How I Benefit From White Privilege

Mar 24th, 2001
By Laura Douglas

As a white woman who's been thinking about how I benefit from white privilege, I see that so much of it consists not only of what I do get to feel and experience but of what I am privileged not to have to think about or experience.

For example, it looks to me as though a cornerstone of white privilege is simply not having to think about race, not having to think about my color and how people are going to respond to me because of it. Given my living circumstances, I could easily go through an entire day and have absolutely nothing to remind me that the subject of racism exists--even though I may walk past several Latinos on my way to work, buy a paper from an Asian man, and talk to the Black teller as I make a deposit at the bank. To come in contact with persons of color is not the same as being aware that racism is still a raging problem in this country. The ball is in my court about whether I'm going to think about it or not, how much I'm going to think about it, etc.

A person of color does not have this choice. To live and to function in this society is to be forced to think about race and racism whether one wants to or not.

In this article, I've attempted to write as deeply as I could about white privilege as I specifically experience and benefit from it. This is not about all white people, or even all white women, because I believe there are important differences based on our individual personalities and how we tend to interact with other people, our size, how we look, what our living circumstances are, including how isolated in white surroundings we are, etc. (This is also going to be rather revealing about me as a person, which I feel a little embarrassed about, but I don't know how to do this any other way!) So here is what I've seen so far:

1. I go through life pretty much expecting that of course people are going to like me--at least not dislike or reject me--unless I do something which causes them to be against me. This is the opposite of what too often people of color have to go through: they have to operate on the basis that someone may automatically be against them because of their ethnicity unless they can prove they are OK--not like the rest of "them".

2. I can go around being my gregarious, outgoing self, smiling at people, talking to strangers, and find that my friendly overtures are usually welcomed. I go through life feeling free to pretty much do as I please in a relaxed way, a white woman in a white world--even when there are persons of other ethnicities around. I don't feel I have to "watch myself" to make sure I don't behave in a way that may offend someone. I don't have to reign myself in because people are probably going to feel suspiciously "What's she up to; why is she so friendly?" or resentfully "She sure is uppity; who does she think she is, just taking it upon herself to start talking to me like that?"

3. Related to this, I can go just about anywhere I need to and feel that of course my presence there will be looked on with favor and I'll be welcome. I don't have to feel that people are merely tolerating my existence in their midst, that they'd prefer I weren't there among them.

4. I expect to be dealt with respectfully by strangers. When I'm treated in a way that, unfortunately, most persons of color, no matter who they are, have to be prepared to be treated at one time or another--some fairly frequently--I'm usually quite surprised and outraged.

5. If another member of the dominant society does treat me disrespectfully--including treating me like I don't exist--I don't have to go through the emotional wear and tear of trying to figure out whether there was a racist element to it or not. I know it was about me directly, or that this must be how they tend to treat all people, or that they're having a bad day as such. Whatever it's about, it isn't about my color.

6. I have the luxury of living all my life in the dominant society where the accepted norms are what I grew up with, am familiar with from birth, so they all come naturally to me and I can fall into them as easily as breathing.

7. Even though I am no more intelligent than most persons of color--and am sure I'm less intelligent than many--to another white person I may sound more intelligent because my normal speech patterns are the patterns of the dominant society. I speak in a way that is associated with intelligence. My entire life I've had the "advantage" of hearing all around me the accepted way of speaking which gets one ahead in this world and, therefore, it is my natural way of talking. (And in as much as I also picked up aspects of a deep Southern accent from an African American woman who took care of me from when I was a few months old, I was also re-trained not to speak like her, but to speak the way all the white people around me did. I was put into speech classes in the second grade to try to erase all traces of that accent.)

8. People expect me to be well-spoken, and they take it in stride if I express myself fluently. I don't have to hear someone say with surprise, "My goodness, how articulate you are!" The same with my writing: when a person says they like something I wrote, it isn't accompanied by amazement that I was capable of such a thing.

9. As to school, I went through the educational system being taught by teachers who expected me to do well, and who pushed me to do even better. I never felt a teacher had written me off as a waste of time, or believed I wasn't really going to go anywhere with my education anyway so why bother with me. I always felt they assumed I would attend college.

10. I never face the awkward situation of being the director of the department who, because of my skin color, is mistaken for the secretary, or of being the professor at the university who is assumed to be the teaching assistant--or any number of other such predicaments. I don't have to deal with the question of how to work out my own emotions about that, or figure out how to behave so that the person who made the mistake isn't so embarrassed that it impedes what we need to accomplish together.

11. When I'm going to be meeting people for the first time, socially or as to work, I'm never worried about how they're going to take it when they see I'm white. I don't have to be in situations, like on the phone, where I wonder if the person I'm talking to knows my color and what will be their response if and when they realize I'm white; will they treat me differently and with less respect?

