This is one of our favorite Christmas-themed posts from the archive. We hope you don’t mind the re-post!
White privilege refers to the many, many benefits of being white in a society dominated, both culturally and materially, by other white people. The notion was popularized by Peggy McIntosh in a 1989 an essay titled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. One benefit is that most fictional characters, unless otherwise specified (and sometimes even so), are assumed to be white. Growing up non-white in a white-dominated world, then, means that most of the mythological figures of your childhood do not look like you in one important way.
Santa, of course, is a fictional figure whose appearance is invented. Theoretically anyone could be Santa. Yet, while we may see the occasional non-white Santa at the mall or in novelty holiday stories, he is unbearably and overwhelmingly white in our (google-able) imagination: The first three pages of a google image search for “Santa”:
by Guest Bloggers Brianna Gall and Alison Hope Alko from Sociological Images, Apr 6, 2011, at 10:18 am
Forbes magazine recently ranked Stockton California as the most miserable city in the US, a dubious award that comes as little surprise to the city’s struggling residents. Home prices have declined 67% since 2005, unemployment averaged a whopping 17.2% in 2010, and Stockton has the second highest crime rate in California.
In response, Gregory Basso, a retired Stockton businessman, created a video disputing Forbes’ findings. This clip went viral, at least locally, and was discussed by many Stockton residents. In his video, Basso highlights the attributes of Stockton he believes contribute to his high quality of life. These include “debating whether to wear my sun glasses or not in February,” and the many nearby opportunities for golfing, biking and hiking. He speaks of the seven professional sports teams found within a 2-hour radius, and the ability to sail from the yacht-lined downtown marina, along the Sacramento Delta, all the way to the San Francisco Bay. He ends by describing how Stockton has a great first time homebuyers market, and is a cheap central location for large businesses to come and set up shop.
But Basso’s lifestyle represents only a small minority of Stockton’s residents. The color of Mr. Basso’s skin, wealth, and class standing afford him privileges that most residents do not have access to. In a city with a median per capita income of $19,000, few residents have the opportunity to spend their days playing golf and yachting. Neither can they afford to live in the exclusive gated community where the beginning of the video was filmed. And Basso’s excitement about Stockton’s “first time home buyers market” might seem less compelling to the 58% of Stockton homeowners who owe more on their mortgages than their houses are worth.
It’s also worth noting that nearly all of the people depicted in Basso’s video (with the exception of University of the Pacific students) appear to be white. This is striking in a city where 32% of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino/a, 11% as African American and 20% as Asian (source). Because people of color tend to be less well off economically than whites, it stands to reason that many of these people are experiencing the misery that Basso claims that Forbes magazine “got all wrong” are people of color. And although Basso highlights many positive things about Stockton, he mentions neither its rich diversity nor its wide variety of ethnic cuisine.
Sociologist Ruth Frankenberg writes that “privilege is the (non) experience of not being slapped in the face.”* What she means by this is not only that that white and middle class individuals have advantages over working class people and people of color, but that those of us with privilege often don’t see just how much these differences matter. She argues that race and class disparities are reproduced when those with more privileges do not look, and therefore do not see, just how different our circumstances can be.
Clearly, the goal of this video’s creator is not to erase the experiences of other Stockton residents. To the contrary, it seems he wants to diminish the stigma attached to being named the most miserable city in the US, and to cast it as a place that businesses might want to locate. This could even help generate opportunities for the very people experiencing hardships. However, in this video, Basso chooses not to see the real problems that affect many Stockton citizens. Without an understanding of these problems, Stockton residents are less prepared to address them.
* Frankenberg, Ruth. 1996. “When we are capable of stoppoing we begin to see” in Thompson and Tyagi (eds), Names We Call Home. NY: Routledge. p. 4
Brianna Gall is a senior sociology major at the University of the Pacific and was born and raised in Stockton, CA. Dr. Alison Hope Alko is Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of the Pacific, where she teaches a seminar in public sociology. Her research interests include inequality, environment, food and the social construction of place.
In 1989 Peggy McIntosh published an essay that is assigned in nearly every Sociology of Race and Ethnicity course in America. Titled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, the essay included a list of things that white people, but not others in a white-dominated society, can count on. Here are a few:
I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
I thought of Peggy McIntosh when I saw this personal confession at PostSecret:
Republicans’ outrage, both real and feigned, at Sotomayor’s musings about how her identity as a “wise Latina” might affect her judicial decisions is based on a flawed assumption: that whiteness and maleness are not themselves facets of a distinct identity. Being white and male is seen instead as a neutral condition, the natural order of things. Any “identity” — black, brown, female, gay, whatever — has to be judged against this supposedly “objective” standard.
