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 schola