Most white people consider only a very limited definition of Racism.
They tend to think of Racism as something that is conscious and intentional. They also tend to think it’s an action on the part of one individual, or perhaps a small “hate group.” That means they don’t recognize Racism if we define it any other way. If it’s not conscious, intentional or coming from an individual, they don’t recognize it as racism. If they’re doing something they’re not aware of, or that they don’t mean to do, they think, “I’m not racist” and they mean it. If they don’t feel the effects of societal discrimination, they think those forces don’t exist.
I used to use a very limited definition of Racism too.
I’m writing this article because I used to be one of those white people. But I’ve since learned a ton about race and Racism. There’s a huge difference between stuff that happens on the individual level and societal levels. I’m hoping that this essay will help white folks better understand what structural racism is, and what it means to be privileged. It took me years of formal and informal education to understand this stuff, and I was seeking it out. There’s a lot to understand, so here goes.
Let’s take a sociological perspective.
My training is as a sociologist. Sociology is a discipline that looks at social forces and how they shape society at the “macro” or societal level. We also look at the impact of those social forces on individuals at the “micro” level. We examine how those forces came to be and how we can change them. This essay is written from a sociological perspective. This may be helpful, especially for those who are struggling with what it means to be privileged in our society.
This essay is sociological in that I’m not discussing individuals per se, but as members of social groups. We often can’t choose our social groups, and this is particularly true of race. As a white person, I derive benefits from living in a Racist society, regardless of my views on Racism.
From the classroom, to community workshops to Medium.
This essay comes from a community workshop I developed and delivered about a half dozen times over the years. The workshop came out of a lecture series for an “Introduction to Sociology” course I taught for several years. I originally created it to address Racism, Sexism and Classism. Though those are all important (and all are inextricably linked) I will focus here on Racism. I will explicitly point out Racism’s effects on white people. By directing attention to white racial privilege, I hope to shed light on something that has not often been the focus of Racism: that white people also have racial identities. It’s a taken-for-granted status — as if whiteness is the norm, the “default” status for race. The fact that white folks tend to think of race as something people of color(1) have and they don’t is incredibly meaningful. And it’s not an accident either.
I’m talking about race here as if it can be separated from class and gender issues, but it cannot. The class and gender systems of oppression operate like Racism does. Racism not only affects the division of labor of whites and people of color. It also determines the class structure as well as the gendered division of labor. In other words, there is an intersectionality about our identities. We cannot separate out our race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability status or any other part of our identity. For the purposes of a sociological analysis, however, it’s instructive to do so.
I’ve cited the references from which I’ve drawn this material in the bibliography below. For ease or reading, I have not stuck to the strict rules of citation required in academic writing. I have drawn extensively from Bohmer & Briggs.
Race is not real biologically but it is real socially.
One last thing before I dive in — the scientific world agrees that race is not a biological fact. “Race” is socially constructed (i.e., humans made up the categories and the boundaries of those categories change over time and place). Race is tied to physical markers such as skin color, hair texture, facial attributes but does not have a real biological basis. That is, people within “race” categories have greater genetic variation than between “race” categories.
Even though race is not real biologically, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. It does. Profoundly. That’s because people still recognize those differences that are based on physical markers as meaningful. Those differences are valued differently with whites being ranked highest (i.e., the ideology of white superiority, or white supremacy).
Think about the cultural notions tied to the colors “black” and “white.” Our culture tends to portray white as pure and good and black as dark and evil. My skin is nothing like the background of this electronic document I’m typing on (white). And the skin of African American people is not like the color of the font (black). But those are the descriptors chosen to describe different races. This was not an accident.
Expanding the definition of Racism.
Recall from above where I pointed out that most white people operate under a very limited definition of Racism. If we expand the definition of Racism to include things that are unintentional and unconscious, we come closer to the type of racism people of color experience daily. However, it’s when we move from the individual level to the societal level that the real damage occurs. I’m going to shift the focus for now onto the societal level, and will come back to the individual level later in this essay.
I will highlight the distinction between racism at the individual level by using a lower case “r” and Racism at the societal level with an upper case “R.” That distinction is extremely important.
There are two types of power at play regarding Racism.
The first type of power is Racism’s power over people of color. That is what most white people focus on when thinking of Racism. This is why they don’t think it affects them. The second type of power is Racism’s power to preserve and maintain power and privilege for whites. This is the actual “purpose” of Racism. It’s no accident that most white people are blind to this aspect of Racism’s power. That’s part of the privilege of being white. We get to remain oblivious to how this system benefits us.