12. I go home at night to a world that is essentially the same world I work in. I don't have to know how to get along both in my own sub-culture and in the dominant culture at the same time. I don't have to constantly figure out how to negotiate the two and the going back and forth between them.

13. If I want, I can pretty much live my life among other white people. Though I can chose to do so if I want, I am not forced, in order to make a living and to buy the things I need, to be in situations where just about everyone there is of a different ethnicity, culture or nationality than I am, situations where I feel I stick out like a soar thumb because of my color.

14. I can say "our country" and not "this country". I have felt my whole life that this is my country, and it never even occurred to me that anyone born here could feel differently, feel that they're what amounts to a foreigner living in a country that's not really theirs, even though they're called citizens. Because I've never had to experience it, I don't think I can even grasp the feeling people of color had being disenfranchised in the last election. I have the basic idea, but this still doesn't mean I really know the feeling.

15. When I decide how to style my hair, what clothing I want to wear, I don't have to try to play down the essence of what I am to try to get along and advance in the dominant society. I've never had the problem of "I'd better not look too Eurocentric or I might not be able to keep my job!"

16. I can dress poorly, look like hell and not have to worry that I'll be mistaken for a derelict or a criminal. In the fairly affluent neighborhood where my husband and I live, I occasionally go out to take care of some errand with my hair a mess (we're talking major bad hair day), no make up, wearing something really lousy, and I still don't have to be concerned that people will take me for a homeless person and try to give me a money or food.

17. I also know that my facial features, my type of hair, the shape of my body parts are pretty much this society's accepted standard, seen as reasonably attractive by most people. I have never felt even briefly, let alone as a constant thing in life, that my features, hair, and some body characteristics are seen by their very nature as ugly because of their European quality.

18. I can blend in, get lost in the crowd so to speak, when I want to because I have a face and body type that are, on the whole, fairly similar to most others around me. I can also stand out when I want to. If I need to assert myself about something, lodge a complaint and get some attention from a store manager, for instance, I don't have to go through the humiliating ordeal of being sloughed off and ignored, made invisible in some way.

19. There aren't a lot of negative stereotypes of others of my ethnicity which I have to constantly contend with, and that might stand in the way of a person seeing me for who I am. Though certainly there are negative gender stereotypes about women, such as that we all get PMS, are not so good at math or science, etc., these things are nowhere near what persons of color have to endure. I don't have to be worried about people assuming I'm stupid, low class, over-sexed, and so forth because that's what "they" think "we" all are.

20. As a white woman, I can exhibit some of the characteristics that have been made into stereotypes about persons of color and no one thinks anything in particular of it, good or bad! For example, in a restaurant/bar full of white people I can laugh and carry on in a fairly rowdy manner with other whites without customers at other tables getting offended and thinking we're loud and uncouth because of our race. I can also get out on the dance floor and, because I studied dance, express myself well in time to the music, and no one thinks "She's Black so she's got rhythm; they all do."

21. At a job interview, I don't have to go through the excruciating "d**mned if you do and d**mned if you don't" situation where I have to try not to appear stupid or incompetent in any way (knowing every moment that they are ready to pounce on and magnify the tiniest slip)--while also trying to make sure not to appear too smart, as smart as the interviewer, because then they could be angry and resentful and not hire me either since they had expected to be able to feel superior to me!

22. Speaking of job interviews, when I write on an application form that I've never been arrested or incarcerated, of course they never question that--in fact, I can only imagine how shocked they'd be if I did write yes to either! I've never experienced what I've heard described by African American men: the awful realization that the interviewer doesn't believe you so they keep bringing the discussion back to it to try to get you to admit you were lying and that you really do have a record.

23. As to arrests and the lack thereof, to put it bluntly, the only reason I don't have a record is the color of my skin. In my late teens I had a serious drug problem, and I both consumed and sold controlled substances of many kinds. All over this country there are persons of color who are doing 30 years and more for what I did and walked away Scot free. Among other things, this means that when I stopped using drugs I truly was able to leave my past behind and start afresh. I was not faced, for the rest of my life, with the grueling task of figuring out how in hell I would ever be able to live down my former mistakes and go on to earn an adequate, ethical living with my record dragging me down at every turn.

24. In general I go through my life operating on the basic premise that people are going to trust me, not that on the slightest provocation--or even no provocation--they will be suspicious of me. I am very aware that because of how I look--my skin color being a major aspect of that, along with the fact I'm female and fairly petite--I can go places and get away with doing things that even a white male can't because I appear so unthreatening.

