by Robert Jensen Department of Journalism, University of Texas
Austin, TX 78712, work: (512) 471-1990,
[Note: This article appeared in the Baltimore Sun ]
Here's what white privilege sounds like: I'm sitting in my University of
Texas office, talking to a very bright and very conservative white
student about affirmative action in college admissions, which he opposes
and I support. The student says he wants a level playing field with no
unearned advantages for anyone. I ask him whether he thinks that being
white has advantages in the United States. Have either of us, I ask,
ever benefited from being white in a world run mostly by white people?
Yes, he concedes, there is something real and tangible we could call
So, if we live in a world of white privilege – unearned white
- how does that affect your notion of a level playing field? I asked. He
paused for a moment and said, "That really doesn't matter." That
statement, I suggested to him, reveals the ultimate white privilege: The
privilege to acknowledge that you have unearned privilege but to ignore
what it means. That exchange led me to rethink the way I talk about race
and racism with students. It drove home the importance of confronting
the dirty secret that we white people carry around with us every day: in
a world of white privilege, some of what we have is unearned. I think
much of both the fear and anger that comes up around discussions of
affirmative action has its roots in that secret. So these days, my goal
is to talk open and honestly about white supremacy and white privilege.
White privilege, like any social phenomenon, is complex. In a white
supremacist culture, all white people have privilege, whether or not
they are overtly racist themselves. There are general patterns, but such
privilege plays out differently depending on context and other aspects
of one's identity (in my case, being male gives me other kinds of
privilege). Rather than try to tell others how white privilege has
played out in their lives, I talk about how it has affected me.
I am as white as white gets in this country. I am of northern European
heritage and I was raised in North Dakota, one of the whitest states in
the country. I grew up in a virtually all-white world surrounded by
racism, both personal and institutional. Because I didn't live near a
reservation, I didn't even have exposure to the state's only numerically
significant nonwhite population, American Indians.
I have struggled to resist that racist training and the racism of my
culture. I like to think I have changed, even though I routinely trip
over the lingering effects of that internalized racism and the
institutional racism around me. But no matter how much I "fix" myself,
one thing never changes - I walk through the world with white privilege.
What does that mean? Perhaps most importantly, when I seek admission to
a university, apply for a job, or hunt for an apartment, I don't look
threatening. Almost all of the people evaluating me look like me they
are white. They see in me a reflection of themselves - and in a racist
world, that is an advantage. I smile. I am white. I am one of them. I am
not dangerous. Even when I voice critical opinions, I am cut some slack.
After all, I'm white.
My flaws also are more easily forgiven because I am white. Some complain
that affirmative action has meant the university is saddled with
mediocre minority professors. I have no doubt there are minority faculty
who are mediocre, though I don't know very many. As Henry Louis Gates
Jr. once pointed out, if affirmative action policies were in place for
the next hundred years, it's possible that at the end of that time the
university could have as many mediocre minority professors as it has
mediocre white professors. That isn't meant as an insult to anyone, but
it's a simple observation that white privilege has meant that scores of
second-rate white professors have slid through the system because their
flaws were overlooked out of solidarity based on race, as well as on
gender, class and ideology.
Some people resist the assertions that the United States is still a
bitterly racist society and that the racism has real effects on real
people. But white folks have long cut other white folks a break. I know,
because I am one of them. I am not a genius - as I like to say, I'm not
the sharpest knife in the drawer. I have been teaching full time for six
years and I've published a reasonable amount of scholarship. Some of it
is the unexceptional stuff one churns out to get tenure, and some of it,
I would argue, is worth reading. I worked hard, and I like to think that
I'm a fairly decent teacher. Every once in a while, I leave my office at
the end of the day feeling like I really accomplished something. When I
cash my pay check, I don't feel guilty. But, all that said, I know I did
not get where I am by merit alone. I benefited from among other things,
white privilege. That doesn't mean that I don't deserve my job, or that
if I weren't white I would never have gotten the job. It means simply
that all through my life, I have soaked up benefits for being white.
