In 1989, Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay that popularized the term white privilege. In 2020, the term has been embraced by Progressives, millennials, and a wide range of Americans to demonstrate tolerance, understanding, and acknowledgment of racial inequality.
McIntosh defines white privilege as:
“an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.”
Privilege is defined as “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage or favor,” with other definitions including:
- such a right or immunity attached specifically to a position or an office
- a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most
- a special right, immunity, or exemption granted to persons in authority or office to free them from certain obligations or liabilities
- the principle or condition of enjoying special rights or immunities
Privilege comes from the Latin word privilegium, which means:
“A special constitution by which the Roman emperor conferred on some single person some anomalous or irregular right, or imposed upon some single person some anomalous or irregular obligation, or inflicted on some single person some anomalous or irregular punishment. When such privilegia conferred anomalous rights, they were styled “favorable.” When they imposed anomalous obligations, or inflicted anomalous punishments, they were styled “odious.” Aust Jur.”
“law applying to one person, bill of law in favor of or against an individual,”
and in the post-Augustine period:
“an ordinance in favor of an individual, privilege, prerogative,” from privus “individual.”
The concept of privilege is rooted, throughout history, in an action that gives a specific selective group more rights or benefits than the rest of society. The first two English definitions, therefore, are incompatible with the definition of white privilege given by McIntosh because they would require the State or Federal government to endow specific rights upon white people or white men that are not conferred upon all other citizens. For example, a law that states white people can not be pulled over while driving in certain neighborhoods.
The United States Census in 1990 found that 80.3% of Americans were white. Therefore, the third definition of privilege is incompatible with McIntosh’s description of white privilege because if we assume that the privilege does exist, it is a privilege that is granted to the vast majority of citizens, not the minority. Therefore, it would not be a privilege but instead a widespread entitlement or right.
The fourth definition of privilege likewise is inconsistent with McIntosh’s definition, as it would only apply to government or state actors or elected officials. The fifth definition is inaccurate because it would require the State to formally grant a specific group unique benefits or rights.
The Latin root of the word likewise points to privilege is the result of the State taking formal action or passing a law to provide additional benefits to a specific group of people, who would be in the minority of the populace.
The reason it is imperative to deconstruct the definition of white privilege is that its application is widely used in a context that does not support the intent of the phrase. McIntosh’s premise is simple: white people, because they are white, have special benefits not afforded to other races or genders, and that most white people are unaware of this unique benefit.
The justification relies on assumptions, not data. The conclusion is based on subjective experiences, such as not having to worry about a police officer pulling the author over because she is white. More specifically, McIntosh states that being white provides intrinsic benefits but offers no evidence that it is true.
If a privilege requires a formal action by the State to provide additional benefits to a particular group then the white privilege is a myth. So if there is no evidence to support a white person is specially endowed with a set of additional legal benefits not afforded to minorities, what is the true meaning of the term white privilege?
McIntosh is convinced she receives benefits because she is white. However, the complication is that she does not know how her life would or would not be different if she were Black or Hispanic. The assumption is, in itself, racist. She presumes to know what life is like for a group of people she does not belong to while proclaiming that her race grants her special privileges.
A few assumptions McIntosh shares, which are subjective personal experiences, that build the basis for her belief in white privilege:
- “When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.”
This statement overlooks the cultural and ethnic diversity of white people, reinforcing the belief that people who look like you must be similar to you and that if they look similar to you, you must share their collective accomplishments.The United States has a long history of nativism and cultural intolerance towards immigrants, ranging from Germans, Irish, Ulster-Scots, to the English. In short, it demonstrates the author is unable to understand her own culture beyond her skin color. It also assumes that all white people share the view that if a white person is part of American history, their skin color somehow connects them with the event. Under that logic, it would entail the author shares a connection with both Union and Confederate white soldiers or that the author can identify with a specific group of white people.
Another fallacy is McIntosh’s points fails to consider what she defines as a benefit of white privilege is not available to many impoverished whites:
- “If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.”
