I hear this term "white privilege" when something major happens like a school shooting, police shooting, or even during sentence hearings involving people of different ethnicity.

What does "White Privilege" mean?

A good answer should include examples of it either occuring or not occurring in modern day society


7 Answers 7


White privilege is an academic concept that has recently been brought into the mainstream discourse by social media campaigns and movements like Black Lives Matter.

It's basically a theory that white people in western countries have more societal privileges than people of other ethnicities who come from the same political, social and economic class. It's largely used as a byword for systematic or institutional racism in a country.

Since the debate is largely in the US I will be using data from the US to back up my points.

In America:

  • Police are more likely to use deadly force (read kill) a young black male over a young white male. And black people are disproportionately killed during police raids as a percentage of population.

  • Data suggests that you are much more likely to be stopped and searched if you are non-white.

  • You are much more likely to be arrested and charged for the possession of marijuana in the US if you are Black (despite the fact that the percentage of marijuana users are roughly the same between blacks and whites).

  • Minorities are disproportionately represented among the prison population in the US; although it must be noted they disproportionately commit some types of crime, it would be naive to say there is no racism within the criminal justice system. According to a University of Michigan study:

    “Black defendants face significantly more severe charges than whites even after controlling for criminal behavior (arrest offense, multiple-defendant case structure, and criminal history), observed defendant characteristics (e.g., age, education), defense counsel type, district, county economic characteristics, and crime rates. Unexplained racial disparities exist across the charge-severity distribution, especially at the high end. The most striking disparities are found in the use of charges that carry non-zero statutory minimum sentences.”

  • Once convicted you are more likely to stay longer in prison if you are black.

  • You are likely to graduate college with less debt if you are white.

  • The net worth of the average black household in the United States is $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, according to 2011 census data, and generally white people are richer than black people. Census data further suggests that the median income for a minority is significantly lower than for a white person.

  • Data suggests the media are more likely to report on your child going missing if the child is white.

  • Data suggests you are more likely to face housing discrimination as a person of colour over a white person.

I could provide a lot more examples but I'm simply proving data exists which show that a white person born in the USA is statistically likely to go to have less debt, be richer, get a better education, get a better house, not get stopped and searched as often or go to jail as often as a person of colour.

This concept of racial inequality which inadvertently benefits whites often is referred to as "White Privilege".

NB: This does not mean you are guaranteed to be more privileged as a white, it's just more probable.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Jun 6, 2017 at 6:04
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    I'm not so sure that the debate exists largely in the USA. The US debate most visible for a few reasons: language (English is widely spoken), numbers (large black minority), media (including social media) and history (slavery). And indeed, the factors mentioned in this answer do aggravate the US situation: deadly police force is far more common; minimum sentences are uncommon; college debt is a far bigger issue in the US. (I could also add US healthcare). But despite all that, "White Privilege" is still brought up outside the USA.
    – MSalters
    May 14, 2018 at 17:07
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    Your answer shows some of the inconsistencies of the definition. You say "It's basically a theory that white people in western countries have more societal privileges than people of other ethnicities who come from the same political, social and economic class." but then you say "I could provide a lot more examples but I'm simply proving data exists which show that a white person born in the USA is statistically likely to go to have less debt, be richer, get a better education". May 14, 2018 at 23:06

The clearest way to understand white privilege is as a set of hardships that white Americans are less likely to experience than those of other races (other factors like income being equal).

Everyone, regardless of race, experiences a range of hardship in their lives, but minorities face an additional set of challenges specifically because of their race.

The absence of those race-specific challenges for white Americans is white privilege (no matter how much "normal" hardship they have or haven't faced in their lives).

And of course, if you don't experience something, then it takes some special effort to see and recognize that others do. This negative framing is why this conversation can be so difficult, and why so many people deny that "white privilege" even exists.

Rather than list a lot of different examples (like some other answers do), let me dive deeper into a single illustrative example that should hopefully make this clear:

Traffic Stops

I grew up white in an American suburb, and my parents never explicitly taught me how to conduct myself during a traffic stop, just said to be polite and follow instructions. I've never in my life had a bad experience with police officers, even the one I rear-ended on the freeway! I've never been pulled over when I didn't clearly deserve it, and more than once I've been given the "benefit of the doubt" and not gotten a citation I could have. I've never been put in handcuffs, never had to "spread 'em" on the hood of the car, and never been in fear for my safety or my life from a police officer.

As an adult I was pretty shocked to learn that many black parents (even middle-class suburban black parents) give their teenagers very explicit "how not to get shot by police during a traffic stop" instructions. Black men of all ages and economic status can tell you story after story of being pulled over for "Driving While Black", and we've all heard more and more about the brutality that black Americans have received at the hands of police.

As someone with zero direct experience with any of that, I'm faced with two choices:

  1. Deny or discount the stories of black Americans. This was definitely my first reaction. That can't really be true, can it? Surely they were all doing something suspicious? Of course we do need more than a random handful of stories, but research does seem to support the claims that there is an actual racial disparity in traffic stops.
  2. Accept the conclusion that black Americans have a different relationship with police than I do, by being willing to hear their stories and engage in the conversation.

