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Got Whiteness? Scholars say You’re Racist

Are you racist? Do you have white privilege? Are you a beneficiary of systemic racism? If you are white, some sociologists argue you should answer yes to all of these questions. In this post, Sarah Nell asks you to reimagine racism as a system of advantages and disadvantages that benefits Whites whether they like it or not.

If you’re white, chances are you don’t think you’re racist. Perhaps you found this title unsettling. I’m not here to tell that you are a bad person, but I am here to show you how to think differently about what racism really is. Racism – from the point of view of many sociologists– is not a set of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors held or committed by individuals. Racism is a system of advantage based on race. And if you’re white, you are racist because you benefit from that system. Even if you don’t want to.

Before you write an ALL CAPS comment to this post, remember this is a redefinition of the term racism from the way it is used most commonly in day-to-day discussions.  So saying, “under my definition of racism, I am NOT a racist!” is really beside the point that is being made here.

Racism is a system of advantage based on race. And if you’re white, you are racist because you benefit from that system. Even if you don’t want to.

“What’s a system of advantage,” you might ask? Systemic (or institutional) racism involves practices supported by institutions (such as education, law, and the economy) that unfairly distribute resources and opportunities based on race (overtly and subtly). Systemic racism shapes all of our lives – including whites’.

We often talk as if racism harms one group without benefiting another. For example, we know that: “Racism hurts people of color;” “Racist laws disadvantage blacks and Latinos;” “The legacy of slavery persists in the inequalities racial minorities face in life, especially blacks;” “immigration laws disadvantage brown people,” and so on. And all of those statements are true. But in order for someone to be disadvantaged, hurt, or face persistent inequalities, someone must be advantaged, doing the hurting, or reaping the benefits of those persistent inequalities. It wouldn’t be a disadvantage without the advantage.

When you hear that phrase “disadvantaged groups” I urge you to see who the “advantaged groups” are, relative to the disadvantaged. When we’re talking about race and racism, whites are the advantaged group. This isn’t because whites are bigots or otherwise “bad” people – it’s because they benefit from the system of advantage based on race.

White readers, I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, I’m not racist;” “My family never owned slaves. I don’t see how I benefit from institutional racism;” “I have black friends;” “Skinheads are the real racists, not me;” This is the problem with individualism – the idea that we try to explain problems at the individual rather than the institutional level. If we cling to individualism to explain racism, we will only blame other “racist” individuals, and thus absolve ourselves – as members of the dominant racial group – from the responsibility for systemic racism. When I say if you are white, then you are racist, I do not mean to call you a bigot. In fact, by this definition, I am racist. I too, as a white person, with a white man for a father, have benefited from this racist system of advantage; I’ve been granted unearned privileges.

White readers, I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, I’m not racist!”

Whiteness is a currency that can be used to “cash in on unearned advantages” as Peggy McIntosh puts it. This is what scholars call “white privilege.”  Examining white privilege can lead you to see the unearned advantages gained from systemic, institutional inequality.  White privilege is given to all whites at birth, the benefits of which have been passed down over the generations and supported by institutions.  Sociologist Joe Feagin (who is white) explained that blacks (and presumably other racial minorities) spend a significant amount of mental energy just being black and thinking about being black in a white dominated society. If all individuals, regardless of race, have an equal number of “ergs of mental energy”, he argues, whites are able to use more “ergs” doing productive and interesting tasks because they don’t have to spend any “ergs” thinking about being white. As Tim Wise put it “Being white means not having to think about it.” This offers whites a considerable advantage in society as they are able to pursue educational, work, and leisure opportunities with zeal that is unadulterated by their race. This situation isn’t something that whites choose to be a part of or even to take advantage of. In fact, it may not have occurred to them to even think about their whiteness before. That’s the point. Not seeing oneself as having a race is a privilege only whites have; whiteness is seen as the absence of “race” by far too many.

Here’s an example of a historical legacy of privilege. Consider the right to own land and property – especially that from which wealth could be gained. Laws that allowed only whites (white men, to be exact) to own land subsidized whites’ gains in wealth by denying these benefits to everyone else. So while whites may have made “wise investments” and/or earned their money through hard work, they were also granted the opportunity to grow their wealth in ways that other racial groups were denied; these advantages only exist in relation to those disadvantaged by such laws. If everyone truly had a fair shake at growing wealth through property ownership, it wouldn’t be a privilege – and certainly not a white privilege. The legacy of this can be seen when we think about inheritance of wealth. If whites have been permitted to own property from which they gain wealth, they will have more wealth to pass on to their children than their non-white counterparts who have not been permitted to accrue such wealth. This isn’t the conscious act of greedy, bigoted white people, but rather is the product of a system of advantage based on race.

To see how white privilege is both inherited and sustained by institutions, see Barry Deutsch’s cartoon about how a white man benefited from the institutional privilege bestowed upon his ancestors. In the cartoon, Bob was baffled by the idea that he had benefited from racism. That’s the thing with white privilege – along with those unearned advantages comes obliviousness.

Children do not learn to see that white “success” was on the backs of and at the expense of slaves on land that was violently stolen; they also don’t learn that whites still benefit from such institutional practices.

In U.S. History courses, children learn about hard work, struggle, perseverance, and success of their white “founding fathers.” They do not learn to see that white “success” was on the backs of and at the expense of slaves on land that was violently stolen (see Lies my Teacher Told Me or A People’s History of the U.S.); they also don’t learn that whites still benefit from such institutional practices.The harsh contemporary realities handed down from these legacies are ignored.

This is not about blaming individual white people. It is about examining the complex institutional practices that created and perpetuate racial inequalities. Blaming individuals for being products of their culture and their education is futile; whites are taught to remain oblivious to their privilege.

If you are white and you don’t realize this, or are unconvinced, it is perfectly understandable. But dismantling white privilege (and the disadvantages that it creates) requires whites to acknowledge their privileges, admit when their race benefits them, and when possible, refuse unearned advantages. If you are white, and wish to end racism, I urge you to admit you are racist, take notice of the privileges your whiteness affords you, and educate yourself further on our complex racial history and its contemporary legacies.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Do you think Sarah’s white privilege helped her as the author to make this argument? If she was black or Latino, would her argument about white privilege come off differently? Why?
  2. If you consider yourself white use the list of white privileges provided by McIntosh as a guideline, list as many privileges as you can think of that you benefit from on a daily basis. If you are not white, which of these privileges do you feel you don’t have access to because of your race?  Compare your list with a classmate
  3. Why do you think the individual based definition is so popular in society today?  On the flip side, why do you think the institutional aspects of racism are overlooked.
  4. Assume for a moment that institutional discrimination exists and it truly is advantaging whites and disadvantaging people of color.  What should be done about it?  Will ending individual level racism ever end institutional racial inequality?