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The Paradoxes of Privilege

By Kaylee Braidwood and Jack Pedrotti


White privilege is the idea that being white provides unearned protection from discriminatory societal structures. For example, white people tend to feel more comfortable with police because they have never had any reason to feel uncomfortable or scared at a simple traffic stop. White privilege not only serves to provide confidence and protection to white people, but it also causes other racial groups to feel alienated. Everyone is impacted by privilege, whether as a beneficiary or a victim. 

Privilege can be examined by comparing neighborhoods, education, average income, employment rates, and police brutality statistics (among many other factors) between white people and people of other races. It can also be examined by observing the opportunity gap between races. A study by Marianne Bertrand, a Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, and Sendhil Mullainathan, a Computation and Behavioral Science Professor also at the University of Chicago, revealed that when applying to jobs with completely identical resumes, applicants with stereotypically white-sounding names got significantly more callbacks than applicants with stereotypically black-sounding names. 

However, many people across the country believe that privilege is nonexistent, or at least not prevalent enough to be an issue discussed in the 21st century. Not only is the lack of privilege a real and sometimes fatal issue, but there are layers to it that can twist the skeptical mind into writing it off as simply not there. 

In chapter one of Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter, authors Tehama Lopez Bunyasi and Candis Watts Smith explain, "Allan Johnson describes three paradoxes of privilege: First, you do not have to belong to the privileged class (i.e., the white racial group) to receive the benefits of whiteness; you just need to be perceived as white by others. Second, one can be privileged without feeling privileged. Third, being privileged doesn’t guarantee happiness.” Applying these paradoxes to the way our society functions is crucial to a complete understanding of the ways that being white is advantageous in America.

The discussion of privilege also requires the mention of colorism. Colorism is a form of racism based simply on the color of skin and usually favors lighter skin over darker skin tones. However, just because someone looks white does not necessarily mean that they are ethnically caucasian. Simply being able to pass as white awards a layer of protection that darker-skinned people do not get to enjoy. When looking at the divisive issue of immigration, Americans consistently express worries about the legality of a human being when they are either Mexican or Muslim. Although 6%, or about 648,000, illegal immigrants come from Europe and Canada, it is unlikely that these people would ever be randomly questioned about where they are from because their skin color prevents them from receiving an interrogation from skeptical Americans. Quite a regulated melting pot, huh?

Many people argue that white people are not privileged because they still deal with the daily struggles of being a human. White people can be homeless. White people can be bullied and harassed. These things are true because it is possible to be privileged without feeling privileged. It is also possible to be privileged in some ways and not in others. Even though skin color will not keep you away from the harsh realities of living, the fact is, you are statistically less likely to be wrongfully killed by law enforcement if you are white. That’s unearned protection. Privilege. You are statistically more likely to live above the poverty line if you are white. You are statistically more likely to have a higher yearly income if you are white. So although you may not feel privileged, statistically, you are.

Lastly, privilege does not necessarily mean happiness. As stated previously, privilege is an undeserved sense of entitlement and protection. Being privileged may not remove all hardships and sadness from your life, but it may limit the severity of its innate hardships. All of the statistics above directly result in white people having a longer average lifespan than other ethnicities. Happiness is something that can fluctuate. It can be created, earned, and transferred. Privilege is none of those things. Privilege is based on one superficial factor that is controlled solely by the historically racist societal structure it is rooted in. The only way to start shaking the ground it stands so strongly on is recognizing it and then joining the fight to dismantle the deeply prejudiced values it promotes.

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