All my life I have been hired for jobs by white people. I was accepted
for graduate school by white people. And I was hired for a teaching
position by the predominantly white University of Texas, headed by a
white president, in a college headed by a white dean and in a department
with a white chairman that at the time had one nonwhite tenured
professor. I have worked hard to get where I am, and I work hard to stay
there. But to feel good about myself, and my work, I do not have to
believe that "merit" as defined by white people in a white country,
alone got me here. I can acknowledge that in addition to all that hard
work, I got a significant boost from white privilege. At one time in my
life, I would not have been able to say that, because I needed to
believe that my success in life was due solely to my individual talent
and effort. I saw myself as the heroic American, the rugged
individualist. I was so deeply seduced by the culture's mythology that I
couldn't see the fear that was binding me to those myths.
Like all white Americans, I was living with the fear that maybe I didn't
really deserve my success, that maybe luck and privilege had more to do
with it than brains and hard work. I was afraid I wasn't heroic or
rugged, that I wasn't special. I let go of some of that fear when I
realized that, indeed, I wasn't special, but that I was still me. What I
do well, I still can take pride in, even when I know that the rules
under which I work in are stacked to my benefit. Until we let go of the
fiction that people have complete control over their fate - that we can
will ourselves to be anything we choose - then we will live with that
White privilege is not something I get to decide whether I want to keep.
Every time I walk into a store at the same time as a black man and the
security guard follows him and leaves me alone to shop, I am benefiting
from white privilege. There is not space here to list all the ways in
which white privilege plays out in our daily lives, but it is clear that
I will carry this privilege with me until the day white supremacy is
erased from this society.
[Note: A version of this essay ran in the Perspective section of the
Baltimore Sun on July 4, 1999. It is a follow-up to an essay on the same
subject that ran in July 1998. By writing about the politics of white
privilege--and listening to the folks who responded to that writing--I
have had to face one more way that privilege runs deep in my life, and
it makes me uncomfortable.
The discomfort tells me I might be on the right track.
Last year I published an article about white privilege in the Baltimore
Sun that then went out over a wire service to other newspapers.
Electronic copies proliferated and were picked up on Internet discussion
lists, and the article took on a life of its own.
As a result, every week over the past year I have received at least a
dozen letters from people who want to talk about race. I learned not
only more about my own privilege, but more about why many white folks
can't come to terms with the truism I offered in that article: White
people, whether overtly racist or not, benefit from living in a world
mostly run by white people that has been built on the land and the backs
of non-white people.
The reactions varied from racist rantings, to deeply felt expressions of
pain and anger, to declarations of solidarity. But probably the most
important response I got was from non-white folks, predominantly
African-Americans, who said something like this: "Of course there is
white privilege. I've been pointing it out to my white friends and
co-workers for years. Isn't funny that almost no one listens to me, but
everyone takes notice when a white guy says it."
Those comments forced me again to ponder the privilege I live with. Who
really does knows more about white privilege, me or the people on the
other side of that privilege? Me, or a black inner-city teenager who is
automatically labeled a gang member and feared by many white folks? Me,
or an American Indian on the streets of a U.S. city who is invisible to
many white folks? Whose voices should we be paying attention to?
My voice gets heard in large part because I am a white man with a Ph.D.
who holds a professional job with status. In most settings, I speak with
the assumption that people not only will listen, but will take me
seriously. I speak with the assumption that my motives will not be
challenged; I can rely on the perception of me as a neutral authority,
someone whose observations can be trusted.
Every time I open my mouth, I draw on, and in some ways reinforce, my
privilege, which is in large part tied to race.
Right now, I want to use that privilege to acknowledge the many
non-white people who took the time to tell me about the enduring
realities of racism in the United States. And, I want to talk to the
white people who I think misread my essay and misunderstand what's at
The responses of my white critics broke down into a few basic
categories, around the following claims:
1. White privilege doesn't exist because affirmative action has made
being white a disadvantage. The simple response: Extremely limited
attempts to combat racism, such as affirmative action, do virtually
nothing to erase the white privilege built over 500 years that pervades
our society. As a friend of mine says, the only real disadvantage to
being white is that it so often prevents people from understanding
2. White privilege exists, but it can't be changed because it is natural
for any group to favor its own, and besides, the worst manifestations of
racism are over. Response: This approach makes human choices appear
outside of human control, which is a dodge to avoid moral and political
responsibility for the injustice we continue to live with.
