“Grey’s Anatomy” actor Jesse Williams chimed in on the ongoing national conversation about race relations this week when, outraged by the recent death of a black activist in a Texas jail, he posted a Twitter rant criticizing racism and white privilege. In a 24-tweet series, Williams wrote that it’s unfair that some people are celebrated for exercising their rights when police abuse them while others are punished.
“A select segment of Americans are granted the privilege of being able to resist said tyranny, scream at it, punch, shove or elude it. For membership consideration, this club has ONE requirement: the citizen(s) resisting police/the law/status quo must be white,” he tweeted about the death of Sandra Bland. “What follows is the easily searchable sampling of the glaring daily white privilege not afforded to millions of Americans.”
The concept of white privilege is not new, but cultural awareness has surged in recent months as high-profile police brutality cases have come up across the country. Activists, writers and celebrities like Williams have used their platforms to highlight cases of racism and inequality and debate how best to address the divide between Americans of different ethnicities.
White privilege is a series of attitudes and institutional policies that give unearned benefits to white people by default, said Paula Ioanide, an associate professor of comparative race and ethnicity studies at New York’s Ithaca College. This can include daily habits, standards of beauty, and representation in media and politics. “The privilege is in not experiencing discrimination by virtue of the fact that you fit that common-sense attitude of what is good or what is beautiful or what is valuable or what is worthy,” she said.
The concept was first publicized by in writings by black scholar W.E.B. DuBois in the 1930s, and the term “white-skin privilege” was used during the civil rights era years later, according to a 2014 story in the New Yorker.
It is sometimes referred to as an “invisible knapsack,” a term coined by activist Peggy McIntosh in a 1988 paper, because most of the people who enjoy the benefits of being white don’t realize they have them. McIntosh’s paper specified certain examples of white privilege — things she could count on because of her skin color. Among them were “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” “I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection,” and “I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.”
Since then, minorities have generally used the term and been aware of “white privilege” more than others, said American University public communication professor Leonard Steinhorn, the author of “By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race.” But protests over recent police brutality cases have forced the issue into the mainstream media. Repeated incidents have kept the concept in the public’s consciousness and “brought the issue to the floor in a way that makes it really difficult for many white people to rationalize away,” he said.
Over the past 30 days, the phrase “white privilege” has been tweeted more than 68,000 times, according to Topsy analytics. Ioanide said she thought awareness of white privilege wasn’t at a peak, but instead undergoing an acceleration.
Statistics prove white people have many measured advantages over others. According to the Center for American Progress, people of color make up about a third of the U.S. population but 60 percent of the prison population. Black students are suspended or expelled in school at triple the rate white students are. Job applicants with “white-sounding” names get more callbacks for interviews than applicants with “black-sounding” ones.
On a more quantitative level, U.S. Census data showed that the real median household income for white families in 2013 was $58,270. For Hispanics, it was $40,963, and for blacks, $34,598. The median net worth of white households is 13 times bigger than black households, according to a Pew Research Center study released in December.
“It’s not balanced. It’s not fair,” Steinhorn said. “Black folks are far, far closer to economic instability than whites. They have less to bank on because of the history that denied them that opportunity.”
The recent push for social justice has inspired some young people to re-evaluate advantages that were previously overlooked. One example was the social media hashtag #checkyourprivilege, which took off last year. Grassroots protesters have also adopted the term “white privilege” as they’ve begun to try to disown the legacy of white supremacy, Ioanide said.
— Shannon Craig Straw (@ShannonStraw) July 17, 2015
#CheckYourPrivilege and do not presume other people live like you do or have the opportunities that you do.
— Bint Muharib (@knwmadic) June 28, 2015
“There’s definitely a palatable shift in the language that people are using,” she said. “The more people you have pointing those inequalities out, the more people can become educated about it.”
The movement has spilled over into popular culture. Earlier this month, “Hunger Games” actress Amandla Stenberg called out TV star Kylie Jenner for posting an Instagram photo of her hair in cornrows. Stenberg commented that what Jenner did was “appropriate black features and culture but fail to use ur position of power to help black Americans by directing attention towards ur wigs instead of police brutality or racism #whitegirlsdoitbetter,” US Weekly reported.
MTV debuted “White People,” a documentary by immigration activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jose Antonio Vargas, this week. Vargas asked participants what it means to be white and what they thought about topics like affirmative action with the goal of exploring race and educating youth. “‘White People’ react: How uncomfortable did that make you?” asked an Entertainment Weekly headline when it aired.
Perhaps the most headline-grabbing recent white privilege debate happened on Twitter, when rapper Nicki Minaj tweeted her frustration about her “Anaconda” hit not being nominated for video of the year at the MTV Video Music Awards. She speculated that her video was overlooked due to cultural standards of beauty that favor thin, white women.
If your video celebrates women with very slim bodies, you will be nominated for vid of the year _____________
— NICKI MINAJ (@NICKIMINAJ) July 21, 2015
When the "other" girls drop a video that breaks records and impacts culture they get that nomination. ______________________________________
— NICKI MINAJ (@NICKIMINAJ) July 21, 2015
Pop star Taylor Swift, who was nominated for “Bad Blood,” took offense and accused Minaj of pitting women against each other. After a day — and a Katy Perry tweet taking Minaj’s side — Swift apologized. “I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke,” Swift wrote.
Swift’s apology aside, addressing white privilege can be tricky, Steinhorn said, because many people become defensive when they’re accused of not earning their successes. That’s why youth tend to lead the charge against racism — they haven’t necessarily spent their lives working to put themselves through school or saving money for a family like a middle-aged person has.
“You can’t change it if you basically say that all of somebody’s gains in life are ill-gotten at the expense of somebody else,” Steinhorn said. “It needs to be used to bring people into the conversation rather than push people away.”
Steinhorn added that the way the white privilege discussion will be most productive is if it centers on realizing inherent attitudes and prejudices exist — and have serious effects. “The idea is not to say that what you have accomplished in life is built on the backs of others,” Steinhorn added. “Let’s talk about what are the ways we see each other and how that can have consequences.”