Now we’re going to shift the discussion to oppression. I’m going to use a very specific definition of oppression, and then deconstruct it with examples. Thanks to Bohmer and Briggs for this definition.
Oppression defined — those attitudes, behaviors and pervasive and systematic social arrangements by which members of one group are exploited and subordinated while members of another group are granted privileges.
Just to be sure we’re all on the same page here, when it comes to Racism in the U.S., this is how things are.
This means that Racism is not possible without whites. You can’t have one group that is disadvantaged without also having a group that is advantaged. It is meaningless to speak of an oppressed group unless we also identify an oppressor. The concept implies a relationship of unequal power between at least two groups. Because oppression affects everyone, the topic is of interest to all of us, regardless of race.
A commonality among all of the different types of oppression (e.g., Racism, Classism, Sexism) is that each has two major parts, an institutional aspect and an individual aspect. We’ll cover institutional aspects first, then move onto the individual aspects of oppression.
The macro level: Institutional aspects of oppression
As a reminder, the definition of oppression cited above mentions “pervasive and systematic” social arrangements. Let’s look at what it means for oppression to be pervasive. Something that is pervasive exists widely throughout an area or group. In this case, oppression is pervasive in our society in that it is expressed and reflected in all of our institutions in society. I’m referring to social institutions like the economy and the education system, not specific institutions like a particular bank or school.
Here are some examples of the pervasiveness of Racism in our social institutions.
Economy. Whites have higher income and wealth than people of color, even when education is held constant; whites are represented at much higher rates than their percentage of the population in leadership positions in the world of business.
Religion. Cultural depictions of Christians (the dominant religion in America) are of white people, when by all accounts Christ and his followers were dark-skinned inhabitants of the Middle East.
Media. Whites are typically portrayed in the media in positive or neutral ways, while people of color are often portrayed in stereotypical fashion. This perpetuates negative stereotypes, particularly for those who never come into actual contact with people of color.
Education. White students are more likely to attend schools with a greater concentration of white students, where there is a higher concentration of wealth; whites are depicted as the people who made advancements throughout history in our text books; historical events which don’t reflect well on whites are often repressed or “white-washed” in our history lessons (e.g., Columbus “discovered” America, where many thousands had lived for centuries, and we don’t mention the part about committing genocide).
Government. Our criminal justice system, an arm of the government, is less likely to arrest and convict a white person than a person of color for the same crime. In addition, once convicted, white people are much more likely to receive lighter sentences, even for the same crime.
When one group is disadvantaged, another group gets advantages.
Note that in the above examples, an instance of oppression of people of color is linked to a privilege of whites. That is, whites benefit from people of color’s oppression.
Referring again back to the definition of oppression above, we said that oppression is systematic. Something that is systematic is done according to a system or plan, it’s methodical. In the case of Racism, it’s systematic in that barriers or advantages in one social institution are linked with barriers or advantages in other institutions.
Examples of the systematic interrelatedness of barriers or advantages in social institutions.
There is a long history of Racism in housing policies in the United States. Most people are familiar with the formal system of “red lining.” These were policies that purposely kept people of color out of white neighborhoods. Though there are no longer formal policies, the legacy of those policies is still present. Given that local governments, and especially education systems, are funded by the tax base of the property owners in a community, Racist housing policies have had far reaching effects. These Racist policies have allowed whites to reap enormous benefits. The value of homes in their communities rose as people of color left. The number one way of building wealth for most Americans has been home ownership. People of color were kept from building that kind of wealth as their property values went down, if they even owned a home at all.
Privileged class leads to privileged education which leads to advantages in the labor market. Whites are more likely to live in more affluent areas with access to better schools. Such schools are more likely to prepare and expect students to go to college. This leads to higher-paying jobs and careers, as well as the ability to afford to live in areas where there are well-paying jobs. In addition, younger white people are more likely to get support from their parents for things like cars, college education, down payments on a house, and inherited wealth. Wealth is passed down through the generations for whites. This perpetuates the class advantages of the families they will raise.
Disadvantaged class leads to disadvantaged education, which leads to disadvantaged chances in the labor market. People of color have lower income and wealth which means they’re more likely to live in areas with high poverty where the education system is poor. They’re less likely to have well-paying jobs because of their education, as well as less access to well-paying jobs near where they live. In addition, younger people of color are more likely to contribute to their parent’s households, which means wealth is passed up through the generations, not down. All these circumstances perpetuate class disadvantage for the families they will raise.
Privileges and disadvantages endure and adapt over time.
