The origins of the ‘white privilege’ myth

An essay which made little sense in the 1980s has defined how we think about race today.

Xin Du

Topics Politics USA

In today’s world, where news is fed to the masses in pre-moulded and bite-sized pieces, important fundamentals are often taken for granted once a narrative has been built.

The recent protests and riots in response to the death of George Floyd are such an example. The idea that the police in the US are systematically racist and licentiously murder black people is accepted as a self-evident truth, despite multiple studies and endless statistics which call this oversimplified narrative into question.

Ironically, the rioting which has been partly inflamed by this narrative, built on quicksand though it is, has resulted in the destruction of black neighbourhoods, countless businesses and the deaths of at least 28 people, including black children.

The narrative of Black Lives Matter and its proxies is this: the current republic of America, conceived as it was by white people, is ineradicably and comprehensively racist. In the maelstrom of outrage, few have paused to examine where this now flourishing narrative came from.

At the bottom of all the presumptions of institutionalised racism is what is known as ‘white privilege’ – the idea that white people axiomatically have easier lives due to unearned privileges granted to them by their skin colour, at the expense of those who are not white. One of the most influential sources of this idea is the 1989 essay, ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Knapsack’, by Dr Peggy McIntosh. McIntosh’s essay is well worth a read. As a piece of academic literature, it has been cited over 5,000 times and is only a few pages long.

But McIntosh’s thesis is built entirely on assumptions. McIntosh asserts white privilege as a phenomenon, extrapolating from her assertion of male privilege. She fails to provide any statistics or even anecdotal case studies to back up either of these claims. Nevertheless, she describes white privilege as an ‘invisible package of unearned assets’. Having not really described this invisible phenomenon in any concrete way, she then asks: ‘having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?’

McIntosh lists 26 statements that attempt to buttress the ‘white privilege’ she experiences in her own daily life. It starts with the gem: ‘I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.’ It also contains the self-fulfilling prophecy: ‘If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.’

Much has improved for race relations since McIntosh’s essay. But it still came out at a time when Eddie Murphy, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson were among the world’s biggest stars. In 1988, Jesse Jackson won seven million primary votes in his second bid to run for the presidency. In the same year, Lenora Fulani ran as a third-party candidate for president and won the most votes of any woman in a national presidential election until Jill Stein in 2012. And in 1984, Ben Carson became the youngest ever director of paediatric neurosurgery in the US. Yet McIntosh still seemed adamant that black people were unlikely to find success.

McIntosh makes the kind of racial generalisations – and zero-sum arguments – that would not be alien to a Klan member. For example, she states: ‘In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable and alienated.’ It seems impossible for McIntosh to envision a place where both white and black people can be happy simultaneously. The logical conclusion from this casuistry is that for black people to be happy, whites have to be made less happy. And we can see some of this sentiment today, with the increasing demand of BLM for white people to step out of the way.

Even McIntosh’s assertion of ‘male privilege’ – the assumption on which the narrative of white privilege is based – is questionable. Most people who are homeless in the US are males (around 70 per cent), as are the majority (93 per cent) of the prison population. White males alone made up almost 70 per cent of suicides in 2018. Men also consistently make up over 90 per cent of work-related injuries and deaths and are the vast majority of those who have died in wars. Some privilege.

Christopher Hitchens once remarked that the job of a public intellectual for the most part is to say ‘it’s not quite as simple as that’. In comparison, McIntosh’s instinct for generalisation is quite astonishing. In her use of ‘white’, she seems oblivious to the different circumstances and fortunes of different ‘white’ peoples who live in the US.

Among the American ‘whites’ are Jews who fled the Nazis from Poland, Germany, Austria and elsewhere in the 1930s and 1940s; the large Greek immigrant population which escaped economic and political devastation in Greece from the 1950s to the 1970s; and the Bosnian Muslim refugees who escaped attempted genocide in the early 1990s. These are some of the world’s most brutalised and persecuted peoples. But according to McIntosh’s thesis, a Bosnian refugee arriving in the US in the early 1990s with no money, no family and who didn’t speak English has some inherent advantage over Eddie Murphy.