I now accept that my positive experiences with police throughout my life might be due to more than just my upbringing and my own good behavior, it might be (at least) partially due to my white privilege. Someone who behaved identically but had different skin color might very easily have had any of those encounters with police go very differently.

Note that "recognizing my privilege" is simply the start of a conversation about race and policing in America, it doesn't necessarily imply any specific conclusion or remedy.

Note also that "white privilege" doesn't mean that no white person has ever been mistreated by police, or that no black person has ever been treated well, it just means (on this subject) that in general, white American have a different relationship with law enforcement than black Americans do.

  • I'm glad you brought up police and the black community. This is a very serious issues and should be discussed in another post. Some whites have never experienced being stopped, randomly searched, profiled, etc...People don't don't really about about these issues unless it affects them personally so it's never really taken seriously. Great answer by the way!
    – Noah
    Jun 19, 2017 at 0:37
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    Considering that Europeans (black or white) do not need "how to not get shot by police" instructions either, we can identify it's not just skin color or nationality, but specifically the combination of Black AND American. Just put this in a 2x2 matrix - there is only one corner that is different. Being safe when stopped is not a privilege (White or European). Being unsafe when stopped by police is an Afro-American disadvantage.
    – MSalters
    May 14, 2018 at 17:13
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    @MSalters Sure, details vary by culture, but the general idea of "privilege" exists in many contexts. Another example: when you see the CEO of a major corporation on the news, what's the chance he matches your skin tone? If you're white, its pretty darn high. The fact that the white child routinely "sees themselves" like that is an aspect of their white privilege. Sure, its not police brutality or anything, but its real, and it makes a difference in how people grow up to see themselves in the world.
    – BradC
    May 14, 2018 at 18:22

White Privilege can be interpreted as a derivation of Max Weber's sociological concept of "social stratification" - describing how inequity within society forms and is perpetuated. These divisions are most prominently demonstrated by an individual's ability to achieve one's goals and how individuals form collective groups in order to control the factors that impact their ability to achieve their individual goals. Weber identifies that this ability is a confluence of three interacting factors; Class, Status and Power.

Class; Correlating to "Wealth: includes property such as buildings, lands, farms, houses, factories and as well as other assets - Economic Situation"

Status; Correlating to "Prestige: the respect with which a person or status position is regarded by others

Power; Correlating to Political influence or "Party: the ability of people or groups to achieve their goals despite opposition"

~ definitions taken in part from "Max Weber - Three-Component Theory of Stratification". Wikipedia

Weber describes that portions of these three factors are often leveraged to enhance the other factors in an effort to preserve a group's social positioning and exclude other groups from competing.

For instance, creating a prestigious university helps to establish Status by having exclusive access to the best education. Access to Wealth is used to elevate the Status by attracting the most talented professors by offering the highest salaries, and by making it too expensive for other groups to afford. Furthermore, Power comes into play, when the relationships between Alumni and the administration are used as influential factors in determining access to the institution. Here we can see how all three factors can interplay, fortifying each other in an effort to perpetuate inequality.

The phrase "white privilege" is an example of Status where the groups are delineated by race. When talking about white privilege, the term describes how the "white" group provides opportunity more readily to its members, as opposed to other racial groups. Ostensibly, since more wealth is concentrated in the "white community" it is argued that white people have a dominant access to Wealth - since more political power is concentrated in the "white community" it is argued that white people have a dominant position of Power.

However, it is important to note that groupings are not always apparent, or necessarily a function of demographics. An important part of Weber's definition is "social action", which describes the deliberate actions of a group. "If individuals can plainly see that there is a connection between the structure of the economic system and what happens to them in terms of life chances, class action is more likely" (Hurst, Charles E. (2007). Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences).

Oppositely, efforts like affirmative action demonstrate a cognizant and active effort to help correct for institutionalized impediments and make system inherently more evenly available throughout society. Similarly, discussions of universal healthcare, access to free education, and other social projects are all evidence that there are interests in stepping away from these proclivities based on race, economic background, etc.

  • I would suggest putting a little bit more emphasis on the mentioned concept of "life chances". I think this is really one of the most fundamentally important parts of the conversation: white people have better life chances in terms of wealth, status, and power than black people or other minorities.
    – Kai
    May 13, 2018 at 20:56
  • "Oppositely, efforts like affirmative action demonstrate a cognizant and active effort to help correct for institutionalized impediments and make system inherently more evenly available throughout society." A bunch of words that seem to mean something, but don't really when you look too carefully. Dec 25, 2021 at 2:31


"White privilege" has various definitions, many listed at Wikipedia. Aspects common to most definitions include: racial inequality, unearned systemic or institutional benefits, and societal reinforcement. For example:

White privilege is the ability for Whites to maintain an elevated status in society that masks racial inequality.1

The meaning of any particular use of the term, like any term, depends on the context.

Effect of race on sentencing

Race can affect sentencing because some criminal statutes have disparate impacts (e.g. "the crack-to-powder-cocaine disparity") and decision makers in the justice system can be biased.

