Daily Briefing

What is white privilege?

US talk show host Trevor Noah praised for his impassioned explanation

The Daily Show presenter Trevor Noah is being applauded on social media after giving his take on white privilege and reparations in the US.

The South African-born TV host and comedian was responding to an audience member on the satirical talk show who asked if the use of reparations payments to redress historical racial injustice was biased against working-class white people.

Noah responded that while black people are not the only group to have suffered in US history, the legacy of centuries of slavery and legalised oppression were not comparable to more recent social and economic problems affecting some white communities.

Addressing confusion over the concept of white privilege, he continued: “A person goes, ‘I’m poor and I’m white. Where’s the privilege?’”

“I get that, trust me, I get it. It is hard to accept that you have benefits because of the colour of your skin if you cannot see the benefits that you have.”

Noah went on to compare such privilege to a golf handicap, when “you get more chances to get the ball in because we understand the position you’re in”.

Viewers praised his answer online, with one fan tweeting: “Trevor Noah answered this reparation question with so much nuance and understanding of the issue.” A YouTube commenter described it as “the most brilliant explanation of reparations and white privilege I’ve ever heard”.

So what does white privilege involve and how can it be tackled?

What is white privilege?

At its core, white privilege is the reality that for white people, “their whiteness hasn’t been a social, political, professional, financial or legal hindrance”, says Damon Young, editor-in-chief of society and culture website Very Smart Brothas.

“They have the privilege of the benefit of the doubt, which manifests as the privilege to just be,” Young writes. 

The phrase white privilege has been widely attributed to rights activist and scholar Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, in which she lists some of the advantages of being perceived as white in US society.

But in an article on campaign website Courageous Conversation, activist Cory Collins argues that while McIntosh’s essay brought the issue into the spotlight, her focus on unconscious advantages can lead people to wrongly interpret white privilege as a matter of “cosmetics and inconvenience”, divorced from the concept of deliberate racism. 

Collins claims that, in fact, white privilege is both the legacy and cause of racism, a cycle of unconscious advantages perpetuated by conscious acts. 

Is white privilege different from racism?

Although having white privilege is not in itself racist, it exists because of historic and enduring racial biases, says Collins. “Racial bias is a belief. Racism is what happens when that belief translates into action,” he writes.

Racist ideologies that categorised different ethnic groups as inferior or superior were used to justify discrimination, colonialism and slavery from the first days of the Atlantic slave trade up to the recent past.

Crucially, even white people who didn’t directly participate in these injustices enjoyed the social and economic benefits of a system that excluded minorities from full and fair access to the labour market, housing, education and political power. This is the foundation of white privilege, Collins explains.

How can recognition of white privilege be used positively?

The Boston Globe’s Renee Graham argues that white people who recognise their unfair privilege should use these advantages to help people of colour. 

Graham writes: “If someone is drowning, do you stand on the shore and ask what that person, who has more than enough to contend with, what you should do? Or, out of a sense of common decency and humanity, do you reach out to help?” 

She gives the example of the white woman who videoed two black men being arrested for no apparent reason at a Starbucks coffee shop in Philadelphia and who then shared the footage online. By recognising racist behaviour and using her relative security as a white woman to confront the police officers involved, says Graham, this witness triggered a nationwide conversation about racial bias.

People of colour “did not build, and fortify for centuries, a system of white supremacy as American as the Constitution” and “we alone cannot be expected to undo it”, Graham concludes.

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