Privileges associated with whiteness endure and adapt, while disadvantages associated with other races also endure and adapt over time. The advantages realized by members of privileged groups are due largely to the fact that the “rules of the game,” the rules underlying our institutions, were created by and for the privileged. Keep in mind that being privileged or oppressed is not a matter of individual choice, but is conferred on us by group membership.
White people tend to identify as individuals, not as part of the group “white people.”
What’s interesting about group membership is that white people get to view themselves as individuals, not as members of social groups. One of the ways in which we view ourselves as individuals rather than as group members is that white people tend not to think of whiteness as a racial identity. “Race” is typically seen as something that people of color “have.” Thus, white people don’t identify as part of the white race. When they identify people as white, they tend to think of extremist groups like the KKK or other white supremacists. This further reduces the chances that white people will identify as white — they don’t want to be seen like “those racists.”
Whether you identify primarily as an individual or as a member of a group matters.
There are variations in how aware individuals are of how their group membership has shaped their lives. Members of privileged groups tend to think of themselves as individuals rather than as members of a group. This partially reflects the life experiences of privileged people because one aspect of privilege is having choices, opportunities and a degree of control over your life. This individualistic perspective blinds us to the distinction between being privileged (like being given a head start in a contest) and merit (like winning a contest with no head start, and solely through your own effort).
Focus on the individual level means we don’t notice what’s going on at the societal level.
This focus on oneself as an individual rather than as a member of a group obscures the distinction between privilege and merit. If you don’t see yourself as a member of a group that is privileged, you believe that everything you’ve accomplished is a result of your own efforts. You don’t recognize that there have been “gates” that were wide open to you because they were open. They made it easier for you, rather than blocking your way.
I had to be taught that whiteness was a racial identity, I didn’t understand that. Growing up, I understood race to be something people of color “had” but I did not. That’s because whiteness is seen as neutral or the “default” option for Americans. When members of a privileged group come to see themselves as part of a group, they learn that they are only one segment of the population and that their experiences are not the same as everyone else’s. This is why it’s so important for white people to understand that they have a racial identity. Their whiteness makes a huge difference in their lives — whether they’ve noticed it or not.
When we look at our racial status in relation to other racial groups, we’re more likely to see that the conditions of our lives are connected to, and made possible by, the conditions of other people’s lives. We whites have been raised not to see our own race. This has caused us to believe that race has nothing to do with us, or where we “end up.” We’re made to believe that we got where we are solely based on our own hard work. That doesn’t mean we haven’t worked hard, it just means we’ve been given a head start over other races in every area of society. The myth that the white race is somehow superior to others is what created the system that has given us our privileges, and has kept us from seeing those very privileges. You don’t personally have to believe that whites are superior to benefit from the ideology of white superiority.
People of color are very likely to identify as members of their racial or ethnic group rather than as individuals.
People of color are usually more conscious of group membership because it’s more likely to be problematic in their lives, to stand in their way. This is true of any oppressed group. The American myth that “you can succeed if you work hard enough” is maintained because white people are acculturated to be blind to their advantages. Part of our privilege is that we get to remain oblivious to our advantages. We get to be blind to the above pervasive and systematic advantages we have in our social institutions.
The micro level: Individual aspects of oppression
This is the level at which prejudice, discrimination and stereotypes come in. Recall the definition of oppression above, where it mentioned attitudes and behaviors. These are the types of things most white people think of when they think of racism. It is processes at the micro level that strengthen and perpetuate, or weaken and disrupt, institutional aspects of oppression. In other words, the individual actions you take can either keep the systemic aspects of oppression going, or they can weaken and disrupt them. Lack of awareness and inaction keep the systemic aspects of oppression going.
Prejudice is a negative attitude and discrimination is negative behaviors toward members of a group, simply because they belong to that group. Stereotypes play out on the individual level, but they combine to form an ideology that can be used to justify the exploitation of one group for the benefit of another. Stereotypes cannot be interpreted one at a time. They seem to describe people, but they really also evaluate them in terms of positive and negative attributes.
The myth of “reverse discrimination.”
Heated debates have arisen around reverse discrimination. The belief that this is a real thing shows a lack of understanding of the institutional aspects of oppression. Privileged groups have more opportunities to block oppressed groups’ access than the reverse. Privileged groups are also the gatekeepers of more important positions in our society (see the Institutional Level in Figure 2). This illustrates the fact that what appears to be an instance of “reverse discrimination” is in fact a consequence of racism.