1. Andersen, M.; Taylor, H.; Logio, K. (2014). Sociology: The Essentials (8th ed.). Cengage Learning. p. 424., Cited indirectly via Wikipedia.

  • Who lobbied for the increased penalties for crack use? Jun 5, 2017 at 14:33
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    @DrunkCynic a fair question only if you also ask who brought the crack academic to the black neighborhoods in the first place.
    – user1530
    Jun 5, 2017 at 16:00

"Privilege" is one of those terms that has a rather nebulous meaning that to a large extent means whatever someone wants it to mean. You can find definitions of the term, but actual usage is not entirely consistent with those definitions. Some meanings of "privilege":

-It refers to forms of oppression that minorities do have
-It refers to resources that minorities do not have
-It refers to overall statistical differences between groups
-It applies individually to every member of a group
-It refers to social difference due to discrimination
-It includes phenomena that aren't due to any sort of malice
-It refers to current, active oppression
-It includes the continuing effects of previous advantages
-It's a property of society as a whole
-It's a basis for criticizing individual members of the majority, and attacking their worth, morality, rights, etc.

Its meaning shifts between these as convenient.


the data analyses of white privilege take on a different hue when asian americans are factored in, however. once you account for how asian americans are represented in these data, it starts looking like 'hard-worker privilege' and not 'white privilege'. e.g. many asian ethnicities in the US have both higher average academic success and higher average incomes than whites.

also if you look at similar data analyses across multiple countries with very different ethnic demographics what will emerge is something like a 'majority privilege'. (e.g. whites in japan don't achieve better outcomes than japanese, apparently due to the fact that people have a tendency to have a preference or greater trust for those of the same culture, and that tendency when applied to the majority group will necessarily confer an advantage on those in the majority)

  • 9
    Downvoting because you have not included any citations, and you are promoting the model minority myth. Focusing only on the fact that some Asians are successful is much like saying that because there are millionaires who are black racism doesn't exist. You have provided no data and have not discussed any issues of poverty, political influence, educational opportunities, etc. Your thesis implies that minorities who are not Asian simply are lazy.
    – Kai
    May 13, 2018 at 21:00
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    @Kai You give no explanation for how user508546 is "promoting the model minority myth". Giving something a catchy name doesn't make it fallacious. And they didn't focus on some Asians being successful, they asserted that the overall average income is higher. May 14, 2018 at 23:12
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    @Acccumulation "Although many Asian Americans have succeeded academically and socioeconomically, survey research have shown that more recently immigrant groups, such as Southeast Asians, have been unable to replicate such success." Source
    – Kai
    May 15, 2018 at 2:21
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    @Kai That doesn't address my comment. May 15, 2018 at 23:29
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    @Kai so you would be OK with the comment if he had said "East Asians" instead? If one minority group becomes so successful that most people don't even consider them "under-privileged", is this actually "white privilege" or really just "hard worker privilege"?
    – user6633
    Sep 20, 2019 at 9:08

White privilege is perhaps a bit of a misnomer. White preference (by whites) may be more accurate. I’ m guilty of family preference in that I invested heavily in my kids’ education and stand ready to do so for my grandchildren though this appears not to be required. It’s a big world out there and you can’t individually care for everyone.

Back in the 1950s I attended a school more than 30% black. The black guys worked alongside me in most industrial jobs and were part of the team. They became electricians, mailmen (as was my father) and were part of the blue collar workforce. Few, black or white, moved into the professional ranks. But in the late fifties this changed. Local schools important to ethnic groups –mostly Italians in my situation- we deemed segregated as were other local customs that predated the black influx. Black/white became a dividing line. In short the North was conflated with the South and a divide developed and widened. The failure of American industry that started in the same time-frame was another factor. Blacks came north in large numbers for jobs that were going south or overseas. A chasm opened between blacks and whites. Whites did better –though not all that good- and blacks saw white privilege. But it’s more that whites are just a bit better connected and better at coping, probably as a result of culture rather than race per se. It’s simple rapport as a positive rather than exclusion as a negative.

  • 3
    This answer borderlines on simply being a racist trope. Unintentionally, I'm sure, but it's precarious.
    – user1530
    Jun 5, 2017 at 15:51
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    probably as a result of culture rather than race per se -> You mean like a culture of enslavement and then segregation and wide-spread institutional racism? Unfortunately these things take more than a few years to heal. If you're poor (because, you know, you were enslaved) you're less likely to be able to send your kids to good schools, which means your kids will be more likely to be poor... etc. etc. It takes active effort and time to heal this disparity.
    – user11249
    Jun 5, 2017 at 17:27
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    In the 50's there was still Jim Crow and the civil rights movement was just starting. Downvoting.
    – Kai
    May 13, 2018 at 21:04
  • "White preference (by whites)" seems a misplaced restriction. The same tools used to measure implied bias among whites can also be used among non-whites, and that generally results in a similar preference, i.e. for white culture by _black people.
    – MSalters
    May 14, 2018 at 16:58

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