3. White privilege exists, and that's generally been a good thing
because white Europeans have civilized the world. Along the way some bad
things may have happened, and we should take care to be nice to
non-whites to make up for that. Response: These folks often argued the
curiously contradictory position that (1) non-whites and their cultures
are not inferior, but (2) white/European culture is superior. As for the
civilizing effect of Europe, we might consider five centuries of
inhuman, brutal colonialism and World Wars I and II, and then ask what
4. White privilege exists because whites are inherently superior, and I
am a weakling and a traitor for suggesting otherwise. Response: The Klan
There is much to say beyond those short responses, but for now I am more
interested in one common assumption that all these correspondents made,
that my comments on race and affirmative action were motivated by "white
liberal guilt." The problem is, they got two out of the three terms
wrong. I am white, but I'm not a liberal. In political terms, I'm a
radical; I don't think liberalism offers real solutions because it
doesn't attack the systems of power and structures of illegitimate
authority that are the root cause of oppression, be it based on race,
gender, sexuality, or class. These systems of oppression, which are
enmeshed and interlocking, require radical solutions.
And I don't feel guilty. Guilt is appropriate when one has wronged
another, when one has something to feel guilty about. In my life I have
felt guilty for racist or sexist things I have said or done, even when
they were done unconsciously. But that is guilt I felt because of
specific acts, not for the color of my skin. Also, focusing on
individual guilt feelings is counterproductive when it leads us to
ponder the issue from a psychological point of view instead of a moral
and political one.
So, I cannot, and indeed should not, feel either guilty or proud about
being white, because it is a state of being I have no control over.
However, as a member of a society--and especially as a privileged member
of society--I have an obligation not simply to enjoy that privilege that
comes with being white but to study and understand it, and work toward a
more just world in which such unearned privilege is eliminated.
Some of my critics said that such a goal is ridiculous; after all,
people have unearned privileges of all kinds. Several people pointed out
that, for example, tall people have unearned privilege in basketball,
and we don't ask tall people to stop playing basketball nor do we
eliminate their advantage.
The obvious difference is that racial categories are invented; they
carry privilege or disadvantage only because people with power create
and maintain the privilege for themselves at the expense of others. The
privilege is rooted in violence and is maintained through that violence
as well as more subtle means.
I can't change the world so that everyone is the same height, so that
everyone has the same shot at being a pro basketball player. In fact, I
wouldn't want to; it would be a drab and boring world if we could erase
individual differences like that. But I can work with others to change
the world to erase the effects of differences that have been created by
one group to keep others down.
Not everyone who wrote to me understood this. In fact, the most creative
piece of mail I received in response to the essay also was the most
confused. In a padded envelope from Clement, Minn., came a brand-new can
of Kiwi Shoe Polish, black. Because there was no note or letter, I have
to guess at my correspondent's message, but I assume the person was
suggesting that if I felt so bad about being white, I might want to make
But, of course, I don't feel bad about being white. The only motivation
I might have to want to be black -- to be something I am not -- would be
pathological guilt over my privilege. In these matters, guilt is a
coward's way out, an attempt to avoid the moral and political questions.
As I made clear in the original essay, there is no way to give up the
privilege; the society we live in confers it upon us, no matter what we
So, I don't feel guilty about being white in a white supremacist
society, but I feel an especially strong moral obligation to engage in
collective political activity to try to change the society because I
benefit from the injustice. I try to be reflective and accountable,
though I am human and I make mistakes. I think a lot about how I may be
expressing racism unconsciously, but I don't lay awake at night feeling
guilty. Guilt is not a particularly productive emotion, and I don't
wallow in it.
What matters is what we decide to do with the privilege. For me, that
means speaking, knowing that I speak with a certain unearned privilege
that gives me advantages I cannot justify. It also means learning to
listen before I speak, and realizing that I am probably not as smart as
I sometimes like to think I am.
It means listening when an elderly black man who sees the original
article tacked up on the bulletin board outside my office while on a
campus tour stops to chat. This man, who has lived with more kinds of
racism than I can imagine through more decades than I have been alive,
says to me, "White privilege, yes, good to keep an eye on that, son.
Keep yourself honest. But don't forget to pay attention to the folks who
live without the privilege."
It doesn't take black shoe polish to pay attention. It takes only a bit
of empathy to listen, and a bit of courage to act.
How We Are White
By Gary Howard from the Southern Poverty Law Journal, Teaching Tolerance
The break is over and I am ready to begin the second half of a four hour
multicultural curriculum workshop. Twenty-five teachers and staff are
scrunched into 2nd grade desks, all eyes and White faces turned toward
their one African American colleague, who has asked to address the
group. He announces that he will be leaving this workshop immediately
and resigning at the end of the year. He has lost hope in their
willingness, and ability to deal with issues of race.
