The One Term Many White People Don't Understand

July 22nd 2016

White privilege is real — whether or not you choose to see it.

But "privilege" can also be a hard word to own, especially if you are a working class white person, an LGBTQ white person, or another white American who has had to endure personal hardship or discrimination. In fact, the idea of privilege can make some people lose all empathy and become downright hostile, leading them to suggest that white privilege is overblown, a myth, or even that individuals who bring up white privilege are the real racists.

Why is owning white privilege so difficult?

Experiencing inequality based on gender, sexual orientation, income, or for other reasons doesn't make white privilege any less true; it just makes it an even harder pill to swallow. And, according to researchers, it's already very challenging for many white people to acknowledge the systemic privileges that come with their skin color.

White people tended to accept that "group-level inequity" existed, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. But when it came to "evidence that their group benefits from privilege," they changed their tune. Not only did study participants fail to take responsibility for any advantage they may have received due to their race, they also found the claims "threatening" and often used "hardships to manage this threat," protecting their conception of their accomplishments and their personal merit by making excuses for why they had not personally benefited from their whiteness.

But this approach is wrongheaded — and this one tweet articulates why.

It may be hard not to take it personally when someone brings up white privilege — especially for large numbers of working class white people who can't afford to go to college or are having trouble finding employment. But that doesn't alter the truth that, overall, whiteness affords a level of societal advantage.

Find that hard to believe? Simply take a look at this list compiled by Peggy McIntosh in 1988 of 46 privileges that demonstrate the ways in skin color can lift some people up while pushing others down. Almost 30 years later, many of them are still relevant today.

Viewing privilege conversations through a lens of personal accountability rather than as an attack on your character also helps break down common ways people deny the reality of white privilege.

"I'm not a bad person."

No, you're probably not a bad person. And you don't need to be racist personally to benefit from white privilege. That's not the point. Rather, you're part of a white supremacist culture, and benefiting from whiteness simply means you're a human in that culture. But that also doesn't absolve you of the need to own that privilege, either.

"I wasn't involved in slavery/colonialism, so white privilege isn't related to me."

White supremacy in America may have its roots in slavery and colonialism, but white privilege also refers to the complex ways in which whiteness systemically gives people advantages solely based on their skin color today. Instead of feeling blamed by conversations about white privilege, try taking it less personally and more as a call to action: By understanding and acknowledging your white privilege, you can help to do your part to dismantle systems of racial oppression.

"I'm the exception to the rule/I know an exception to the rule."

Just because you or someone you know hasn't shared the same experience as other individuals doesn't make it OK to invalidate the experiences of others. Being a white person who has benefited less from his or her whiteness — for instance, because you are also part of another disadvantaged minority group, such as being a white transgender man — doesn't mean you still haven't experienced some less tangible benefits of your whiteness, such as being far less likely to be arrested and jailed. Also, although you may be the exception to the rule, there's plenty of evidence that there's a rule for a reason.

Watch the video below to learn more about the problems with race:

RELATED: Our Prison System Is Even More Racist Than You Think

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