What is white privilege?

Defining white

The term ‘White’ as it is used in the term ‘White privilege’ also needs clarity. R. Bhopal provides some insight into the term as it is used when discussing race: “The term (White) is usually used to describe people with European ancestral origins who identify, or are identified, as White. The word is capitalised to highlight its specific use.”

Bhopal (2004) Glossary of Terms Relating to Ethnicity and Race: for Reflection and Debate

When using the term White in Australian contexts and when referring to White Australians, this may refer to the following:

  • A European Australian, an Australian with European ancestry
  • An Anglo-Celtic Australian or Anglo, an Australian from the British Isles
  • An Anglo-Saxon Australian, an Australian with British or Germanic ancestry

Defining privilege

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the term ‘privilege’ refers to “an unearned advantage or entitlement that only one person or group of people has, usually because of their position or because they are rich.” This is often attributed to dominant social groups which refers to groups that control the value systems and rewards in a particular society. It can refer to groups who hold political power in society, as well as groups who are of the ethnic or religious majority in a society.

White privilege

White privilege is a combination of the  terms, ‘white’ and ‘privilege’. White privilege can be defined as the implicit societal advantages afforded to White people relative to those who experience racism.  According to Francis Kendall, “White privilege is an institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions.” It is the absence of suspicion, prejudice and other negative behaviours that people who are objects of racism experience. Note that this term does not apply in countries where White people do not make the majority of the population or the political power in charge, for example China or Japan.

Kendall, F.E. (2002) Understanding White Privilege

In order to be more aware of privilege, it is important to think about what it is to see society systemically and structurally instead of only in terms of individuals making individual choices. Once this is realised, it is much easier to identify individuals who, due to their privilege, are granted unearned advantages within this system. When a social political system or institution grants privileges and unearned advantages to people who make up the majority of the population or represent those in political power, this is known as institutional racism.

It is important to note that having white privilege does not automatically make you racist. It is important to identify these inherent advantages in order to reject them so that they do not continue to reinforce our present hierarchies.


The video “You don’t have to be racist to have white privilege. Here’s how it works” by The Root, explores White privilege in an American Context.

  1. Do we have the same issues facing our Aboriginal communities?
  2. Are other groups impacted in the same or similar ways?
  3. In Australia does the treatment of different groups correlate to their perceived ‘whiteness’ or shades thereof?

Activity objectives:

  • To achieve an understanding of privilege and oppression
  • To provide an opportunity for learners to empathise, connect and reflect on the experience of having/not having privilege
  • To identify the privileges that exist in the society we live in today
  • To reflect upon what types of privileges (social, financial, legal etc) are important to them and why that may differ from others in their group.
  • To investigate and discuss what groups may have limited access to what privileges and effect that lack of access may have on an individual.
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“I was taught to see racism only in the individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”
Peggy McIntosh
“We might at least start by distinguishing between positive advantages, which we can work to spread, and negative types of advantage, which unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies.”
Peggy McIntosh