And one wonders what McIntosh would say to the fact that today, the highest earning Americans are ethnically Asians. Indian Americans come out on top (with a median household income of $100,000). Japanese ($74,000) and Chinese Americans ($70,000) also earn more than whites ($67,800).

The number of whites living below the poverty line in 2018 (15.7million) is almost double that of blacks (8.9million). While the proportion of black people in poverty is higher than whites, the sheer volume of destitute white people should at least give pause to the sort of sweeping theory that McIntosh espouses and which has now become one of the most entrenched narratives in American politics.

It’s time to bury the myth of white privilege once and for all.

Xin Du is a writer based in Australia.

Picture by: Getty.

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Marvin Jones

26th July 2020 at 11:49 am

Believe me, white privilege is alive and well, as natural as racism in the sense of it being a genetic part of human DNA, flawed but can never be got rid off by asinine laws, rioting, anarchy or force, but harmless if accepted by all sides that the human race is a flawed outcome of evolution. The problems only arise because of mass uncontrolled and unlimited flooding, infestation and intended surrender of one’s country to alien races in such large numbers. Just as this country is deeply suffering and getting worse by the day.

Bunty McCunty

25th July 2020 at 6:50 pm

Xin Du? That’s an interesting name. Any relation to that other guy, Xin Du Nuffin?

Jolly Roger

23rd July 2020 at 12:24 pm

Work hard, you earn privileges. This is what they don’t want to hear. Eddie Murphy worked hard. Asian Americans work hard generally hence those wealth figures.

Peter Anthony

23rd July 2020 at 11:04 am

Yeah-my great great Grandad who was an Irish emigree during the potato famine came over with 10 daughters and a shovel-he was totally priviledged-as was my grandfather who worked down the pit in truly apalling conditions-as was my other grandfather who was in the middle of the Somme as a 16 year old boy-all white-all so priviledged.When did the narrative move from economics to skin colour!!

Jolly Roger

23rd July 2020 at 12:24 pm

Absolutely correct.

Linda Payne

23rd July 2020 at 1:22 pm

When the cold war ended

Kevin Turner

23rd July 2020 at 10:45 am

There is no such thing as white privilege. If there is anything like privilege at all, it is majority privilege (is white privilege prevalent in China, in India, or in Somalia?). And what society would not organise itself around its indigenous majority. But even majority privilege is questionable since minorities are equally or even overrepresented in most aspect of life in the UK, US, etc.


23rd July 2020 at 12:28 pm

The best job open to working-class boys is Premiership footballer. Afro-Caribbean men are over-represented as players, but then under-represented as managers.
We hear angry demands for more black managers. We hear no complaints about the failure to recruit more whites as players.

Ray Diator

23rd July 2020 at 10:29 am

I used to live and work in Germany. Surprise surprise, the local indigenous population had more than me. Possessions, friends, contacts, you name it, more than me.
Teutonic privilege? Was I jealous?
No to both. It’s just that they had been there longer than me and it was their country.
That’s the way it is

Asuryani Waderer

23rd July 2020 at 9:14 am

Those who complain most about the state of the world are usually white, usually middle class and in comparison to their recent ancestors, extremely privileged. They will have had a comfortable affluent love filled upbringing and wanted for nothing. I am old enough to remember growing up in a two bedroom terrace house with an outside toilet and no running hot water (we had a gas Geyser on a wall in the kitchen). They are utterly uneducated about the world despite their degrees and doctorates. Yet they have the ear of the establishment, we are all doomed.

jamie murray

27th July 2020 at 8:36 am

Couldn’t agree more, lots of “knowledge and theorisations” about life in their limited spheres but almost nothing about real hard lives. They usually come across as a bit gauche and to clever by half, like an 18 year old student who’s read his first bit of Nietche or Marx and thinks 40 year old brickies or bus drivers will be impressed with his spouting off about “deconstructionism” or some such rubbish, instead he comes across as a cosseted, clueless dolt unaware of many of life’s harsh realities, rather like the types you’ve described, who scarily dictate policy and write laws the rest of us have to abide by!

