“You have privilege” is not an insult

Heard (read would be more accurate but ::shrugs::) on Facebook:

Good story, but I’m a little offended with the term “white privilege”. How about instead calling it what it truly is- empathetic HUMAN compassion and leave race and skin color out of the equation.

The story being referred to in the quote doesn’t matter for the purposes of this post. What I wanted to address was this person’s offense with the term ‘white privilege’. I’ll begin with a little prayer:

Oh dear god whom I don’t believe in bc I’m atheist-save me from people who get offended at the term white privilege.

With that out of the way, let me don the teachers cap:


The term ‘white privilege‘ refers to unearned benefits or advantages white people possess by virtue of having white skin. White privilege enables white people to move through life with fewer obstacles impeding them than people without white skin. White privilege is not about individual white people. It is about white people as a group. As a group, white people possess benefits and advantages that make moving through life a bit easier. Here are five examples of privilege white people experience by virtue of their skin color:

1. White privilege means that white people on average are given shorter sentences than black people for the same crimes:

Black men in prison on average are given sentences nearly 20 percent longer than those served by white men for similar crimes, new sentencing data shows.

The data is contained in a report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that was submitted to Congress last month and made public this week, the Wall Street Journal (sub.req.) reports.

According to the report, sentences for black males were 19.5 percent longer than those for similarly situated white males between December 2007 and September 2011, the most recent period covered in the report. The commission also found that black males were 25 percent less likely than whites to receive a sentence below the sentencing guidelines.

A separate analysis of the data that excluded sentences of probation showed the same pattern, although the racial disparity was less pronounced. Black men on average were given sentences 14.5 percent longer than whites.

The findings show that the racial divide in sentencing has widened since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in U.S. v. Booker, which struck down a 1984 law requiring judges to impose sentences within the sentencing guidelines. In the two years after the Booker ruling, sentences for blacks on average were 15.2 percent longer than those for similarly situated whites.

2. White privilege means that you won’t be disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs

Mandatory minimum sentences were established in the 1980s when politicians touted the so-called crack epidemic to show off tough-on-crime stances. But these sentences are set in a way that could target black drug offenders more than white drug offenders.

Take, for instance, the mandatory minimum sentence threshold for crack versus cocaine. Someone would need to possess nearly 18 times more cocaine than crack to get a five-year mandatory minimum sentence.


Black people use crack at higher rates than white people, while white people use cocaine at higher rates than black people. So the tougher sentences on crack make it much easier for law enforcement to come down on black drug offenders.

Crack and cocaine are pharmacologically identical drugs. The difference is crack is mostly smoked, while cocaine is traditionally snorted. Smoking can make the effect more potent, faster acting, and potentially unhealthier, but both drugs essentially have the same effects in the long-term.

3. White privilege means you won’t be judged more likely to be engaged in wrongdoing by law enforcement officials based on the color of your skin:

Empirical evidence confirms the existence of racial profiling on America’s roadways. At the national level, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that for the year 2005, the most recent data available, “[p]olice actions taken during a traffic stop were not uniform across racial and ethnic categories.” “Black drivers (4.5%) were twice as likely as White drivers (2.1%) to be arrested during a traffic stop, while Hispanic drivers (65%) were more likely than White (56.2%) or Black (55.8%) drivers to receive a ticket. In addition, Whites (9.7%) were more likely than Hispanics (5.9%) to receive a written warning, while Whites (18.6%) were more likely than Blacks (13.7%) to be verbally warned by police.” When it came to searching minority motorists after a traffic stop, “Black (9.5%) and Hispanic (8.8%) motorists stopped by police were searched at higher rates than Whites (3.6%).” The “likelihood of experiencing a search did not change for Whites, Blacks, or Hispanics from 2002 to 2005.”21

Quantitative evidence reported in several states confirms this nationwide data:

  • A study in Arizona shows that during 2006-2007, the state highway patrol was significantly more likely to stop African Americans and Hispanics than Whites on all the highways studied, while Native Americans and persons of Middle Eastern descent were more likely to be stopped on nearly all the highways studied. The highway patrol was 3.5 times more likely to search a stopped Native American than a White, and 2.5 times more likely to search a stopped African American or Hispanic.22

