On his SiriusXM Radio show in 2019, David Webb spoke with civil rights attorney and CNN legal analyst Areva Martin. The following exchange occurred.
Webb: I’ve [worked] across different parts of the media world, done the work so that I’m qualified to be in each one. I never considered my color the issue. I considered my qualifications the issue.
Martin: Well, David, you know that’s a whole ’nother long conversation about white privilege of things that you have the privilege of doing that people of color don’t have the privilege of.
Webb: How do I have the privilege of white privilege?
Martin: David, by virtue of being a white male, you have white privilege. It’s a whole long conversation. I don’t have time . . .
Webb: Areva, I hate to break it to you, but you should’ve been better prepped. I’m black.1
Martin obviously misused the phrase “white privilege.” But does her mistake reveal a deeper problem with the idea? What is white privilege?
Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh popularized the term in her 1989 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”2 The influence of this essay is difficult to overstate. Many scholarly journals started using the term, as it gradually spread throughout academia, from psychology to sociology to anthropology. Education professors wrote articles on strategies for teaching the theory of white privilege to students.3 The annual White Privilege Conference started in 2000. By the early 2010s, the notion of “white privilege” had broken into the mainstream. Today, the term is nearly ubiquitous. It’s frequently used on social media and by conventional news outlets. Dr. Phil devoted an entire episode of his show to it. In many schools and in most public discussions of race, you can expect to hear about white privilege. . . .
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1. On January 15, 2019, SiriusXM Patriot tweeted, “@SIRIUSXM Patriot Host @davidwebbshow mistakenly accused for his ‘White Privilege’ by @CNN Analyst @ArevaMartin.” See https://twitter.com/SiriusXMPatriot/status/1085251959672709122.
2. Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peace and Freedom, July/August 1989, https://psychology.umbc.edu/files/2016/10/White-Privilege_McIntosh-1989.pdf.
3. Jacob Bennett, “White Privilege: A History of the Concept,” Georgia State University, April 11, 2012, https://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1051&context=history_theses.
4. McIntosh, “White Privilege.”
5. “Talking about Race and Privilege: Lesson Plan for Middle and High School Students,” National Association of School Psychologists, 2016, https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/diversity-and-social-justice/social-justice/social-justice-lesson-plans/talking-about-race-and-privilege-lesson-plan-for-middle-and-high-school-students.
6. Andrew O’Hehir, “White Privilege: An Insidious Virus That’s Eating America from Within,” Salon, August 23, 2014, https://www.salon.com/2014/08/23/white_privilege_an_insidious_virus_thats_eating_america_from_within/.
7. Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies,” 1988, https://www.collegeart.org/pdf/diversity/white-privilege-and-male-privilege.pdf.
8. Peggy McIntosh, “Some Notes for Facilitators on Presenting My White Privilege Papers,” National SEED Project, 2010, https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack.
9. McIntosh, “Some Notes for Facilitators.” McIntosh expressed doubts about whether her use of the word “privilege” was appropriate, writing that “the word ‘privilege’ now seems to me misleading.” Yet she used it anyway.
10. Terry Gross, “A ‘Forgotten History’ of How the U.S. Government Segregated America,” NPR, May 3, 2017, https://www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america.
11. Paula S. Rothenberg, ed., White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, 4th ed. (New York: Worth Publishers, 2012), 5.
12. Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo, Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, 2nd ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 2017), 81–82.
13. Chauncey DeVega, “Anti-Racist Activist Tim Wise: Here’s What I’d Tell the Covington Catholic Boys,” Salon, January 28, 2019, https://www.salon.com/2019/01/28/anti-racist-activist-tim-wise-heres-what-id-tell-the-covington-catholic-boys/.
14. Ella Alexander, “Understanding White Privilege: 20 Everyday Examples,” Harper’s Bazaar, January 7, 2021, https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/culture/a32752175/white-privilege-everyday-examples/.
15. Sensoy and DiAngelo, Is Everyone Really Equal?, 97.
16. Lawrence Blum, “‘White Privilege’: A Mild Critique,” Theory and Research in Education, 6, no. 3 (November 1, 2008), http://www.faculty.umb.edu/lawrence_blum/publications/publications/A57.pdf.
17. Adedayo Akala, “Cost of Racism: U.S. Economy Lost $16 Trillion Because of Discrimination, Bank Says,” NPR, September 23, 2020, https://www.npr.org/sections/live-updates-protests-for-racial-justice/2020/09/23/916022472/cost-of-racism-u-s-economy-lost-16-trillion-because-of-discrimination-bank-says.
19. Blum, “White Privilege.”
20. “The Privilege Walk [complete],” https://studentaffairs.psu.edu/learningmodules/powerworkshop/privilegewalk.shtml (accessed August 20, 2021).
23. Steve Majors, “I’m a Black Man with White Privilege. I See How It Distorts America.” Washington Post, June 11, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/black-white-privilege/2020/06/11/e9da09b8-ab78-11ea-a9d9-a81c1a491c52_story.html.
24. Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It? (New York: Signet, 1982), 95.
25. McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” There is a grain of truth here, though not in the way she means it. The U.S. government heavily redistributes wealth and intervenes in the economy, favoring some while penalizing others. Consequently, some people have more than they have earned; others, less. But this is not what McIntosh is talking about. She and other “social justice” writers believe that because white people are privileged, they haven’t earned anything.
26. Sensoy and DiAngelo, Is Everyone Really Equal?, 71.
27. Stephanie M. Wildman with Adrienne D. Davis, “Making Systems of Privilege Visible,” in White Privilege, edited by Paula S. Rothenberg, 111.
28. Rothenberg, White Privilege, 3 (emphasis added).
29. Christine Emba, “Opinion: What Is White Privilege?” Washington Post, January 16, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2016/01/16/white-privilege-explained/.
30. Tal Fortgang, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege,” Time, May 2, 2014, https://time.com/85933/why-ill-never-apologize-for-my-white-male-privilege/.
31. On February 28, 2018, Ahmed Hussen tweeted, “A historic #Budget2018 for racialized Canadians 🗸 $19M for Black youth & mental health (UN #DPAD) 🗸 National anti-racism plan 🗸 Centre for racial/gender data 🗸 $23M multiculturalism funding 🗸 $31.8M for racialized newcomer women #RealChange for equality & growth.” See https://twitter.com/HonAhmedHussen/status/968914529303318528.
32. On March 2, 2018, Maxime Bernier tweeted, “I thought the ultimate goal of fighting discrimination was to create a colour-blind society where everyone is treated the same. Not to set some Canadians apart as being ‘racialized.’ What’s the purpose of this awful jargon? To create more division for the Liberals to exploit?” See https://twitter.com/maximebernier/status/969583307817209857.
33. On March 3, 2018, Celina Caesar-Chavannes tweeted, “@MaximeBernier do some research, or a Google search, as to why stating colour blindness as a defence actually contributes to racism. Please check your privilege and be quiet. Since our gvt’t like research, here is some evidence: https://theguardian.com/commentisfree/ . . .” See https://twitter.com/iamcelinacc/status/969933366723190784.