Affirmative Action policies are a perfect example. Affirmative actions for the benefit of whites have been in existence since the very founding of our nation, across every institution. Yet it wasn’t until such policies were written for the benefit of oppressed groups and named “Affirmative Action” that whites became aware that there were such policies - even though they and their ancestors had been benefiting from them for hundreds of years. The purpose of these modern policies is not to exclude members of privileged groups, but to make up for the disadvantages faced by oppressed groups for centuries.
Oppression can only operate in one direction — from those with the most power to those with the least.
When you take a macro view, you see reverse discrimination is a faulty and misleading concept. An instance of exclusion of a white person in a society that is systematically and pervasively arranged to benefit them takes on very different meaning and has very different consequences from an instance of exclusion of a person of color. Because of the structured nature of oppression, it can only operate in one direction. That is, with the oppressed group as the target of exploitation. Yes, individuals may be prejudiced and discriminate against oppressed or privileged group members (as seen in the bottom level of Figure 2). But that is no comparison to what’s going on at the societal level. The problem of Racism is much larger than prejudice and discrimination.
Oppressed groups do not have the power to deny privileges and rights to the oppressing groups on an institutional level. This is evident in Figure 2. Micro processes may appear similar (the bottom 3 levels of Figure 2). However, when you pan the view out and look at the social context, which is what sociologists do, you see that they’re not the same in context.
Stereotypes can only be understood in context.
Stereotypical images of oppressed groups can often be matched with a positive image about the privileged group. Stereotypes have consequences that go well beyond the individual level. Stereotypes can lead to laws and policies at the institutional level. This is particularly problematic for oppressed groups when people of privilege have no personal experience with members of oppressed groups. That means they base their opinions on stereotypes rather than personal experience. It’s much easier for a person of color to call on their personal experience with white people because they live within a white-dominated culture.
Stereotypical images combine to form an ideology that can be called upon to justify the exploitation of one group for the benefit of another (see the Societal Level in Figure 2). That is, the ideology of white superiority. Stereotypes, therefore, cannot be interpreted one at a time but must be examined within the social context. Though oppressed groups may have stereotypes of privileged groups, the consequences are much different. Dominant groups have the ability to spread stereotypical messages about themselves and oppressed groups within social institutions because they are in charge of those social institutions. And, those messages about oppressed groups are much more likely to be negative.
Oppression is driven and upheld by interrelated policies and procedures operating at multiple levels. With stereotypes in particular, this includes the mass media as well as education, politics, religion, etc. Oppressed groups only have limited access to these institutions.
Without this sociological lens, there’s no context for individual level interactions so it can look like prejudice and discrimination are a problem for everyone (including against whites). If we focus just at the individual level, it looks like the solution exists at the individual level (i.e., we just need to change individual people’s attitudes and behaviors). It’s the macro view that shows us the “invisible” forces at play.
A macro view is required for Racism to end.
The only way that Racism is going to end is if white people get on board to end it. That means they can’t just focus on individual level interactions. They can’t just focus on conscious and intentional acts of prejudice and discrimination (though those do need to stop!). They need to understand that their whiteness has meaning in their lives. Their whiteness has given them access and opportunities that are not open to people of color, whether they realize it or not.
What I was taught to do through anti-racism training is to leverage my privilege for the benefit of people of who have been marginalized. I will leave it to others to give you ideas for how to do that, but here is an excellent article to get you started.
(1). I will use the term “people of color” even though I think the term is lacking. As one scholar has said, “It’s difficult to find a respectful term for a category of existence that is a result of Racism.”
Biewen, John and Chenjerai Kumanyika. 2017. “Seeing White Series.” Scene on Radio Podcast.
Bohmer, Susanne and Joyce L. Briggs. 1991. “Teaching Privileged College Students about Gender, Race and Class Oppression.” Teaching Sociology. 19:154–163.
Kivel, Paul. 2002. “The Cost of Racism to White People.” http://paulkivel.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/thecostsofracism.pdf
Lucal, Betsy. 1996. “Oppression and Privilege: Toward a Relational Conceptualization for Race.” Teaching Sociology. 24: 245–55.
McIntosh, Peggy. 1988. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies.” Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley MA.
Barb Nangle is the Founder of Higher Power Coaching and Consulting. She works with people who are tired of drama but don’t know how to stop. Her newsletter, “Happy, Joyous and Free” shares examples of how to change deeply entrenched patterns of dysfunctional behavior. Sign up here. She’s also the creator of the podcast, “Fragmented to Whole: Life Lessons from 12 Step Recovery.”