Plenty of white people struggle to find affordable housing. In 1990, 15.2% of women lived in poverty, In 2014, white women were more likely to live in poverty than men (16.1% vs 13.4%). White (11.1%) and black women (28%) are more likely to be in poverty than their male counterparts (9.1% of white men, 24.1% of black men). Poverty rates are also highest among young people, with poverty rates being:
- 21.1% and 21.2% for women and men 17 and younger (19.9% in 1990)
- 21.9% and 17.6% for women and men between the ages of 18 and 24
- 18.2% and 11.3% for women and men between the ages of 25 and 34
- 14.2% and 10.4% for women and men between the ages of 35 and 44
No gender over the age 45 or older experienced a poverty rate higher than 12.7% in 2014, which is statistically similar to data in 1990.
McIntosh fails to consider she was privileged by her class and socioeconomic status, as the rate of poverty among black and white women shows that affordability is a barrier for many women. When market housing rates are unaffordable, it limits housing options. Individuals in poverty do not have the same access to safe housing as middle and upper-class Americans.
Options to rent or purchase a home can be limited because of issues such as an eviction history, poor credit, lack of income, lack of references, and criminal convictions. These factors are more common among minorities, single mothers, the working poor, and those in poverty.
McIntosh did not consider her class, status, education, criminal history, profession, or income, and instead attributed her ease of finding housing to race, and race alone.
- “I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.”
What is surprising about attributing a neighbors friendliness to her race is that it fails to consider why neighbors may have a conflict with other neighbors. Once again, there are no facts to back this assertion. Relations with neighbors likely consider how neighbors interact with each other, but glancing over this topic entirely is assumptive and baseless. Conflict with neighbors is common and her race may not be as important as factors such as how she treats her neighbors and whether she maintains her property.
Other assumptions McIntosh uses to support the existence of white privilege include:
- “Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.”
This is a broad statement that fails to consider the discrimination the working poor face or consider the author’s privilege may not be rooted in race, but rather how she dresses, talks, and presents herself. It could also be as simple as she uses checks regularly and they have always been deposited/cashed without problems.
- “I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.”
Once again, the working class and poor have always faced obstacles in affording child care and McIntosh fails to understand that her privilege is based more on her class than her race.
- “I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.”
This fails to consider that mental health issues, like anxiety and depression, routinely make people feel isolated, out of place, and ostracized. Trauma likewise impacts social relationships and interactions. The attribution to race resulting in positive group experiences also glances over what type of organization the author belongs to. If she belongs to a group that shares her values, it would entail making the author feel as though she belonged.
The women’s movement against sexual harassment was a central policy issue in the 1980s, meaning that many women were advocating that they felt unsafe in public spaces and at work. For these women, their whiteness did not provide a privilege but potentially did cause them to be targeted by men who preferred intimate relationships with white women.
- “I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.”
The irony of this statement is white women have benefited more than any other race or gender from Affirmative Action policies. The trends of white women receiving more career and educational opportunities existed in the 1980s.
- “I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.”
This assumption again is based on McIntosh assuming all white people or all white women have the same life experiences as her. Anxiety and trauma impact more women than men. Once again, it appears that McIntosh is attributing “white privilege,” to the way other people treat her without considering that not all white women or men feel the same way or have the same background.
A simple example is people who tip well are often treated better by servers in restaurants. If McIntosh was known to treat service industry workers well, the treatment may be a reflection of tipping rather than her race.
- “I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.”
Another assumption that overlooks how those with mental illness interact with the public and other members of society. Anxiety, depression, and trauma all cause symptoms that impede an individual’s ability to feel “normal.” 29.4% of Americans met the criteria for a mental health disorder in 1990.
McIntosh also states:
“For me, white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.”
McIntosh fails to deconstruct why she feels like she had more benefits in life than others throughout the first part of her essay, then stretches her interpretation of her life experiences as supporting a determinist argument. Failing to discuss how her education, family life, income, life choices, experiences, and health have played a role in her being treated than others is confounding. Why? Because it applies the same flawed logic at the root of racism: judging an entire group based on the experiences of a subset. In this case, McIntosh assumes all white people must have the same privilege she does.
McIntosh acquired a Ph.D. from Harvard. In 1990, 1.2% of all Americans had a Doctorate. 20.8% had a bachelors and 7.5% had Masters degrees. The fact that McIntosh does not consider her exceptionally rare education a potential factor in her success and treatment is a grievous error. Individuals with a college-level education are more likely to learn positive social behaviors and communicate more effectively, thereby assimilating into affluent areas easier. That behavior is more likely to result in respect and positive reactions.
