Understanding The Difference Between Racism, White Privilege + Bias

In order to recognize racism, white privilege and/or bias, we must first understand the terms.

Let’s start at the beginning. Peggy McIntosh wrote a groundbreaking essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in 1988. Through the lens of the essay is why we begun to have conversations around white privilege. Readers can recognize white privilege by making its effects personal and tangible.

White privilege was an invisible force for many, that white people needed to recognize. It was about the most ordinary things: being able to walk into a store and find that the main displays of shampoo and panty hose being catered toward your hair type and skin tone. Being able to turn on the TV and see people of your race widely represented. It was being able to move through life without being racially profiled or unfairly stereotyped.

This idea of white privilege as unseen, unconscious advantages took hold. It became easy for people to interpret McIntosh’s version of white privilege—fairly or not—as mostly a matter of cosmetics and inconvenience.

However, those interpretations overshadow the origins of white privilege. And today, they also overshadow the ability to influence systemic decisions. The truth is that white privilege is both a legacy and a cause of racism. They overshadow the words of many people of color, who for decades recognized white privilege as the result of conscious acts and refused to separate it from historic inequities.

We’ve forgotten what white privilege really means—which is all of this, all at once. And if we stand behind the belief that recognizing white privilege is integral to the anti-bias work of white educators, we must offer a broader recognition.

A recognition that does not silence the voices of those most affected by white privilege; a recognition that does not ignore where it comes from and why it has staying power.

Recognizing white privilege is integral to the anti-bias work of white educators, leaders, and more.

Racism vs. White Privilege

To clarify, having white privilege and recognizing it is not racist. But white privilege exists because of historic, enduring racism and biases. Defining white privilege therefore also requires finding definitions of racism and bias.

So, what is racism?

Matthew Clair and Jeffrey S. Denis’s “Sociology on Racism,” define racism as “individual- and group-level processes and structures that are implicated in the reproduction of racial inequality.” Systemic racism happens when these structures or processes are carried out by groups with power, such as governments, businesses or schools. Racism is not the same as bias. Bias is a conscious or unconscious prejudice against an individual or group based on their identity.

In short, racial bias is a belief. Racism is what happens when that belief translates into action. A person might unconsciously or consciously believe that people of color are more likely to commit crime or be dangerous. That’s a bias. A person might become anxious if they perceive a Black person is angry. That stems from a bias. These biases can become racism through a number of actions ranging in severity, and ranging from individual- to group-level responses:

  • A person crosses the street to avoid walking next to a group of young Black men.
  • A person calls 911 to report the presence of a person of color who is otherwise behaving lawfully.
  • A police officer shoots an unarmed person of color because he “feared for his life.”
  • A jury finds a person of color guilty of a violent crime despite scant evidence.
  • A federal intelligence agency prioritizes investigating Black and Latino activists rather than investigate White supremacist activity.

Racism and bias rely on what sociologists call racialization. This is the grouping of people based on perceived physical differences, such as skin tone. This grouping of people, historically has fueled biases and became a tool for justifying the cruel treatment and discrimination of non-white people.

Colonialism, slavery and Jim Crow laws were all sold with junk science and propaganda that claimed people of a certain “race” were fundamentally different from those of another—and therefore, should be treated accordingly. While not all white people participated directly in this mistreatment, they learned biases and their safety from such treatment led many to commit one of those most powerful actions: silence.

And just like that, the trauma, displacement, cruel treatment and discrimination of people of color, inevitably, gave birth to white privilege.

So, What Is White Privilege?

White privilege is a concept that has fallen victim to its own connotations. The two-word term packs a double whammy that inspires pushback:

  1. The word white creates discomfort among those who are not used to being defined or described by their race.
  2. The word privilege, especially for poor and rural white people, sounds like a word that doesn’t belong to them—like a word that suggests they have never struggled.

This defensiveness derails the conversation, which means that defining white privilege must often begins with defining what it’s not. What happens is that the people you actually want to reach check out.

White privilege is not the suggestion that white people have never struggled. Many white people do not enjoy the privileges that come with relative affluence, such as food security. Many do not experience the privileges that come with access, such as nearby hospitals.

White privilege is not the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is unearned; most white people who have reached a high level of success worked extremely hard to get there. Instead, white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort.

The reason even the simplest forms of white privileges need to be recognized is that the damage goes beyond inconvenience. These privileges are symbolic of what might be called “the power of normal.” If public spaces and goods seem catered to one race and segregate the needs of people of other races into special sections, that indicates something beneath the surface.

White people move through the world with an expectation that their needs will be readily met. People of color move through the world knowing their needs are on the margins. Recognizing this means recognizing where gaps exist.

Just as people of color did nothing to deserve unequal treatment, white people did not “earn” disproportionate access to compassion and fairness. They have received it as the byproduct of systemic racism and bias. Even if they are not aware of it in their daily lives as they walk along the streets, this privilege is the result of conscious choices made long ago and choices still being made today.

White privilege is not just the subconscious comfort of seeing a world that serves you as normal. It’s also the power to remain silent in the face of racial inequity. It’s the power to weigh the need for protest or confrontation against the discomfort or inconvenience of speaking up. It’s getting to choose when and where you want to take a stand. It’s knowing that you and your humanity are safe.

What a privilege that is.

Photo Credit: Aarón Blanco Tejedor @healing_photographer

Adapted from What Is White Privilege, Really? @ Tolerance.org

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