Everything you think you know about white privilege is wrong

I’m willing to bet that you’ve got white privilege wrong. Most people have, particularly here in the UK. It’s widely misunderstood. Like lots of other things actually.

Before we get into the details, let’s play a little game.

True or false?

  1. Goldfish have a memory of 3 seconds
  2. Napoleon was short
  3. Leaving your phone on charge after 100% damages the battery
  4. Sugar makes kids hyperactive
  5. Henry Ford invented the first automobile

They’re all false.

They’re common misconceptions. Ideas that have been banded around. Many of us believe them to be true, myself included. We think they’re facts. But they’re not.

The facts

  1. Goldfish are actually pretty smart for fish. For examle, they can be trained to respond to certain colours of light and different kinds of music.
  2. At 5’ 7” Napoleon was slightly taller than the average Frenchman of his time.
  3. 30 years ago phone batteries may have been damaged when over charged. But today’s lithium-ion batteries are advanced enough to stop charging when they reach 100%.
  4. Sugar doesn’t make kids hyperactive. Recent studies have debunked this myth. It’s the excitement of the party or the other people around them that make kids hyperactive.
  5. It was actually Karl Benz (the other part of Mercedes Benz) who invented the first modern, gasoline-run automobile.

So where do these misconceptions come from? Well, a little bit of error here, some truth twisting there, and a sprinkling of fake news on top.

It’s really common for us to get things wrong, to believe in facts when they’re not true. We all do it of course. None of us is all-knowing. It would be impossible for one person to learn everything. We are all ignorant of many, many things. It’s completely normal to misunderstand something or even to get it totally wrong. There’s no shame in mistakes or in not knowing.

White privilege is a common misconception

The same can be said for white privilege.

When asked “what is white privilege?” most people stumble. They don’t know what it means. Almost everyone gets it wrong. The common misconception is that white privilege is about being a VIP, going to a posh public school or having inherited money. Many confuse it with wealthy aristocrats or rich ladies who lunch. Some mistakenly believe that having white privilege means having an easy life.

If you’ve ever thought the same, then welcome! You’re in good company here. Like many others, I used to think the same too.

I guess the question is, why? Why do we get white privilege wrong?

We get it wrong because we’re not familiar with it

We get it wrong because we’re not well informed about white privilege.

Here in the UK, we’re not terribly familiar with how white privilege works. We don’t recognise how we benefit from being white. Most of us don’t talk about how race impacts our lives. We pretend that we “don’t see race”. In typical British fashion, we’re almost embarrassed to even mention it.

In short, we are uneducated about race and white privilege.

But we are familiar with class privilege

However, we do have a very good understanding of class systems and privileges. We understand that the further up you go in the class system, the more privileges you receive from society. We know that life is harder for those who are working-class than for those who are upper class.

Most of us can easily identify upper, middle and working-class. We have a sense of what people are like in different classes. We think of the rich upper class as VIPs, posh public schoolboys and lunching ladies. These people live in big houses and have inherited titles like Lord and Lady.

We know that poor, working-class people are defined as those who sell their labour, hence the name. They often work in manual jobs such as in fast-food restaurants and supermarkets, or as tradespeople. As undervalued members of society, they are usually poorly paid. Most rent rather than own their homes.

The middle class sit somewhere in-between. They work in professional jobs such as doctors and high street bank managers. Most are comfortably well off. Many are homeowners.

The point is, we know these people. Yes, there are plenty of untrue stereotypes associated with everyone, but we are very familiar with the class system in the UK. It’s how our society is structured.

We see how class and wealth privileges are linked

On top of that, we recognise that class and wealth are very much linked. Upper-class people are the wealthiest while the poorest are the working class.

We see class and wealth as systems all around us. They’re well known to us. We hear people talking about them in the news and on social media. Politicians argue about what to do to help the poorest in our society or whether or not to tax the rich.

We know where we are. We are accustomed to the class and wealth systems.

Separating the privileges is tricky

To confuse matters, class/wealth privilege is often linked to white privilege.