A. For example, when I climbed over a garden fence to use a building's garden hose to water a dying tree on the street, I was consciously thinking "I can do this because I'm white and a woman and no one is going to question me"--and they didn't.

B. In stores where you aren't supposed to try clothes on over your own, I know I can get away with it (and do) because I'm white and look very middle class. I can expect the people working there to look the other way, whereas I'm not sure they would if I were a woman of color.

C. There are all kinds of things I know I can get away with because I'm white, like many years ago I used to eat cookies from open cookie packages at the supermarket. I knew I wasn't going to be accused--and I never was, not even once--of opening the package myself. I can shop and do things in a somewhat irregular fashion and not be suspected of shoplifting which, as we all know, is certainly not the case with persons of color.

D. When I'm out on the street and need a bathroom, I'm very conscious of my white privilege. I have literally said to myself "I am now going to exercise my white privilege" as I enter a restaurant and purposely give forth the impression that of course I'm there as a customer so no one should question me as I simply head for the bathroom and that's that!

E. I can walk up to persons on the street and ask for directions without their feeling suspicious that maybe I have an ulterior motive. I am ashamed to say that this can still, at times, be my first gut-reaction when a woman who is not white and speaks with an accent comes up to me and shows me a piece of paper with an address which she asks me to help her find. Though this has never been the case, I can still be afraid that while I'm trying to read what's on the paper or looking around for a street number, she might pick my pocket or something. The very attitude that I can still occasionally have in meeting another woman, I don't worry about being met with myself.

F. I can approach people unexpectedly from behind, be practically on top of them in a tiny building entrance, or at the last moment jump into an elevator with them and not have to read fear in their eyes when they see me. Even if someone's first split-second response when I suddenly appear is fear, as soon as it registers that it's me they relax; I have never seen a person grow more frightened--just as I've never had anything even remotely resembling the experience of observing a woman clutch her purse closer as she sees me coming towards her.

25. If anything happens to me on the street--if I were to become ill or trip and fall down, for example--I can be relatively sure that the people around me will try to help. They won't feel that maybe there is something wrong with me, that I'm on drugs or drunk or up to no good and they should keep their distance. Just in general, I can go through my life expecting to be taken seriously and for people to be cooperative and helpful.

26. I also live in relative sureness about the safety of my husband. I don't have to worry that he might stop to make a phone call in the "wrong" neighborhood and get attacked as some African American men have been, by a gang of whites, or that he may be mistaken for someone else and beaten or killed by the police since, after all, "they all look alike."

27. Recently, when my husband and I had a miscommunication and he still wasn't home by 1:00 AM on a week-night when he was usually home by 9:00 PM, I got so worried I called a police precinct. Even as I was grateful for their courteousness, I was aware that they may have been so nice because I sounded white and well educated. I have my doubts about whether I would have been met so patiently and helpfully if I had sounded clearly other than white or spoke with an accent.

28. I can call the police with little fear that I may end up being their victim.

29. I can easily access basic news about things of particular interest to me and my community. I don't have to find special avenues to get information about the things of specific relevance to my people because the mainstream press and media either don't report on them or report on them from a flagrantly biased slant.

30. Until recent years, I went around with the self-assured feeling that pretty much all of what is considered the important art of the world--what is taught as the great literature, paintings, music, etc.--are by and about people who were a lot like me. I read my favorite novelists such as Henry James, Balzac, and Dickens, and didn't even notice that practically every character was white, and that they were about a way of life that was familiar to me but that may not have been so familiar to persons of another culture.

31. Without realizing it, I went through my life with the feeling that essentially I was looking "them" over and deciding whether to let persons of color into my life. It never occurred to me that maybe I should be thinking about how I was going to prove I deserved to be let into their lives! I expected that if I decided to have to do with them, of course they should be very happy about that and welcoming.

32. My sense of white privilege also extended beyond myself to other white people. For instance, I used to think that African American persons weren't nearly grateful enough to the white people who came down South and fought along side them during the civil rights movement. I felt that of course Black persons should have been nothing but grateful and I didn't ask whether there might be more to it than meets the eye. Because all of us human beings can be prone to ingratitude, there likely is some kernel of truth to this criticism of African Americans; however, I see now that there is also a great deal to question about how we white persons work with Black persons. There can be such a tangle of good and bad motives as we do some useful things but with such a paternalistic and/or patronizing attitude that it is very difficult for a Black person to make sense of where they should be grateful and also rightly critical.

33. I'm ashamed that up until a few years ago I still felt that many Black persons were too sensitive about racism; that they sensed slights where there weren't any. What this means is that in my white omniscience (read colossal white arrogance!) I knew even better than a person of color what a racist incident was and wasn't. Boy was I wrong about that!

Published by consent of Laura Douglas

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