Thus it is irrelevant if Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. talks about the impact of his background as the son of Italian immigrants on his rulings — as he did at his confirmation hearings — but unforgivable for Sotomayor to mention that her Puerto Rican family history might be relevant to her work. Thus it is possible for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to say with a straight face that heritage and experience can have no bearing on a judge’s work, as he posited in his opening remarks yesterday, apparently believing that the white male justices he has voted to confirm were somehow devoid of heritage and bereft of experience.
In the Sotomayor confirmation hearings, Republicans have swarmed on Ricci v. DeStefano, the New Haven firefighters case. To hear them tell it, Sotomayor flung the law aside in upholding the lower court decision. She, the majority of the Second Circuit Court, the Federal judge who wrote the original opinion, and the four dissenting Supreme Court justices all based their opinions entirely on a preference for blacks and Hispanics and an animus towards whites. They didn’t consider the law.
By contrast, the five males (four of them white) on the Supreme Court who sided with the white male plaintiffs based their decision wholly and impartially on the law. Their race had nothing to do with it.
The Republican strategy depends on the tendency for privilege to remain invisible.
The doll sold so well that Mattel decided to make a Black version (image here):
The Black version of the doll triggered protests. Monica explains it nicely:
…Oreo has another connotation in the Black community beyond just being a slammin’ cookie.
Calling someone an ‘Oreo’ is fighting words. It means that you are calling them Black on the outside and white on the inside. Translation, you call a Black person an Oreo, you are accusing them of being a sellout or an Uncle Tom to the race.
The doll was eventually recalled. (This was all about four years ago.)
Did Mattel intentionally produce a doll that embodied a well-known insult in the Black community? If they didn’t (and let’s just go with that theory), it means that no one at Mattel involved in the production of this doll had the cultural competence to notice the problem. This points to both (1) white privilege and the ease with which white people can be ignorant of non-white cultures and (2) a lack of diversity on the Mattel team. Less employee homogeneity might have saved Mattel both face and money in this instance. Diversity, then, is often good business.
Privilege comes in many forms: class privilege, white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege and so on. Being privileged means that you “fit” in the society in which you live and reap rewards by virtue of just being.
Recognizing privilege isn’t just a matter of being thoughtful or empathetic, it usually involves sacrificing something. Sometimes it’s something big (like the belief that your success is due entirely to your talents and hard work) and sometimes it’s something small.
The person who sent this confession to PostSecret is admitting to feeling frustrated by giving up one of those small benefits that come with privilege:
I have enjoyed Star Wars Angry Birds since I first discovered it almost a year ago, at the suggestion of my brother (a fellow Star Wars fan). While I never warmed to the original Angry Birds, I was tickled that I could clearly identify the Star Wars characters the birds represented in the themed version of the game. When Star Wars Angry Birds II released last month, I anxiously dove into the sequel. On a whim, I decided to use the new store feature to look through the many characters that I might someday unlock.
When I finally scrolled through all of the characters in the game, I noticed something peculiar.
Han Solo (played by Harrison Ford, a white male, in the Star Wars films) is portrayed by a yellow bird. Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill, a white male) is portrayed by a red bird. Qui-Gon Jinn (played by Liam Neeson, a white male) is portrayed by a tan bird. These birds all have costumes or props that identify them as the characters they are meant to represent, but their color is not related to the skin color of the characters/actors in the films.
This pattern held true for every (human) male character with two notable exceptions: Captain Panaka (played by Hugh Quarshie, a black male) and Mace Windu (played by Samuel Jackson, a black male) are both portrayed by brown birds.
So, what’s the message? Well, for white, male Star Wars characters, skin color is unimportant; white characters can be represented by a bird of any color. It is the costuming or props used by these birds that convey the essence of the character. But for black Star Wars characters, their skin color (brown) becomes the defining element conveying the essence of the character.
Likewise, gender is also a defining characteristic for the portrayal of female characters. Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher, a white female) and Padme (played by Natalie Portman, a white female) are both portrayed by pink birds. There are no other pink birds in the game. Again, the color of the bird is unimportant, unless the bird is female, in which case the character’s gender (denoted by its pinkness) becomes the essential element of that character.
This same pattern also appears in the original Star Wars Angry Birds, in which Princess Leia is the only pink bird and Lando Calrissian (played by Billy Dee Williams, a black male) is the only brown bird.
White privilege and male privilege persist, in part, by framing the white, male experience as normal. Even in a game like Star Wars Angry Birds II we see the invisibility of whiteness and maleness and the foregrounding of race and gender for people of color and women.
Galen Ciscell is a visiting assistant professor of sociology at Pacific Lutheran University. He is also the designer of the cooperative board game Atlantis Rising.