The connections she builds while at Harvard strategically provided access to opportunities most Americans do not have. A degree from arguably the best college in the United States made her a more competitive job applicant, which provided her access to a more prestigious career.
McIntosh than argues:
“For this reason, the word “privilege” now seems to me misleading. We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned or conferred by birth or luck. Yet some of the conditions I have described here work systematically to over empower certain groups. Such privilege simply confers dominance because of one’s race or sex.”
The proper definition of privilege is a favored state. McIntosh refuses to consider any possible reason other than race or gender in why she feels better positioned or more privileged than others. However, she does not provide examples of others sharing these same experiences. As someone who is in a small group of elite Harvard educated doctorate holders, she fails to consider these accomplishments impact how others treat her. She then transitions to claiming that her experiencing do not just demonstrate privilege but allows dominance.
McIntosh does not include studies or research on whether her personal experiences are shared among all whites, let alone most whites. Most white people do not attend Harvard for graduate school. That fact alone makes her an outlier among whites, especially among white women.
- “For example, the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as privilege for a few. Ideally it is an unearned entitlement. At present, since only a few have it, it is an unearned advantage for them.”
The problem with McIntosh’s position is that social skills are learned, meaning that people can invest time in improving their interactions with others. Those who invest time to improve social skills earn acceptance. The “feeling to belong,” is internal. While external factors can attempt to change your feelings, it is ultimately up to the individual to decide how they feel about other people and their actions.
A feeling of belonging is controlled by the individual and their perspective of their relationships with other people. Social interactions are complex: people we befriend in kindergarten are unlikely to be a part of our social circle in adulthood. Personal identity shapes how people perceive social connections. If you have anxiety and have low self-esteem, it is more difficult to feel social acceptance. If you recognize your symptoms and receive treatment, which entails therapy that improves maladaptive thoughts and distortions, overcoming that barrier and gaining a feeling of acceptance and belonging is earned.
Personal relationships are controlled by individuals. How we treat others remains in our sole control. If we choose to be unkind to others, it creates isolation and social consequences. The idea that feeling a sense of belonging is the obligation of others to provide to the individual undermines personal accountability. This leads to shifting the burden on external factors that can not be controlled. Relying on external uncontrolled factors to provide positive emotions robs the individual of the freedom of choosing to rely on themselves for happiness.
The reliance on the external leads to resentment when others reject you. Shifting the burden on the external forces the individual to focus negative feelings and experiences on other people or institutions instead of focusing on self-improvement. This can cause negative coping strategies and anger at others that could be avoided by deciding to control your perspective and response to external factors.
While McIntosh states that whites fail to understand racism, white attitudes of racial trends became increasingly more tolerant from 1972 to 1990. The percentage of whites who disapproved of interracial marriage was just under 40% in 1972, declining to 20% in 1990. While roughly 12% of whites supported segregated schools in 1972, “By 1985, so few people endorsed the segregationist response that the GSS dropped this item.” Support by whites for segregated neighborhoods declined from roughly 40% in 1972 to roughly 25% in 1990.
Whites were less likely to view blacks as having less ability than whites beginning in the early 1990s. In 1988, the same percentage of whites and blacks believed that inequality was caused by blacks being less capable than whites (20%). The concerning trend is that between 1995 and 1999, blacks increasingly viewed inequality as caused by having less ability than whites. Since 1998, more blacks than whites have viewed that racial inequality was caused by blacks having lesser abilities than whites.
In 1985, roughly 62% of whites responded that inequality was caused by a lack of motivation, compared to roughly 35% of blacks. By 1990, roughly 48% of blacks viewed a lack of motivation as a primary cause of inequality, compared to roughly 62% of whites. The percentage of whites stating a lack of motivation as the key factor of racial inequality declined every year between 1990 to 2015, except for minor increases in 1992 and 1995. By 2015, roughly 45% of whites cited a lack of motivation as the main cause of inequality.
Conversely, blacks’ citing a lack of motivation as a major inequality factor has staggered, peaking in the early 1990s (just under 50%) and the early 200s (over 50%), declining to just under 40% by 2015, only several percentage points below whites.
