It is important that we define several important terms. White privilege, or Whiteness, is the term used to describe the advantages afforded to many White people simply because they were born White. A privilege is a special right, an advantage, or immunity granted only available to a particular person or group of people. Therefore, White privilege essentially means that Whites have an advantage over non-Whites in society largely thanks to structural racism (I am thinking and writing about this in a specifically South African context). Racism is “structural” because Apartheid has structured our society in such a way that an enormous number of people are excluded from taking part in our social institutions.
By White identity and ethnicity I simply mean what one is: a White person. A White person is not only an individual with his/her own set of beliefs, views, and so on, but also someone who is part of a sizable group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage (1). This definition of identity no doubt applies across race/cultural groups and can just as easily be applied to Blacks, Coloureds, and others. It is my contention that Whiteness, or White Privilege, a very real phenomenon in a South African context, is not an attack on White identity and ethnicity.
When Blacks use the word “White” it may seem that it is used to refer specifically to skin colour or race. It can, in fact, mean that, and it often does, but it would be incorrect to assume that that is always the case. According to one informative essay penned by the Calgary Anti-Racism Education “it is important to clarify the differences between “white” (a category of ‘race’ with no biological/scientific foundation) and “whiteness” as a powerful social construction with very real, tangible, violent effects” (2). It is this Whiteness that manifests itself in “the ways in which racialized Whiteness becomes transformed into social, political, economic, and cultural behaviour” (3).
Thus, Whiteness is an ideology based on beliefs, values behaviors, habits and attitudes, which result in the unequal distribution of power and privilege based on skin colour (4). Perhaps Louise Forreira in her piece on this exact subject words it best, “Whiteness, in other words, does not refer to having white skin. Whiteness is not conscious racism. It is the idea that the way white people exist in the world – which is not “wrong”, in and of itself – is what is normal, and it gives us social, political, economic and cultural power” (5).
1. Internal Psychology. Ethnic/Racial Identity. Available.
2. CARED. Understanding Whiteness. Available.
3. Henry, F., & Tator, C. 2006. The colour of democracy: Racism in Canadian society. p. 46-47
4. Frye, M. 1983. “On being White: Thinking toward a feminist understanding of race and race supremacy,” in Politics of reality: Essays in feminist theory.
5. Forreira, L. 2015. On Whiteness and White Guilt. Available.