White Privilege


White privilege is generally regarded as a system of unearned privileges and advantages that have been unjustly provided to white people simply because of their race.

The concept traces back to W.E.B Dubois in the 1930s who spoke of a psychological wage that every white man earned each day simply by being white. The idea was refined and given new expression in a 1988 essay written by radical feminist, Peggy McIntosh, who is a Senior Research Associate of the Wellesley Centers for Women. She wrote an essay on Male Privilege and White Privilege that was quickly released in its shorter form entitled, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

The essay is a personal account of McIntosh’s perceptions of her own life of privilege. She attributes many of the benefits and advantages she has to the fact that she is white and then extrapolates that to all white people. Her analogy is that all white people have a knapsack full of privileges that they enjoy but which they “have been carefully taught not to recognize.” Thus, their knapsacks and privileges are invisible to them.

McIntosh lists 26 privileges that whites possess unthinkingly and includes everything from being able to be in the company of people of their own race most of the time to being able to purchase “flesh-colored” band-aids and have them match their skin tone.

In one sense the case for white privilege is easy to make in most Western societies. Any group who is largely responsible for the establishment of the culture of a society will inevitably enjoy more privileges in that society than other groups. This is true for Chinese in China, Zambians in Zambia, and the Swedes in Sweden—regardless of the color of their skin.

It was also true for murderers, thieves, highway robbers and other criminals running from the law in the late 19th century when they settled in Logan County, Kentucky. “Rogues Harbor,” as the settlement came to be called, was run by and set up to benefit, well, to benefit rogues. The depth of their “privilege” was driven home to law-abiding citizens when the so-called “regulators” where defeated in a battle against the rogues, thus continuing the inequities of that society for years to come. Only when the law finally crossed the Alleghanies did the western frontier begin to experience greater degrees of its rule.

Do some people have more advantages than others? Of course. It is inevitable and obvious. Who would deny that all people do not enjoy the same opportunities, benefits or blessings in life? Call that privilege if you will, but the reality is that such disparities are simply a part of God’s providential ordering of the world. “For not from the east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up, but it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another” (Psalm 75:6-7).

The creators and promoters of “white privilege” have simply taken that reality and racialized it in an attempt to explain disparities that they observe among people of different color. Some have gone further and weaponized the concept in a misguided attempt to provide equal outcomes for different groups of people. Thus, whites are told to “check their privilege” in order to flatten out any disparities between themselves and those who are not white.

Furthermore, observable disparities between people are far from always being only beneficial or detrimental. This is evident with physical disparities. Some people are tall; some short. Some are strong; some weak. Some are genetically predisposed to long life; others to early deaths.

But is height always a privilege? Not if you are flying coach on Delta it isn’t! Or if you are riding in the back seat of a Honda Civic.

The problem with white privilege is that it has quickly become a worldview for those who insist on seeing everything through a racialized lens. People are divided up into groups of greater or lesser privilege based on race. This, then, provides a rationale for people thinking about themselves as either oppressed by those who have privilege or oppressing those without it.

In addition to fostering a superficial way of thinking about the world, the idea of white privilege also breeds a sense of white guilt. White people are made to feel like they must always check their privilege or else maintain an oppressive posture over those who are not white. This encourages a victim-mentality in those who are not white, sending the false message that no matter what they do, they cannot overcome the unearned privilege of those who are white.

Scripture calls us to accept responsibility for our own lives, no matter how privileged or underprivileged we may be. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus makes the point that three servants were given unequal amounts of money—or we might say, privilege—but each one of them was expected to exercise wise stewardship over what they were given. The servant who received five talents made five more and was commended and rewarded. In the exact same way, the servant who received only two talents was commended and rewarded. Only the servant who buried his lone talent and did nothing with it was rebuked and condemned by the master.

The Bible teaches us to see all of life as grace and to recognize that we stand before Him as His image-bearers who are accountable to Him. Whether He puts one, two or five talents in my hand, I must recognize that it is more than I deserve and I must make the most of what has been entrusted to me. That is, I must use whatever gifts and opportunities—whatever privileges—God gives me to honor Him by doing good to others, especially to those with greater needs.

I am not to covet those who have more nor disdain or neglect those who have less. Rather, I am to thank God for His grace, look to Him for the greatest gift of salvation in Christ, and seek to live my life wholly for His glory.