The Arizona study also shows that racial profiling is counterproductive and a misallocation of scarce law enforcement resources. Although Native Americans, Hispanics, Middle Easterners, and Asians were far more likely to be stopped and searched than Whites on Arizona’s highways, Whites who were searched were more likely to be transporting drugs, guns, or other contraband. While African Americans were twice as likely as Whites to be stopped and searched, the rates of contraband seizures for the two groups were comparable.23

  • A February 2009 study of traffic stops and searches in West Virginia found a similar pattern of racial profiling. The data reveal that African-American motorists were 1.64 times more likely to be stopped than White drivers. Hispanics were 1.48 times more likely to be stopped. After the traffic stop, non-Whites were more likely to be arrested, yet police in West Virginia obtained a significantly higher contraband hit rate for White drivers than minorities.24

  • In Minnesota, a statewide study of racial profiling during 2002 found that African-American, Hispanic, and Native American drivers were all stopped and searched more often than Whites, yet contraband was found more frequently in searches of White drivers’ cars. Had all drivers been stopped at the same rates in the 65 local jurisdictions reporting data, 22,500 more Whites would have been stopped, while 18,800 fewer African Americans and 5,800 fewer Hispanics would have been stopped.25

  • In Illinois, data collected after the 2003 passage of the Illinois Traffic Stops Statistics Act, sponsored by then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, shows similar patterns of racial profiling by law enforcement authorities. The number of consent searches after traffic stops of African-American and Hispanic motorists was more than double that of Whites. The consent searches found White motorists were twice as likely to have contraband.26

  • A 2005 study analyzing data gathered statewide in Texas reveals disproportionate traffic stops and searches of African Americans and Hispanics, even though law enforcement authorities were more likely to find contraband on Whites.27

4. White privilege means that white teens are less likely to be shot and killed by police officers than black teens:

There’s a lot we don’t know about how many people have actually been killed at police hands in the United States, thanks to woefully inadequate transparency and federal record-keeping. But there’s one thing we do now know: Among those we do know were shot by police, black teens were 21 times more likely to be shot dead than their white counterparts.

“The 1,217 deadly police shootings from 2010 to 2012 captured in the federal data show that blacks, age 15 to 19, were killed at a rate of 31.17 per million, while just 1.47 per million white males in that age range died at the hands of police,” a new ProPublica report explains, noting that if whites were killed at the same ratio there would have been another 185 white deaths, just during that three-year period, just of those in that narrow age range.

To arrive at this statistic, ProPublica analyzed the list of 12,000 police shooting deaths that were self-reported by agencies to the Federal Bureau of Investigation between 1980 and 2012. Because this data is self-reported and departments are not required to submit information, this data likely significantly undercounts the number of shootings. Florida departments, for example, haven’t submitted data since 1997 and New York City hasn’t submitted data since 2007. And the FBI asks only for “justifiable homicide” figures, meaning in those instances where the shootings are most overtly viewed as unjustified or the litigation is ongoing, departments are less likely to report.

5. White privilege means you’re more likely to get into college:

The White House recently launched a new initiative called, My Brother’s Keeper, aimed at increasing opportunities for boys and young men of color. A key component of the initiative is increasing the number of men of color who graduate from high school and get into college.

According to a 2013 report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, elite educational institutions are a “passive agent” in perpetuating white privilege. The report found that white students are still overrepresented in the nation’s 468 elite institutions. Even though many white and minority students are unprepared for college in equal rates, more white students are admitted to universities.

“The higher education system is more and more complicit as a passive agent in the systematic reproduction of white racial privilege across generations,” the Georgetown study noted. “Even among equally qualified white, African-American and Hispanic students, these pathways are not only separate but they bring unequal results.”

