What People Don't Understand About White Privilege

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 

When you hear the word “privilege,” what do you automatically think of? For many, it’s likely that the answer is money. We as a people have learned to equate privilege with monetary wealth and financial gain. The rich are often privileged because they can use their financial abundance to get a leg up on people who have no financial collateral.

But while equating privilege to wealth isn’t entirely wrong, the overall concept of privilege goes much further than just the advantages of money. Privilege extends to anything that will give one group an advantage over another simply for being born into that group. That’s why it’s incredibly frustrating when people don’t understand that the term “white privilege” goes so much deeper than just money.

While white privilege may include monetary wealth, it is not the entirety of what white privilege is. This is a common misconception, and it has to end.

In the most simple terms, “white privilege” is the benefit of being white and all that whiteness entails. If you’re living in the U.S., the simple fact of being born with white skin opens plenty of doors. There are literally millions of examples of this, ranging from the standards of beauty to politics to entertainment.

In our everyday lives, we are smacked in the face with whiteness. Because this country was built on the tenets of whiteness and white supremacy. So, white privilege is literally threaded through the entire American narrative, just like the stars and stripes on the American flag.

That’s not to say that white people don’t face poverty or aren’t discriminated against because of their financial status or other forms of marginalization. It happens. But when you think of the word “welfare,” many people will picture the “welfare queen” — a black woman living in government housing living a lavish lifestyle paid for by government programs and not working.

White privilege is this: out of the 70 million beneficiaries of Medicaid in 2016, 43 percent are white, and 18 percent are black, according to the Huffington Post. Out of the 43 million SNAP recipients in 2016, 36.2 percent were white, while 25.6 percent were black. So, two of the biggest government programs that the average American associates with “welfare” are actually more heavily utilized by white Americans.

Yet because white Americans are seen as a group of honest, hardworking people who can’t get ahead because “immigrants” are taking their jobs, they can get away with using more government benefits. Some of these same people are likely to accuse brown people of taking benefits away from them and then “not working and living off the government.” Newsflash: you have to work (or be actively looking for work) to receive things like Medicaid and SNAP.

But here’s how white privilege transcends financial status. Dylan Roof, a young white man in South Carolina, walked into a black church and was invited to stay for a Bible study group. Nine black people sat with him and welcomed him into their fellowship. He then turned and murdered all nine of those black people in cold blood. After he murdered those nine black people in that church, he was led out in a bulletproof vest. The cops even stopped to get him food because he was hungry before taking him into the police station.

Now, let me paint another picture for you. Eric Garner, a black man, was standing on a Staten Island street corner and tried to break up a fight between the police and another man on the corner. Garner, who was already on the police’s radar because he sold untaxed cigarettes (which he wasn’t doing that day), was handcuffed and placed in a chokehold. Garner was brought to the ground, repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe,” with a cop’s arms around his neck. He died because the paramedics who were called by the police didn’t do everything they could do to save his life. And the only crime they could try to accuse him of was resisting arrest.

Or, if you would like a more striking example, here’s one that has nothing to do with committing a crime and everything to do with being born with different color skin. Did you know that black babies are twice as likely as white babies to die within the first year of life? Infant mortality rates in this country are already off the charts for what is supposed to be the greatest country in the world, and this is beyond unacceptable. While things like socioeconomic status and geography do play a part in this, in the end it boils down to one simple thing: skin color.

When women like Beyonce and Serena Williams — two incredibly powerful and incredibly wealthy black women — can almost die during childbirth, then you can’t say it’s about anything but race. These are women who can afford to have the best doctors in the world, but at the end of the day, they’re still black. And their blackness not only put their lives in danger, but put their children’s lives in danger as well.

White privilege isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, mainly because so many people refuse to acknowledge its existence past the concept of a bank account. A poor white person in this country faces financial discrimination, sure. But until that person can walk into any establishment and be profiled upon arrival, they are still benefiting from the privilege of having white skin.

If a white person who looks disheveled can walk into a place like Starbucks and get the code to the bathroom without making a purchase and two well-dressed black men have the cops called on them almost immediately upon entry because they didn’t automatically place an order, white privilege will continue to exist. If a white person can say, “I grew up poor, I’m not privileged,” while they’re sitting in a house that they now own with a job that pays enough to afford said house, they are benefiting from white privilege.

If more people took the time to understand what it means and actively use their privilege to make sure everyone is benefiting from it, then maybe it wouldn’t be something we still need to talk about.

This article was originally published on