After he leaves, a painful silence grips the room. I realize that my
planned agenda is no longer appropriate. Gradually the participants
begin to talk. Their comments are rife with guilt, shame, anger, blame,
denial, sadness and frustration. It becomes clear there has been a long
history leading to this moment. Together they are experiencing a
collective meltdown over the realities of race and their own whiteness.
One faculty member remarks, "I feel so helpless. What am I supposed to
do as a white teacher?"
In my 25 years of work in multicultural education, I have encountered an
almost universal uneasiness about race among White educators. Since the
publication of my book "We Can't teach What We Don't Know": White
teachers, multiracial schools, many people have shared their stories
with me. A White teacher from California reports, "I realize that I have
contributed to the failure of my students of color by not being able to
drop the mask of privilege that I wear. Another White teacher writes, "I
thought I was going crazy. It was helpful to hear that other White
teachers feel similar confusion."
As White educators, we are collectively bound and unavoidably complicit
in the arrangements of dominance that have systematically favored our
racial group over others. In my own family, the farm was in Minnesota
that I cherish as part of our heritage was actually stolen from the
Ojibwe people only a few years before my great-grandparents acquired it.
This is only one of the countless ways I am inextricably tied to
privilege. I did not personally take the land, yet I continue to benefit
from its possession.
But privilege and complicity are only part of the story. The police
officers who brutally assaulted civil rights activists during the Selma
march in 1965 were certainly White, but so were many of the marchers who
stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on
that awful Sunday. It is true that three White men dragged James Byrd to
a horrific death in Jasper , Texas, but it is also true that many White
townspeople and a predominantly White jury condemned this act of racist
In the course of my work and personal reflection, I have discovered
there are many ways of being white. Some Whites are bound by
fundamentalist White orientation. They view the world through a single
lens that is always right and always white. White supremacist hate
groups represent one particularly hostile form of fundamentalist White
orientation, but there is also an uninformed and well-intentioned
version that simply has never been exposed to other perspectives. This
was my orientation from birth through my high school years, when I had
never met a person who wasn't white. Fundamentalist White teachers often
say, "I don't see color. I treat all my students the same."
Other Whites live from an integrationist White orientation, where
differences are acknowledged and tolerated but still not fully accepted.
Integrationist Whites are self-congratulatory in their apparent openness
to racial differences, yet often paternalistic and condescending of
people of color. In this way of being White, we prefer to keep the
peace, avoid confrontation and maintain control, rather that actually
get to the core of our separate truths and unique racial perspectives.
Integrationist White teachers say to students of color, "I know how you
feel," even when we have no real connection to their reality. This was
my first orientation when I first began "helping" Black kids in the
ghetto in the 1960s. I thought I was the answer, rather than the
Finally, there is the transformationist White identity, which is a place
of humility and active engagement in one's own continuing growth and
reformation. Transformationist Whites have acquired a paradoxical
identity, which allows us to acknowledge our inevitable privilege and
racism while at the same time actively working to dismantle our legacy
of dominance. Transformationist White teachers know it is our place and
our responsibility to engage issues of race and multicultural education
in the classroom.
White educators do have a choice to grow beyond our ignorance, denial,
and guilt. There is a journey, which I envision is like a river that
carries us through many confusing currents and treacherous rapids, but
which eventually can lead to a place of authentic multicultural White
identity. Ultimately, good teaching is not a function of the color of
our skin. It is much more closely related to the temperament of our mind
and the hue of our heart. We did not choose whether to be White, but we
can effect how we are White. This is both our challenge and our hope. In
the last few years I have returned several times to work with the
elementary staff who experienced such a painful meltdown over issues of
race. With courage they have stayed on the river, chosen to look deeply
into the reflective pool of their own difficult history together, and
have come to a place of honesty and renewed commitment to a
multicultural vision for their school. At our last meeting, when the
painful event was alluded to in discussion, a newly hired Asian American
asked, "What happened?" A veteran White teacher responded, "Its a long
story we need to share with you. It will help you know who we are."
Gary Howard is currently President of the REACH Center for Multicultural
Education in Seattle. He is the author of "We Can't Teach What We Don't
Know", available from REACH 206-545-04977