The above examples are some of the more harmful manifestations of white privilege. There are tons more. There are also less harmful examples, such as the examples Peggy McIntosh lists here. While those examples aren’t likely to result in black people winding up in jail, or shot, or denied entry to universities, they are examples of the myriad ways that society is geared toward and benefits white people at the expense of black people (and other PoC). Many white people do not see these benefits, but that’s to be expected when society is designed with you in mind! Of course you won’t see the ways your skin color benefits you. And of course when called on it, it makes sense that white people deny their privilege. I suspect one reason for that denial is the belief that the world is just and things are fair and equitable for everyone. That is *so* not the truth. Those that believe in a fair world succumb to the Just World Fallacy. The world is not just. Not everyone has equal opportunities to succeed and not everyone has equal outcomes

While some critics of white privilege feel that it doesn’t exist and that things are equal between people of all races, others have a different problem with white privilege-they think it is offensive. Some people think liberals and progressives are insulting them by saying they have white privilege. If you can look at the aforementioned examples of white privilege-examples that are supported by extensive evidence-and still think that it’s an insult to observe that white people have advantages based on their skin, I really don’t know what to say. 

Another criticism I’ve seen from some people who deny the existence of white privilege is that the use of the phrase means that white people live obstacle-free lives. Nuh-uh. It does not mean life is easy for white people. It just means that white people enjoy unearned benefits based on their skin color that aid them during the course of their lives. But where a white person can have benefits due to their skin color, they can be underprivileged along other axes, such as sexuality or gender or religion or nationality or marital status or class.

In fact, for those having a hard time understanding white privilege, it may be a good idea to examine another form of privilege. Take a look at heterosexual privilege for instance. A gay, white man possesses white privilege because society confers unearned benefits upon him based on his skin color, but he’s also underprivileged because he’s gay and society favors heterosexuals over homosexuals (he’s also privileged along another axis-gender-but I’m going to focus on sexuality here). Like white privilege, heterosexual privilege describes a social phenomenon that *does* exist. Examples of heterosexual privilege include:

1. Heterosexual privilege means your right to get married is never questioned:

Whereas straight couples have had the right to get married just about anywhere without question since forever, up until the very recent US Supreme Court decision, same-sex marriage was only legal in 30 states. And our right to get married is still being continuously attacked.

2. Heterosexual privilege means that if you’re a teenager, you won’t become homeless because your parents kicked you out for being lesbian, gay, or bisexual:

About 40% of homeless youth are LGBT and nearly all homeless youth service providers in the U.S. now serve LGBT youth, according to a comprehensive report on LGBT youth homelessness released Thursday.

Nearly seven in 10 (68%) respondents indicated that family rejection was a major factor contributing to LGBT youth homelessness, making it the most cited factor. More than half (54%) of respondents indicated that abuse in their family was another important factor contributing to LGBT homelessness.

Statistically, LGBT youth make up no more than 10% of that population segment, yet total 40% of homeless youth.

“The findings from this survey demonstrate that many LGBT youth are at high risk of homelessness, often as a result of family rejection and abuse. The analyses offer critical insights into the challenges that these young people face when they seek help during a very difficult time in their lives,” said Laura E. Durso, Williams Institute Public Policy Fellow and study co-author.

3. Heterosexual privilege means that your sexuality isn’t criminalized in dozens of countries around the world:

(source: Buzzfeed)


4. Heterosexual privilege is being confident sexual education courses targeting teens will teach information relevant to your sexuality:

Only 22 states plus the District of Columbia requires sex education in schools. Twelve of those states require sex education teachers to discuss sexual orientation. Three of those 12 states require teachers to impart only negative information on sexual orientation to students. Yes, three states in the United States make LGBTQ youth listen to discriminatory information directed at them by their own teachers. Take Alabama, whose sex education instructors are required to teach that homosexuality “is an unacceptable, criminal lifestyle.”

Out of 50 states and one district, only nine states have any form of positive LGBT-inclusive sexual education, a number that is very disheartening for the overall well-being of many youth in the United States.

