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White Privilege without Overt Prejudice

December 2, 2009

A number of things contribute to white privilege. One of the most obvious contributors is overt prejudice. People who more or less knowingly discriminate on the basis of race or who actively dislike African-Americans are contributing to white privilege.

However, I also believe that due to the way habitus, normalization, and in-group bias work, white privilege would continue in a world where overt prejudice had 100% disappeared.

I try to show my students this, but whenever we talk about white privilege they always (and only) point to overt prejudice as the culprit.

This is convenient for the students because they themselves are not (for the most part) overtly prejudiced. So I’m sure they implicitly say to themselves, “I don’t hate black people, so I’m not contributing to sustaining white privilege.” That is, they give themselves a free pass because they can’t bear any guilt that might come with the alternative.

Do any of you have any good examples or case studies I could use that could show them how even non-prejudiced individuals might participate in sustaining white privilege without knowing it? (Other than, of course, contributing by ignoring ….)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2009 5:43 pm

    Peggy McIntosh has written a some really good articles/publications regarding this topic. One we always use in Intro to Sociology is her article titled “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. Within this article McIntosh does a great job at pointing out the everyday privileges that white people in America tend to experience, thus forcing the reader to think about what situations they have encountered in which their race has either hindered or helped them without it being overt in nature. I would always follow up the assignment by having the students give examples of ways that they could help neutralize future situations in which their race mattered most.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 2, 2009 6:22 pm

    Yea, I always use examples from this—but students still say those things result from overt prejudice. If McIntosh has it easier in life it’s just because other people are overtly prejudiced against people not like her …

  3. December 2, 2009 6:23 pm

    Google the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, about institutional (non-overt) racism in London’s Metropolitan Police.

  4. December 2, 2009 8:24 pm

    Maybe it would help to talk more about privilege of other sorts (as McIntosh does), so they get a better grasp on “privilege” itself. Maybe ask the women if there’s such a thing as male privilege — what, for example, can men easily do that women can’t so easily do?

    Heterosexual privilege vs. Gay/Lesbian lack of privilege as well?

    Tell them that privilege of this sort is “unearned,” and it only works as privilege when others, through no fault of their own, don’t have it.

    You could ask them to come up with examples, then ask for parallel examples in terms of race. And talk, of course, about how men and heterosexuals tend not to think much about their privileges, tend not to even be aware of them. And then shift again to asking for parallels to white privilege, and white lack of self-awareness.

  5. haytham permalink
    December 3, 2009 12:56 pm

    Usually the phrase “I don’t hate black people” comes with a fine print in the form of “as long as they …”

    Consider this (not so unrealistic) example where a society is accustomed to a certain division of labor: whites are managers and blacks are blue collar workers. While at the same time, the relation between a white manager and his subordinates can be very respectful and kind and while he watches over their well-being, his attitude might change if one of the blacks decided to become a manager and challenge the status quo. When the white manager says “I don’t hate black people”, I’m pretty sure he’s being genuine but at the same time he should add “as long as they keep their role in society and I keep mine”

  6. December 4, 2009 12:24 am

    Anytime that white students hang out with only people of their own racial group, it’s an act of sustaining white dominance and the privileges that result.

    There’s a book out called, “Why Do All the Black Kids Sit Together In The Cafeteria?”, which is a good book, from what I’ve read. It addresses these types of ignorant stances taken by whites.

    Also, NOT knowing the true racial history of one’s family and one’s country is not simply perpetuating white dominance, it’s just plain racist, because it participates in racism. Racism is not simply consciously saying, “I make it a point not to like X people.” Racism is also not knowing ANYTHING factual about the history of people who are (perceieved as) Other.

    I might claim to non-prejudiced towards Jewish people, but I have still caught myself making (wholly unfounded) generalizations about Jewish influences on the media, somewhat in regards to the Palestinian occupation. Good intentions don’t erase the years of racist culture I was bathed in.

  7. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    December 4, 2009 1:33 pm

    Thanks for the suggestions everyone. I’m definitely going to use some of this the next time around!

  8. December 7, 2009 9:42 am

    “Why Do All the Black Kids…” is a great book, but its thesis is different from what you implied, bradcorban. The author isn’t saying that white people are really the ones sitting together and excluding black kids. Her chapter on social segregation is more about oppressed groups’ need to create and sustain safe spaces.

  9. December 7, 2009 12:25 pm

    More good ideas, straight from a teacher’s mouth. Or, keyboard:

    Why Am I Not Surprised?

  10. Henry permalink
    December 7, 2009 12:38 pm

    Anytime that white students hang out with only people of their own racial group, it’s an act of sustaining white dominance and the privileges that result.

    And, any time a group of chicano or black students hang out with only their own I bet it’s the debating or history club!

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