Here’s a Simple but Powerful Way to Understand White Privilege

The difference between the presumption of belonging and the burden of representation

Tim Wise

When white people hear the term “white privilege,” we often recoil, assuming we are being accused of having led a charmed life without difficulties — or of being rich and powerful, even though, like most, we have faced periods of financial insecurity. We may even be facing such now.

But no one who talks about the problem of racism and white privilege means it that way — literally, no one.

While there are occupational, income, housing availability, and wealth advantages for white people, relative to folks of color, tied to both multi-generational structures of inequity and ongoing bias, these are not the most important part of what we mean when discussing white privilege.

In many ways, white privilege is less about those material advantages per se than the psychological edge it provides to white people — an edge that can then translate into other forms of advantage, including material ones.

I’ve written about this previously as the privilege of having one less thing to sweat in any number of daily interactions.

It’s knowing that no matter how stressful your work, loan application process, classroom experiences, or interactions with police, your race will not signal to the boss, banker, teacher, or cop something negative about your intelligence, work ethic, creditworthiness, or law-abidingness.

That psychological advantage is far from meaningless.

Having one less thing to sweat in a competitive society can be the difference between success and failure. At the very least, it improves one’s odds immeasurably by positively affecting how one performs in an interview, on a standardized exam, or when facing any number of daily challenges.

Being presumed to belong: The normalcy of whiteness

When it comes to having one less thing to worry about, perhaps the best example is being able to take for granted that others will likely see you as belonging in the spaces where you find yourself.

Although this presumption can vary based on class, gender, or sexuality — systems of privilege and disadvantage operate in those realms too and can complicate one another — generally, white people are more likely to be presumed to belong in any number of institutional spaces.

Jobs involving authority (including in blue-collar occupations), advanced classes in school, most colleges and universities, and most upper-middle-class neighborhoods — things to which millions aspire — are settings where whites are rarely if ever seen as out of place when we’re present.

When I was in college, no one ever questioned whether I had deserved admission, even though my SAT score was 150 points below the median. Even after I pulled a 2.1 average my freshman year, no one thought much of it.

Just as they had never questioned why I was in Advanced Placement (AP) French IV in high school, despite being entirely unable to speak French, or several other AP classes despite having a mediocre 3.3 GPA.

Even when I worked as a community organizer in public housing, where I was often one of the few white folks around, I was presumed to belong — viewed either as a cop or social worker there on official business.

When white people are present in settings of authority or professional responsibility — especially if they’re male and middle-class or above — they are presumed to belong there.

No one in HR ever says, during a job search, “Well, it’s OK if we hire a white guy, but we need to make sure he’s the best white guy we can find!” He’ll be assumed qualified by default if he gets to that point.

That isn’t true for everyone, which brings us to the flip side of the presumption of belonging.

Having to represent: The burden of color

For people of color, and especially Black folks — who have long been at the symbolic bottom of the caste structure in America — movement within institutional spaces comes without the ability to assume that others will take their belonging for granted.

For the Black and brown, rather than a presumption of belonging, there is a burden of representation. By this, I mean a feeling that they must hold it down and prove themselves, not only as individuals — a pressure we all feel — but for their group as a whole, lest their failure or inadequacy reflect poorly on others like them.

It’s the person in the job interview who worries that not only might sub-par performance sink their chances but also trigger a group-based stereotype in the interviewer’s mind, thereby weakening the prospects for the next person who comes along and shares their color.

It’s the student in the classroom who worries the same thing when answering a question or taking a high-stakes test of some sort. Indeed, more than twenty-five years of research has found that the fear of confirming a negative racial stereotype can drive down Black test performance relative to white performance, even when both are equally capable as students.

And this burden is not lessened for Black folks who are upper-middle-class or affluent.

Indeed it may be intensified precisely because, as class-advantaged members of a disproportionately disadvantaged racial group, the pressure to succeed over and above common anti-Black stereotypes is especially intense.

When I was in college, I came to appreciate the burden of representation (and how little it affected me, even as it impacted my Black friends) after a telling experience involving me showing up in the afternoon for a final exam that had been given in the morning.

Although everything worked out — the professor was understanding and let me take the test in his office after I showed up near tears at the thought of failing the class and losing my scholarship — it was what happened when I told some of my Black male peers the story that sticks with me.

As I described going to the professor prepared to beg for the ability to take the test, even though I had been several hours late, the three of them shared glances suggesting a collective consciousness about the scenario that I lacked.

When I asked what the looks on their faces meant, as with the stony silence as I told the story, they were quick to explain.

As one friend put it, he wasn’t sure if he would have taken the risk of going to the professor, an older white male, and asking for the do-over. The two other young men — who, along with the first, were better students than me, with much better grades and higher test scores — agreed.

Stunned, I asked if they seriously would have just taken the failing grade or incomplete, given the damage that decision would wreak on their GPAs. None were entirely sure, they said. But they all agreed the decision would be fraught, either way.

If they took the F, their academic standing would suffer, but anonymously, as the professor probably wouldn’t even associate their names with their faces when it came time to record the final grade. But if they asked for the second chance, by going and facing the professor, they would run the risk of reinforcing a common view of Black men at this selective institution — that perhaps they didn’t belong there.

Then, even if the professor let them take the exam late, as he had done for me, they would have to worry about how he might view Black men sitting in his classroom the next semester and the one after that.

That they even had to consider that — that they would have to carry their failures differently than I would be forced to bear mine — had never occurred to me until then. Just as I never had to strive for excellence, feeling as though my success might help boost other white guys coming along after me — another thing they expressed was an ever-present narrative in their minds and those of their parents.

Discussing privilege and inequality as if people mattered

Too often, when discussing white privilege, we spend time trying to prove, with statistical data, the advantages of being white in America. And while it’s possible to do so, statistics also make abstract an issue intensely felt by flesh and blood people.

Once confronted with the scenario I presented them, there is no way to capture the gravity of my friends’ emotional process with raw data. There is no way to represent, on a spreadsheet or scatterplot, the burden of representation for Black people in America.

Just as there is no way to use statistics to fully capture that burden for Mexican migrants — documented or not — or for Asian Americans in the age of COVID facing increasing hostility and suspicions of contagion.

Likewise, there is no way to use raw data to understand the presumption of belonging that allows white folks never to face the question, “Where are you from?” and be expected to offer anything other than the town in America whence we hail.

Or to know that even if you speak with a German or British accent, no one will ever ask you for papers to prove your right to be in the country, even as many just like you have overstayed work or education visas and don’t legally belong.

Unless we learn to discuss these issues at the experiential level — one that allows for nuances of class, gender, sexuality, and other identities, but also heartfelt emotion about the fact that yes, whiteness still matters — we will remain mired in a distant and overly-academic process.

All of which might be fine for determining the outcome of a debate tournament but is unlikely to prove helpful at the more important goal of equalizing opportunity and altering the social structures within which we operate every day.