Blacks are more likely to cite discrimination as a leading cause of inequality, with just under 80% of blacks naming discrimination the primary source of inequality in 1985. By 2015, just above 60% of blacks believed discrimination was the primary cause of inequality. In the early 2010s, that number declined to 50% before spiking increasing in 2015.
White views on interracial marriage have continued to trend towards approval. In the early 1960s, more than 90% of whites disapproved of interracial marriage. By 1990, less than half of all whites disapproved of interaction marriage. In the early 2010s, the number dropped to less than 20%.
There are still disparities in race relations between whites and blacks, especially involving living in the same neighborhood and social closeness. However, the trends toward toleration began in the 1970s, continuing consistently until McIntosh wrote the article.
McIntosh’s views on white privilege were, at best, a subjective and retrospective assessment about her life experiences and treatment by others being tied to her race. McIntosh failed to consider changing race relations, a greater focus on Civil Rights enforcement, and income in her assessment. In the essay, McIntosh doesn’t describe the location these white privileges occurred in. For example, if she was in a majority-white setting with little racial diversity, it would be problematic to conclude her race impacted her interactions with others. Simply put, if her neighborhood is 90% white, she can not know whether she is being treated better for being white without evaluating how a minority would be treated in an identical situation.
The danger of perpetuating the idea of white privilege is that it implies white supremacy. Whether it’s intended to or not, the individuals using the term ignore the lengthy list of factors that contribute to positive life outcomes and inequality, specifically how individual choices affect future outcomes.
Another concern is better explained by Thomas Sowell:
“Despite the grand myth that black economic progress began or accelerated with the passage of the civil rights laws and “war on poverty” programs of the 1960s, the cold fact is that the poverty rate among blacks fell from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent by 1960. This was before any of those programs began. Over the next 20 years, the poverty rate among blacks fell another 18 percentage points, compared to the 40-point drop in the previous 20 years. This was the continuation of a previous economic trend, at a slower rate of progress, not the economic grand deliverance proclaimed by liberals and self-serving black leaders.
The murder rate among blacks in 1960 was one-half of what it became 20 years later, after a legacy of liberals’ law enforcement policies. Public housing projects in the first half of the 20th century were clean, safe places, where people slept outside on hot summer nights, when they were too poor to afford air conditioning. That was before admissions standards for public housing projects were lowered or abandoned, in the euphoria of liberal non-judgmental notions.”
Another fact Sowell cites in “Black Rednecks and White Liberals” is that while two-thirds of black children were living in two-parent households in the 1960s but only one-third were in 1994.
Black incomes rose from $1,869 ($19,883.45 when adjusted for inflation in 2020) in 1950 to $3,993.00 ($32,500.36 when adjusted for inflation in 2020) in 1965. But median income among blacks failed to increase at the same rate following 1965.
Median incomes in the 1990s to present (2020 USD):
Between 1950 and 1965, the median income of blacks increased by 63.45%. Between 1965 and 1980, black income increased by 21.33%. Civil rights legislation such as the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed in 1964 and 1965, respectively.
Between 1980 and 1995, the median income of blacks declined by 7.1%. Between 1995 and 2010, black median income increased by 0.8%. Between 2010 and 2018, black median income increased by 14.27%.
3.1% of blacks had completed at least 4 years of college in 1960, which increased to 14.7% in 1998.
The percentage of blacks with a college degree steadily climbed from 1988 (slightly above 10%) to 2015 (22%).
The cause of the lag of income growth among blacks from the period between 1950 and 1980 to 1980 to 2018 correlated with an increase of education and conferment of college degrees, as well as greater civil rights protections and racial preferencing policies. With whites becoming increasingly more aware of inequality and racism and liberalizing their views on race, it’s troublesome to assume that discrimination increased.
While the changes can be tied to changing economic times or changes in political ideology and controlling party, the concern is that Civil Rights legislation failed to decrease inequality and may have stagnated economic improvements. As Sowell points out, crime, murder rates, and single-parent households among blacks drastically increased between the 1960s and the early 1990s. The data regarding income growth and education demonstrate the policies pushed during the Great Society era and increased focus on government intervention in inequality has not improved disparities between whites and blacks.
