "racist" against white people.

Urban DictionaryUrban Dictionary/white privilege - urbandictionary.com

Not everyone agrees the term is racist. Social researcher Peggy McIntosh, a white woman, is widely credited with popularizing the academic term "white privilege" in the 1980s. In her work, McIntosh defined white privilege based on her daily observations. "I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was 'meant' to remain oblivious," she wrote.

What if you're a poor, working-class white person?

If you're a poor white person working your ass off every day, you may hear references to the benefits of being white and think, "Fuck off." After all, there are significant populations of working-class white people who can't go to college or find a job. A 2015 study also revealed an increase in drug- and alcohol-related deaths and suicides among white people.

ATTN: talked to white researchers to figure out why race conversations and the term white privilege upsets white people so much and how to deal with that phenomenon.

Shannon Sullivan, the director of the philosophy honors program at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, told ATTN: that the word privilege is often problematic when she talks to poor white people about race.

"I think the word privilege makes people think that you're saying they have a silver spoon in their mouth," said Sullivan, who has written several books on race. "[They say,] 'I don't see privilege in my life. I'm struggling, too. I've got food stamps, too.'"

But white privilege is not about money: It's about the way society places a different value on groups of people based on race, said Katherine Kirkinis, a white mental health counselor in New York. She's written about race extensively and trained many people on race issues.

"White privilege isn't only about the privilege of being born into wealth," Kirkinis said. "That's part of it, yes, but it's also about how you're treated and what media and society say about your race."

The term white privilege can be a conversational road block for poor whites.

Sullivan said that it may be time to have a conversation about a better term for systemic racism. "I've been struggling to find a different word," Sullivan said. "I think we still need to talk about white privilege, but we need to get to a word that better explains it. There's a risk of turning off some white people with the word."

Kirkinis disagreed. She doesn't think the term white privilege is the main obstacle to a meaningful dialogue about race. It's white fragility.

"We could use a different word, one that feels less offensive to whites, but I think that would be coddling," Kirkinis said. "The issue is that white people don't have much tolerance for talking about race, and that's a problem."

White intolerance of race conversations usually starts in childhood, Sullivan said. "It makes you look like a bad white parent if your child notices something about someone else's race in the grocery store," she said.

Even well-intentioned white children retain the bad habit of avoiding the issue. "One of the ways you want to demonstrate you're not racist is that you don't talk about it," Sullivan said. "It's kind of the solution to teach your kids to be colorblind, and right then, you're developing habits of white fragility."

McIntosh devised a way in the 1980s to confront white people's resistance to the idea that white privilege exists. She created a list of 46 examples of white privilege drawn from her own life or that she had personally observed. Here are just a few of her examples:

"15. I did not have to educate our children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection."

"18. I can swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race."

"45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race."

"46. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in 'flesh' color and have them more or less match my skin."

Well before McIntosh devised her list, Black writer and advocate W.E.B Du Bois wrote in the 1930s about the fundamental theories of privilege. He talked about the "psychological wage" that benefited poor white laborers, even if they earned little money, and that helped them feel as if they weren't at the bottom of the social ladder.

"It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to 10 times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro, except in crime and ridicule."

You can watch a video below on race that Kirkinis uses to educate and train people about race issues.

RELATED: This Is Exactly What White Privilege Looks Like at Its Worst

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