White privilege: a topic that elicits a spectrum of emotions from confusion to utter denial of its existence.
The term first appeared in a paper published in 1988, entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh.
White privilege is defined as a “social advantage that comes from being seen as the norm, automatically conferred irrespective of wealth, gender or other factors; it smooths out life, but in a way that’s barely noticeable — unless it doesn’t apply to you.”
The academic discourse around white privilege has fueled the term’s usage and awareness by young people in movements such as Black Lives Matter.
Statements like “I am white, but I am not privileged,” together with a complete denial of its existence, tend to be the common reaction, despite glaring evidence that raises questions about equality and representation in Canadian systems.
For example, 9.5 per cent of federal inmates today are black (an increase of 80 per cent since 2003/2004) and yet, Black Canadians make up less than 3 per cent of the total Canadian population.
Aboriginal people account for a staggering 23 per cent of the federal inmate population, but they comprise only 4.3 per cent of the total Canadian population. One in three women who are under federal sentence are aboriginal.
It would be inaccurate to generalize white people since there are white people who live in poverty and people of minorities who are wealthy and powerful. There are certainly white people who are disadvantaged.
However, white privilege varies from the rise and fall of accumulation of wealth.
The Washington Post’s Christine Emba explains, “It’s the fact that simply by virtue of being a white person, of whatever socioeconomic status, you get the benefit of the doubt.”
Many minorities can work as hard or twice as hard as their white counterparts but they will still face systemic barriers they need to conquer.
Unfortunately, a lot of people fail to understand that acknowledging the existence of white privilege does not mean “stripping white people of their jobs and possessions.”
Emba writes, “A request to acknowledge one’s privilege is just a reminder to be aware — aware that you might not be able to fully understand someone else’s experiences, that the assumptions you were brought up with may be blinding you, that some people may have to struggle for reasons foreign to you.”
Discussing white privilege is also not accusing white people of being racist or making “white people apologize for being white.”
The use of white privilege tends to be unintentional. Thus, the acknowledgement of its existence allows for the acknowledgement of others’ experiences, and as a society, we expect those who are privileged to help the underprivileged or disadvantaged.
Essentially, it represents the opportunity to create an equitable society.