Owee1942 Owee1942

23rd July 2020 at 9:08 am

[ STAY AT HOME FROM COVID-19 ] Start making money this time… Spend more time with your family & relative by doing jobs that only require for you to have a

Gareth Edward KING

23rd July 2020 at 8:35 am

It comes back to the educational system and its inability to encourage reading. If one’s ‘informed’ according to that which arrives on your SmartPhone in little bite-sized pieces it’s impossible to maintain a balanced picture of social phenomena. BLM’s followers and their out-of-place instructions that ‘we’ i.e. whites should read more and then proceed to recommend titles which have little bibliography behind them is simply dogmatic. I wonder how Macer Gifford the apparently privileged, middle-class, white guy who went out to fight on the side of the YPG-J against ISIS in Rojave (Syria) in 2014 fits into this picture? He took it upon himself to fight out himself about what to do to aid the Kurds. He was actually no-platformed by UCL by white, middle-class kids! Fortunately, this decision was overturned and this ex-conservative councillor, who can only be intensely admired for his bravery, was able to describe his travails in the Middle East. He should be a model for kids to look up to but inside he’s been relatively side-lined, although the media have interviewed him in relation to that ‘victim’: Begum whom he regards as little more than a ‘monster’.


23rd July 2020 at 8:16 am

This article exposes that the ‘white privilege’ myth is not the product of black resentment, but of white guilt. Its sustenance today comes from the privileged in general, but probably above all from privileged whites, or to put it in other terms the ‘elite’ or the ‘establishment’. If one was looking for some sort of underlying reason for this curious behaviour – why somebody like Starmer or US Democrats think that they ‘should take the knee’ – it is probably that what such people fear above all else is meritocracy. By ‘riding the zeitgeist’ they can maintain their own privilege.

Mark Houghton

23rd July 2020 at 7:44 am

Black people blame others for their failures in life – isn’t it a privilege to be able to do that?

CJ Hawes

23rd July 2020 at 8:26 am

Mark / Dominic etc – you seem to enjoy identity politics as you write in a way that identitarians think. How can you lump all blacks into the same bracket? All this cultural wars rubbish is a minority sport, including minorities within minorities. As a society we are moving towards minorities having a greater say etc which is a civilised way of behaving. As with most things though, that isn’t enough for the small but very vocal radical elements within all groups be they ethnically, gender or sexuality different to “the norm”. I don’t see the need to feel threatened (irritated yes) by them. Eventually the pendulam will swing back to a better balance but what we musn’t do is let groups such as trans activists continue their quest to show that they are normal and the vast majority of people aren’t. I look at the current extremism as a sign of success in that there isn’t a huge amount to complain about and also (and more importantly) that these things are all an unmerited distraction from the real problems in the world that are and always have been – legion.

Dominic Straiton

23rd July 2020 at 6:06 am

First id like to point out that “taking the knee” regarding George Floyd is the most inappropriate gesture since the yellow star on the eu flag. Secondly can white people, who make up only 12% of the population of the planet have their due, after all we created everything, including all medicine,communication and transport. We also ended slavery by inventing non human slaves. Without white people the rest of the world would be gathered around pylons praying for the electricity to come back on. I find it both hilarious and disturbing that the virtues of white people (as designated by the National museum of African American history} of “hard work” and “rational thinking” “justice” “timekeeping”are seen as “problematic”. White people also created virtually all philosophy including marxism (sorry about that),within which we have these arguments. Is this white supremacy, probably, do I give a crap about that? Sorry (not sorry) NO.

George Whale

23rd July 2020 at 8:19 am

Indeed. Do the BLM people ever shut their whining, ungrateful, envious, vindictive yappers long enough to contemplate that almost everything they possess was created or donated by white Europeans?

