Stories

New culture war: The meaning of white privilege

Illustration of a white dice with five black pips on all sides, contrasted with a black dice with a single white pip on all sides
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

"White privilege" has become a common phrase in Americans' conversations about race — and that's unsettling many white Americans because they think it undervalues their struggles or questions the legitimacy of their successes.

Why it matters: The term is a new weapon — and fault line — in American culture and politics. It’s one of a growing list of phrases different sides view very differently. 

The big picture: The dynamics of "white privilege" were first popularized by Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh in a 1988 paper, but interest in the term has recently exploded. Google searches for white privilege have been steadily rising for about a decade — and they’re surging right now.

  • The term refers to a slew of subtle or overt advantages afforded to white people due to race.
  • It's everything from walking around a grocery store without someone assuming you're going to steal something to being able to criticize the government without being told to "go back" to where you came from to getting pulled over by the police without fearing for your life.
  • "When I first wrote about it, nobody was weaponizing the phrase 'white privilege' because it was too new. Then it began to be mixed up with class privilege in a way that complicated the picture. ... But even if you grew up poor, to the police you look white and you will get white privilege," McIntosh told Axios.

But to white Americans who have been struggling with other disadvantages, or who worked hard for the successes they've had, the term can sound unfair because it seemingly minimizes their own hardships.

  • “I firmly believe that nothing was handed to me,” says Joe Fitzgerald, a 72-year-old former trucker from Jacksonville, Florida. “I can see how you might see disadvantages if you’re coming from west Baltimore or the south side of Chicago or Detroit. But I gotta believe there are people in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky and west Texas who feel the same way, and they’re white.”
  • "A huge portion of that population are underclass and poor and resent being labeled as having more. ... You need to get out of DC and NY to see what is going on," one Axios reader from Illinois, an epicenter of disappearing jobs, wrote to us.

Between the lines: What gets lost in this view is that millions of people of color are facing the same hardships as struggling, lower-income white Americans on top of a system that is rigged against them.

  • "There’s always a sense that blackness and brownness constitutes the bottom of the scale," says Eddie Glaude Jr., a professor of African American studies at Princeton University. "The effect is I have to raise my baby in a society that believes all of this stuff about him — that wouldn’t blink when locking up millions that look just like him."

There's no doubt that rural, lower-income, majority-white parts of the country are suffering. People are plagued by opioid addictions, unemployment and high infant mortality rates.

  • But there's a disconnect between white Americans' perception of their advantages and how they're seen by people of color.
  • 46% of white Americans say they believe they benefit because of their race, compared to 92% of black Americans and 65% of Hispanic Americans who believe that white people benefit, according to a 2017 study by Pew Research Center.
  • By contrast, black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, but 32% of people killed by police in 2012 were black, per the FBI.
  • And research shows that while black children make up a third of missing cases, they get less than a fifth of the media coverage.

The state of play: This cultural split was brewing in the years before President Trump took office, but it has also been made worse by his toxic rhetoric — and the way he encourages white Americans to feel like they're under attack.

  • "People are mad because they think this means that their struggle is less valued," says Michael Wagner, a professor at the University of Wisconsin's journalism school who studies media coverage of politics. “That is how it's characterized by the media on the right ... as just another attack on whiteness."
  • But "[white people] can’t take it personally," McIntosh says. "You have to look at it systemically. You’re born into a system of white privilege; you’re not born shameful, blameful or evil."

This article draws on reader responses to Axios' request for feedback on media coverage of race. Keep your thoughts coming by emailing erica@axios.com.