White Privilege 

Sister Barbara Mayer, OSB

"Editor's note: Sisters from Mount St. Scholastica write a weekly column titled "View fron the Mount" in our hometown newspaper, the Atchison Globe. This column appeared in the 10-8-2016, edition of the "Globe."

Sister Barbara Ann MayerWhen I was growing up, I noticed that my brother usually got the biggest piece of cake and never had to do dishes.  In our German household, boys were always treated better than girls. So I have long been aware of male privilege.  

Last week’s column by Sister Judith spoke of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious efforts to address racism. As part of that effort, our sisters have read an article titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh. I knew that people of color were often at a disadvantage. I was not conscious, however, of how privileged white people are. Just as some men operate out of a stance of unacknowledged privilege and fail to see their oppressiveness, so also many white people are often oppressive without realizing it. “Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us,’ ” says McIntosh. She lists 26 privileges that whites take for granted and pass on to their children unconsciously. 

Here are some of the things she listed that others cannot count on:

1.I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my race will not work against me.

2.I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

3.Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability.

4.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. 

5.If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race. 

The more I thought about white privilege, the more examples I became aware of. I can buy greeting cards, picture books, and toys showing people of my race. We even have flesh-colored bandages that nearly match the color of our skin. 

We usually think of the word “privilege” in a positive way.  But some of the conditions unfairly empower certain groups. They confer dominance because of one’s race or sex. McIntosh distinguishes between earned strength and unearned power. Some of the privileges like the expectation that your race will not count against you in court should be the normal expectation for everyone in a just society. Others, like overlooking less powerful people, damage the humanity of the holders as well as those ignored. Whites need to try to spread the positive privileges and reject the negative ones. 

Most white people in the U.S. think that racism doesn’t apply to them. Since they are not people of color, most don’t see “whiteness” as racial identity, and many who do, use the awareness in a negative racist way. “Non-whites” struggle to call attention to privilege in ways that further the conversation without increasing tensions.

Yet disapproval of systems isn’t enough to change them. Silence and denial about privileges keep the status quo intact. Raising consciousness is the first step, but actually working for systemic change is long hard work. Will people of the dominant culture use our knowledge about “unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage” and will we work to rebuild power systems on a broader base?