Ray Diator

23rd July 2020 at 8:45 am

Quite right. You often see them throwing a tantrum when they can’t have their own way, getting stroppy when things aren’t just how they like it

Jolly Roger

23rd July 2020 at 12:27 pm

What a great and in places, funny comment and correct on all counts.

Right Now

23rd July 2020 at 3:18 am

Does a Japanese person in Japan have yellow privilege?
After all, the Japanese established their culture over millennia to reflect the values and tastes of their kith and kin. Their priority was not to make a society where an African Pygmy would feel at home.
Does anyone seriously regard that as “problematic”?

Dominic Straiton

23rd July 2020 at 7:36 am

I think your thinking of the wrong yellow people. Do the Han Chinese have yellow privilege?

Clyde Benke

23rd July 2020 at 1:55 am

The white “privilege” trope is a  pejorative slur on the well demonstrated abilities of white people. Abilities  that are evident every place white people live on the planet,  even where there are no or very few black people to have “privilege” over like Finland or Norway. This is a quote from James Baldwin,  “It comes as a great shock to discover the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you,” The thing is, no one else but white people “evolved” a place for them. White people have done it themselves, all over this planet and there in lies the problem with black people…. they expect someone else to do it for them.

Gordon O Gopher

23rd July 2020 at 1:05 am

What people are seeing when they talk of ‘white male’ privilege is really just a reflection of their own privilege.

Up till 10 years ago I had a very well paid job in banking. All around me the top earners were white men. It’s fairly easy for the so-called ‘woke’ to remain in their little bubbles, looking at their middle class world where all white men are privileged.

The last 10 years I’ve had a crap paying job in homelessness, mental health and addiction. All around me the people suffering the most with these things are, you guessed it, white men & boys.

Anyone who sees privilege just sees a reflection of their own privilege. They just lack the self-awareness to understand that.

The ‘woke’ really need to wake up.

a watson

23rd July 2020 at 7:59 am

As a white male with a small occupational pension and living in London I agree. White working class males are sneered at and scapegoated by the London Labour Party and Councils. The prejudice that they encourage in their snobbish media is seeping into everyday life in London. They have actively encouraged racial and class prejudice against the white working class population ruining much of London.

Gordon O Gopher

23rd July 2020 at 9:27 am

I didn’t realise there were any white working class left in London. Thought the capital had been socially ‘cleansed’ and they’d all been sent to Milton Keynes to play with the cocncrete cows.

Iwan Hughes

23rd July 2020 at 12:34 pm

Should we assume a comma between ‘population’ and ‘ruining’ in the last sentence?

L Strange

23rd July 2020 at 9:46 am

Reflection, yes. Bernie Sanders said that white people don’t know what it’s like to be poor – when they are the majority in poverty in the US. He has three houses, therefore so do all white people, seems to be his ‘reasoning’.

Here, the assumption is that white folks are all better off than other races, when the research consistently shows the best average outcomes, educationally and economically, are achieved by those of East Asian and Indian heritage. And the specifically worst educational outcomes are the ‘privilege’ of working class white boys.

Gordon O Gopher

23rd July 2020 at 6:14 pm

Yep that’s the problem with ID politics. Some white homeless lad on the street with no job and zero prospects ticks the same boxes as Elon Musk.

Tolar Owen

25th July 2020 at 7:57 pm

Do you have a citation for that? I find that really surprising, as someone who’s supported him for six years (and knew him before that). I think why the DNC stole the nomination from him twice now is precisely _because_ he recognizes working class poverty and, while he addresses racism and sexism, refuses to reduce everything to that because he cares about working class and impoverished people of all races (his Jewish immigrant family was working poor, for example).

The DNC establishment doesn’t want an actual platform that addresses profound income inequality in our country. They’d rather be race reductionists wherein corporations can sick their HR departments on errant employees and have a Juneteenth holiday instead of raising wages. If Bernie had actually won, we’d be addressing MLK’s war on poverty messages instead of going backward in time to reinforce race rather than eliminate it.

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