LGBT-inclusive sex education is very important to the health and well-being of all youth in the United States and the lack of this sex education is harming many of our youth today. For instance, young gay or bisexual men, ages 13 to 29, account for more than two-thirds of new HIV infections. Young LGB girls are more likely to become pregnant than heterosexual or questioning female youth and are more likely to contract an STI. Furthermore, transgender youth are experiencing more sexual violence than other youths, a number that could decrease with positive LGBT-inclusive sex education in schools.

5. Heterosexual privilege means not having to worry about workplace discrimination based on your sexuality:

(source: Mic)

The above examples are just a small sample of the various ways that heterosexuals experience privilege based on their sexuality (there are many, many other examples). These examples illustrate several things, chief among them that these benefits are not earned. I know that’s counterintuitive for many people who think that privileges are all earned, but it’s not the case that all privileges *are* earned. There’s nothing a heterosexual can do that grants them immunity from being imprisoned for their sexuality. That benefit is conferred to them based on their sexuality because cultures around the planet treat heterosexuality as the norm and other sexualities as deviant, abnormal, and immoral. From there, they punish people who do not conform to traditional sexualities. As with the examples of white privilege, these examples demonstrate that one cannot eliminate their privilege. You cannot stop benefiting from heterosexual privilege bc it’s not something you’re in control of. Similarly, it’s neither offensive, nor an insult to point out to heterosexual people that they don’t have to worry about facing the threat of violence if they hold hands with a loved one in public. It’s an observation of a phenomenon. It’s a fact of life. It’s not something to feel guilty about. Nor is it something that makes you a horrible person. If you think any of that is the case, you’re simply wrong and really need to take the time to understand what privilege means and the ways you benefit from it.


The point of calling out privilege is to get people to understand that certain aspects of their identity benefit them in ways that they don’t see. It’s to show people that some folks face more obstacles in the course of their life. If you liken our path in life to a track, those people with fewer privileges face more obstacles along that path. The distance from start to finish is the same, but there are different hurdles that impede one’s progress and sucess (and depending on various aspects of your identity, you can have a host of hurdles to overcome, as the above image illustrates). In addition, the hope is that people will help dismantle the structures in place that prop up privilege of all sorts. How? Just look at the examples of heterosexual and white privilege listed above. Lobby your Congressperson to support legislation that seeks to reduce the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Email your state legislators and tell them you support efforts to teach comprehensive, LGBT inclusive sexual education in all schools. Support the Black Lives Matter movement. During family celebrations, instead of letting your bigoted family members express the disdain of lesbians without any criticism, call them out. Offer your time or financial assistance to homeless shelters that take in LGBT youth. Get involved online in comments sections and educate people on privilege. You might feel like that’s nothing, but you have no idea how wrong you are. I’ve read plenty of comments from people who were gratified to see someone stand up for women’s rights, the rights of trans people, or the rights of Indigenous Peoples (*I’ve* been happy to see people stand up for African-Americans, atheists, or LGB people). These are people who don’t comment, but who read, and far too often, have found comments sections to be a depressing reminder of their status as the other. For marginalized people, it can be a breath of fresh air knowing that someone-especially someone with the privilege they lack-is speaking up in their defense and advocating for people like them to be treated better. It may be a little thing to you, but it can mean a lot to lurkers. You can fight for a world where everyone has a level playing field and no one is granted any special privileges because of aspects of their identity that society shows preference toward. That is if you’re a caring human being who hopes to see a reduction in the suffering experienced by others. 

For more information on other forms of privilege, see:

Male Privilege Checklist

Cisgender Privilege Checklist


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“You have privilege” is not an insult

2 thoughts on ““You have privilege” is not an insult

  1. YOB

    …use of the phrase means that white people live obstacle-free lives.

    When I first heard the term, I was resistant to the concept. I grew up rural poor (aka white trash) and I thought, at the time I first encountered the concept, that the above quote was the premise. In fact, I got into a rather heated discussion with Josh, Official Spokesgay, over it. Which leads to the next quote:

    Get involved online in comments sections and educate people on privilege.

    Thanks to Josh and others, the flaw in my understanding of the concept was identified and led me to look further and deeper. I’m a better person, I hope, because of those online discussions.

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