These unearned benefits aren't just perks. Privilege comes with power, specifically "unearned power conferred systematically," a term coined by anti-racist activist Peggy McIntosh (read her full essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, in this PDF). This means that people with privilege tend to have inherent power simply because.
But the greatest privilege that white people experience, according to Ibram X. Kendi, is the privilege of life itself (The Atlantic), a privilege made so acutely aware as we watch police brutality and COVID-19 highlight the inequities people in the United States – and around the world – experience because of race.
We need to remember that white privilege didn't happen by accident. These benefits are the product of a system that's built on white supremacy. White privilege wouldn't exist if we didn't live in a world that has been systemically marginalizing people of other races. You can see this play out in other forms of privilege, too. The privileges associated with being a cisgender man wouldn't be possible without a long history of patriarchy and sexism. So because we have created a society that aims to normalize white people in positions of power, we also normalize violence against other groups.
But that doesn't mean that your intersectionality excuses you from acknowledging and embracing your white privilege. Even if you grew up poor, or are marginalized by your sexual orientation, you still have white privilege if you identify as white. That racial privilege still gives you relative power to help dismantle racism, and can likely support you in advocating for the health and safety of other communities you're a part of, too.
Embracing privilege means living with the discomfort.
With this privilege comes the responsibility not just to leverage this power, but move through the emotions that come with it. Unpacking privilege and its contributions to centuries of harm is not easeful work, but necessary. And remember that these difficult emotions can prevent you from being a more active part of the dismantling work.
White fragility, for example, looks at how quickly people that benefit from white privilege can become defensive or angry when privilege is challenged (KQED). And white guilt and white shame, two other difficult emotions that can arise when processing white supremacy and the violence it upholds, can be debilitating.
Also, understand the concept of "white exceptionalism," which anti-racism author and educator Layla F. Saad explains in her recent interview with NPR. This is an unhealthy practice where people who identify as white aim to label themselves as "one of the good ones," in attempts to shield themselves from their participation in the system. People who practice white exceptionalism have to believe that they're one of the good ones, but, according to Saad, there is no bad or good. "This isn't about your inherent goodness as a person. We're talking about the ways you're unaware of causing harm to other people. Because you're not aware" (NPR).
And searching to be good or bad is a privilege in itself. It's a practice of centering how the perpetrator is perceived, as opposed to the outcome for the individuals harmed.
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