Very often, though not always, upper class, wealthy people are also white. Think about it — the royal family, senior politicians, media moguls, heads of corporations, business leaders, judges, senior scientists, owners of sports clubs. All people who we would consider to be wealthy and upper/upper-middle class. By far the majority are people with white skin. We see far fewer black people and people of colour in this group.

So we come to associate white privilege with these privileged people. People who are predominantly white.

In contrast, we see people of colour overly represented in some of the poorest sectors of our society. For example, the 2011 census states that 7.5% of the UK is Asian. And yet this group made up 17.5% of the ‘never worked and long-term unemployed’ group. So we can see that Asian people are excessively represented in the long-term unemployed group.

This leaves us with the overall association of whiteness with class privilege.

So we wrongly conclude that white privilege = privileged people

Because white privilege is not something we’re familiar with when we hear the term we immediately think of this wealthy, upper-class group. As these people are mostly white and conclude that white privilege = privileged people.

And this is why most people get white privilege wrong. This is where the misconception lies. Just as our common understanding of the memories of goldfish is wrong, so too is our common understanding of white privilege. We hear the term white privilege and immediately think of those posh public schoolboys or lunching ladies.

But this is not correct. Having white privilege has nothing to do with our class or wealth status.

White Privilege is solely due to our skin colour. Because as white people, we do not face structural racism.

White privilege is a bubble of protection racism

White people do not face structural racism. That’s it. That’s literally all white privilege is.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where structural racism is ever-present. And it harms black people and people of colour. However, if we have white skin then we are protected from this racism. This is what white privilege is: a bubble of protection from racism.

And not experiencing racism is a massive deal. Which is why it’s considered a privilege.

White privilege doesn’t mean having an easy life

Now, I’m not for one moment suggesting that all white people have an easy life. Yes, we still suffer, we struggle for money, we get ill, we face job losses, heartbreak and grief. Yes, many white people are poor and face tremendous hardships.

It’s just that they don’t have to add racism to that list of hardships. All I’m saying is that on top of life’s everyday struggles, we whites don’t have to face racism too. Regardless of our class or wealth status, white people do not face structural racism.

That’s a privilege.

That’s what white privilege is. The absence of structural racism from our lives. A bubble of protection from racism. All of us white people have this bubble of protection, regardless of our class or wealth.

Why this matters

Why does this distinction between class, wealth and white privilege matter? Well, as we’ve seen, the privileges are sometimes related. Class, wealth and white privileges are 3 separate privileges, but they’re often seen together.

This matters because trying to understand all 3 privileges at the same time is complicated. However, if we break them down into 3 separate privileges we will find it easier to understand them. If we are to figure out these privileges then the only way to start is by separating them. In our minds at least. If we isolate them from each other then we will find it easier to learn about them.

In my work, I focus solely on white privilege. However, I recognise the link between it and class/wealth privileges.

I look at it like this: There are many different privileges all jumbled up together in a tangled knot. If I try to untie the knot by pulling at 3 threads at the same time it’ll be hopeless. I’ll get lost. So, the only way to undo it is bit by bit, thread by thread. By focusing on one kind of privilege I am attempting to unravel the mess one thread at a time.

Trying to unravel white privilege at the same time as class and wealth privileges is complicated and impractical. Understanding and dismantling them one step at a time is both realistic and effective.

Summary

White privilege is not about being a VIP, going to public school or having inherited money. It is not about having an easy life either.

White privilege is about one thing, and one thing alone — a bubble of protection from racism.

White privilege is different to class and wealth privilege, but there is a link between them. It is important to acknowledge this link. White privilege is all tangled up with class and wealth privileges. But if we look hard enough, we can identify and separate the privileges.

Trying to understand white privilege at the same time as class and wealth privileges is complicated and impractical. Unravelling them one thread at a time is realistic and effective.

Join me, and unravel your white privilege.

If you’d like to learn more about white privilege, sign up for my free 7-day email course An Introduction to White Privilege here

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Helping people understand white privilege and stamp out racial inequality. Educator and aspiring thought leader.

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Natasha Crowther

Natasha Crowther

Helping people understand white privilege and stamp out racial inequality. Educator and aspiring thought leader.

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