How to Explain White Privilege to Your White Working-Class Friends and Family

A protestor holds a sign reading, "WHITE PRIVILEGE IS RACISM" on July 7, 2016. Thousands rallied calling for an end to the epidemic of unsanctioned police murder occurring primarily in black communities across the United States. (Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In 2020, with the tragic deaths of Black men playing out on the evening news and protests against police brutality taking place in cities across the country, it’s hard to understand how anyone could deny the existence of white privilege. But in conversations with friends and loved ones, I’ve learned that there are still many who associate privilege with wealth and opportunity, two things that are often out of reach for people living in underserved, mostly white communities.

I know this because I grew up white in one of the poorest states in the country, where loss of industry has devastated the economy and the opioid epidemic has increasingly led to children being placed in foster care, and even necessities like clean water aren’t guaranteed. People are suffering, but not because of the color of their skin — and that’s where we must draw the distinction, if we ever hope to confront racial injustice and effect meaningful change.

Once an academic term, white privilege refers to the benefits that come with being in the racial majority, regardless of your socioeconomic status. While approaching this topic with people in my own life, I’ve found that presenting this thought exercise can help someone who’s resistant to recognizing this reality. As a white person, you may not be able to live in your preferred neighborhood because the cost of housing is too high, not because you were made to feel unwelcome based on the color of your skin. When you walk into a store, you’re unlikely to be perceived as someone who might shoplift, even if your bank account sits at zero. And while getting a ticket may make it harder to feed your family, being pulled over by police is unlikely to put you in immediate danger.

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