How Some White People Respond to a Certain Term

BENTON HARBOR, Mich.—The term “white privilege” is cropping up a lot recently.

Racial justice educator Debby Irving said the term, inexact though it is, comes closest in her line of work to describe the different lives of blacks and whites in this country because of systemic racism. “If one group is discriminated against, how do you describe the other group?” she asked. So, the word “privilege” applies to the group that is free from discrimination.

“I do think that people are getting more comfortable with it and more aware of what it means,” she said in an interview. “That said, there’s still a problematic number of people that don’t understand the term. The confusion is that the word ‘privilege’ is misinterpreted as meaning money, and that isn’t what it means in the context of this brave conversation.

“So, I for instance, I do have class privilege,” Irving continued. “I have racial privilege. We call that white privilege in this country. I have ability privilege. I have hetero normative privilege. I have Christian privilege. I have Anglo privilege. The only privilege I don’t have, sort of in the big identity markers in the United States — I don’t have male privilege. 

“Each of those privileges are separate,” she said. “Of course, they all play together. But most of us are some combination of privilege and lack of privilege. We’re in a privileged group or a not-privileged group, across the spectrum. So, it’s very possible to have white privilege but not have class privilege. It isn’t impossible to understand, but it does take staying with the conversation long enough to understand that.”

It gets dicey when some white people equate “privilege” in this context with wealth. “And there’s such a visceral reaction,” Irving said, emphasizing the word “visceral.” People are likely to object passionately by saying something like, “Don’t you tell me I have privilege when I’ve been struggling my whole life and I can barely put food on the table!”

“And I understand that,” Irving said. “So, I think it’s always important to first listen to somebody who may want to share the way their lives have been hard. It’s hard for people to take information in if they don’t feel seen.”

As a white person, she said she has “the bandwidth,” the tolerance and empathy, “to hear someone tell me about how their life has been hard, before I try to lay on the layer of, ‘And you haven’t on top of that had to deal with the ways of being a black or brown person would have made every one of those things even harder.’”

She doubted that most people of color would be as tolerant in hearing a white person say how hard their life has been.