Check your privilege! Part 1

Today I am writing about white privilege. If you are already familiar with the work of Peggy McIntosh, Molly Secours, and the many other people who have explained this concept, and if you ‘get it’, then please feel free to ignore this. If you don’t know what I am talking about, or if you have heard of white privilege, but don’t get it, please do read on.

I think one of the best ways to explain what is meant by white privilege is to have you take Molly Secours’ White Privilege Pop Quiz. This is a quick and easy multiple-choice quiz. There are no right or wrong answers; just pick the answer that is true for you.

A) When was the first time you were made aware of your racial identity and realized that your ‘race’ would play a pivotal role in the challenges you faced on a daily basis.

1) 1-5    2) 6-10    3) 11-present    4) never

B) How often are you reminded about being the race with which you identify?

1) several times a day    2) once a day    3) several times a week    4) once a month    5) never

C) As a child how often were you given safety instructions on how to walk through a department store or public establishment in a way that did not foster suspicion or attract attention?

1) frequently    2) sometimes    3) rarely    4) never

D) How often have you been (or are you now) coached by parents or guardians or family members on how to behave or what to say in order to avoid being perceived as dangerous or menacing when confronted by law
enforcement, teachers or authority figures?

1) frequently    2) sometimes    3) rarely    4) never

E) How often do you talk with close friends and family members (or just wonder to yourself) whether or not your racial identity is negatively impacting your daily interactions with others?

1) everyday    2) once a week    3) once a month    4) once a year    5) never

F) How often have you wondered if your race negatively impacted a job interview, a grade, a confrontation with a co-worker or a friend?

1) too many to count    2) periodically    3) seldom    4) never

G) How often are you the only person (or very few) of your identified race in daily activities? Including Church, school, bars, nightclubs etc?

1) always    2) frequently    3) seldom    4) never

H) Have you ever been tempted to deny your racial identity in order to feel more comfortable in a particular setting or to have an advantage?

1) always    2) frequently    3) seldom    4) never

I) Have you ever found yourself feeling frustrated, invisible or ashamed in a history class because you felt ‘your people’ weren’t represented (or represented accurately) in “His-story”.

1) yes, always    2) yes, often    3) yes, sometimes    4) never

J) While watching television or movies do you often feel that people who look like you or are racially/culturally connected to you are not represented (or misrepresented) in the media?

1) yes, always    2) yes, often    3) yes, sometimes    4) never

K) How often have you been challenged and/or corrected by someone about how ‘you identify’ racially?

1) more than 5 times    2) several times    3) once    4) never

L) How often have you adjusted your behavior out of concern that people might assume or suspect you to be lazy, inarticulate, untrustworthy, criminal, or unintelligent because of your race.

1) more than 5 times    2) several times    3) once    4) never

M) How often do you notice that the majority of authority figures in your school career or work environment–who sign your checks or supervise your daily activities–are identified with another race and/or culture?

1) always    2) often    3) sometimes    4) never

N) How often do you feel in need of reassurance (or to reassure other family members) you/they are ‘just as good as’ (not better) than someone of another racial group because of a negative experience?

1) Always    2) Frequently    3) Seldom    4) Never

O) How often have you wondered if something you said or did in a public setting might reflect negatively on your identified race?

1) frequently    2) sometimes    3) seldom    4) never

If you answered numbers 3, 4 or 5 for more than 3 questions then you are someone who experiences white privilege. If you answered number 3, 4 or 5 for more than 7 questions, then you are definitely a ‘card carrying member’ of white privilege. And if you answered 3, 4 or 5 for more than 10 questions, let’s just say, ‘it’s a done deal’.

So how did you do? I answered “never” to all 15 questions, so I definitely have white privilege. So what does this say about me. Does it mean I am a racist? No. Does it mean that I am to blame for the state of affairs that led to me having white privilege? No. It means nothing except that I should now be aware that I have white privilege, and have some minimal idea about what other people – those who do not answer “never” to all the questions – may experience. I still do not know what it is like to be someone who isn’t white, but I am aware that the phenomenology of being non-white is not the same as the phenomenology of being white.

Let’s be clear about this. If your answers indicate that you experience white privilege, you should not be getting defensive; you are not being accused of anything:

  • “White Privilege” is not a slur or an insult
  • It is not derogatory
  • It is not something you can stop, start, eliminate or get more of
  • Acknowledging that you have it does not change anything
  • Denying that you have it does not change anything
  • You have no reason to be ashamed of it
  • Someone saying you have White Privilege is equivalent to pointing at an Oak Tree and saying “That is an Oak Tree.” It is a statement of fact.
  • “Checking your privilege” makes you a decent human being and the best part is that even if you are constantly “Checking it” you are also constantly benefitting from it
  • Because of the above, there is no down side to “Checking your privilege” which means if you don’t, you are a double whammy dirt bag
  • It’s okay to not fully understand how to “Check your privilege”
  • It is NOT okay to not make a conscious effort to learn
  • White Privilege isn’t something dirty. It’s just something you have if you are white.

OK, so I have white privilege (as do many of you reading this), and I understand that is purely descriptive. No value judgments are being made. So what’s the point in all of this? Reminding myself of some of the items on the quiz will (I hope) stop me from saying stupid things about other people’s experiences. For example, I like my town. It seems like a nice place, and there are definitely nice people in it. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of racism. But how do I know that? Well, in my experience, few people have said racist things to me, or in my presence. My experience is valid in the sense that it is true that I have not seen a lot of evidence for racism. But it is a leap for me to claim that as a result of my experiences, there is little racism. “Checking my privilege” enables me to realize that other people may have different experiences; they may be more likely to be exposed to racism than I am, or be more likely to notice it where I didn’t, simply by virtue of not being white.

How should I feel about my privilege? Hard to say. It inspires some guilt, but I understand that I may not have said or done anything that I should feel guilty about. It can inspire defensiveness, denial, or a desire to point out that some criminals are black: just look at some of the comments on Molly’s quiz. But defensiveness, denial, and generalization from statistical outliers are not appropriate responses. I really rather like what PZ Myers’ said as a response to how people feel about disparity:

I’m a white male middle-class professional. I profit from disparity, and it simultaneously gives me guilt and worry that someone might take my privileges away from me. But I can’t in good conscience live in the illusion that I somehow deserve more than a poor black woman making ends meet with menial labor; I don’t. I’m just the recipient of the blessings of chance and history.

Molly Secours’ pop quiz has its origins in the classic essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. In this essay, Peggy McIntosh gives a list of statements that identify

some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions.

You can go read the whole essay, but here are a few of the items on the list:


  • 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 can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  • I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
  • I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
  • I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.

This quote from the essay explains why having an awareness of white privilege is important:

It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already.

Thanks to Corinne Zimmerman for pointing me in the direction of the white privilege quiz, and thus inspiring this post.

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