In fact, blacks increasingly viewing that they are less capable than whites could demonstrate the negative impacts of these policies.
The push to instill the idea that certain groups are victims of external forces that curtail their independence and achievement has pushed a determinist mentality, pushing a narrative that outcomes are predetermined by conditions that are beyond the individual’s control. Empowerment lies in providing the tools, skills, and resources to individuals to learn self-sufficiency and that they can control their future outcomes.
Instead of viewing the countless issues that cause inequality, ranging from unstable upbringings to mental illness and poverty, the insistence to simplify these problems by solely focusing on race and discrimination has prevented progress. McIntosh’s use of white privilege is one example of how unsubstantiated claims based solely on subjective personal experiences that overlook additional external factors are reaffirming a false narrative: that the individual no longer controls their outcome or fate.
Every individual will face conflict imposed by external factors. Overcoming these obstacles requires empowerment. Empowerment requires understanding that individuals can control their fate by adapting to circumstances outside of their control, coping with negative external factors, and making good decisions.
In Black Rednecks and Liberal Whites, Sowell discusses how white hillbilly culture imported from Ulster-Scots impacted both white and black southerners. When migration to the north occurred, both whites and blacks assimilated to life in Northern America were appalled at the cultural practices of southerners who adopted Ulster-Scot culture (disdain for education, distaste for menial labor, crude language, etc;).
Individuals like McIntosh cultivate discrimination and inaccurate assumptions by overlooking the deep cultural differences among races in the United States. Failing to understand these differences leads to a false narrative like white privilege. The United States is a mixing pot of diverse ethnicities, religions, races, and cultures. Not all white people have white privilege, and the hillbilly Ulster-Scot and Scot-Irish culture embraced by southern whites is one example of a subset of whites who never experienced white privilege in the manner McIntosh claims it exists. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and German immigrants likewise faced discrimination, meaning that the idea of white privilege simply did not apply to certain groups of white people.
McIntosh’s’ essay does demonstrate the arrogance of white elitists: her inability to connect her unique position as a white female with an Ivy League education with how other people treat her demonstrates not just insensitivity, but a reaffirmation that certain elitists and intellectuals fail to understand the plight of the average American. An Ivy League Phd demonstrates heightened intelligence, a strong work ethic, and superior linguistic skills. Equating those accomplishments with privilege overlooks the value of hard work and commitment to achieving an admirable goal. And it dismisses that whites who struggle with poverty, trauma, mental illness, disability, and unstable childhoods do not have the same white privilege McIntosh has.
With an increasing number of white middle-class young adults embracing the concept of white privilege, it shows that inaccurate theories can pollute future generations to dismiss their accomplishments as being a benefit to what color their skin is. That leads to creating the belief that blacks are incapable of achieving due to external forces, which may be one reason why, despite blacks having more education than ever, their views are becoming increasingly negative of their skills and abilities in comparison to whites.
The first step in achieving equality is teaching every individual that while obstacles are unavoidable and external factors are uncontrollable, many people have succeeded despite the adversity posed by intolerance, discrimination, and racism. Reaffirming the individual’s ability to overcome and positively cope with negative external influences creates independence, confidence, and a positive self-image.
White people casually apologizing for their white privilege is ironically reinforcing a Progressive-era eugenics belief in superior and inferior races. Because many white people are not endowed with the type of white privilege McIntosh discusses. While undoubtedly minorities encounter and experience discrimination and racism, attributing failures solely to racism is a slippery slope. It overlooks the role socioeconomic factors, such as income, access to safe and affordable housing, the urban-rural divide, and the lack of social welfare programs that help those in poverty escape its grasp, play in race and gender inequality.
The idea of white privilege itself is contradicted by the stark divides between rural, urban, and suburban whites as well as the differences between poor and working-class whites and whites who grow up in middle-class and rich families. Being white is also not a shield against oppression, violence, or crime. Being white does not magically insulate a white woman from the trauma associated with sexual assault, nor did it protect groups like the Jews from genocide and centuries of slavery and oppression.
To fix inequality and discrimination, we have to view all the causes related to the unequal outcomes and review whether prior interventions created positive or negative changes.