How White Privilege Works

Earlier this year, Gloria Steinem wrote a provocative and controversial op-ed piece where she asked readers to imagine an African American woman, trained as a lawyer, who spent two years in the Senate and then went on to run for the Presidency. Steinem’s point was that that “gender is probably the most restrictive force in American life,” and that a Black woman could never hope to achieve such lofty heights, while a Black man is currently doing so and may in fact be elected President.

I took exception to Steinem’s premise, but now I find myself wishing she would update it. Specifically, I’d like Americans to examine a few scenarios and imagine how these would play out.

Let’s start with this one. Imagine that Michelle Obama were not Barack’s first wife, but his second one. Imagine that Obama had been separated from his first wife due to some horrible trauma, and when they finally reunited, he learned that she had been disfigured by a car accident. Imagine then that Barack met Michelle Robinson, a much younger, wealthier woman, began an affair with her while still married to his first wife. And to put the finishing touch on it, imagine that Barack eventually left his first wife for Michelle and used her father’s wealth to launch his political career. Would he be the Democratic nominee today? Or would conservatives tear him apart for his multiple marriages, infidelity, and “moral failures”? Would he generate the same support from Democratic elites, or would he be a lesser version of Kwame Kilpatrick–another black male politician for whom a sex scandal proved his undoing?

Here’s another one. Imagine that Barack Obama ran for president when Malia and Sasha were 17 and 14 instead of 10 and 7. Imagine that in the early stages of his candidacy, news surfaced that Malia was pregnant by her boyfriend, but that they planned to wed. Would Democratic leaders and left-leaning news commentators rally around Obama and insist that his family’s lives are private and not for public consumption? Or would Malia immediately become used as a symbol of irresponsible teen mothers who are a drain on society?

Let’s keep going. Imagine that Barack Obama, in the early stages of his candidacy, simply decided that all the questions and innuendo about him being Muslim, tied to a member of the Weather Underground, and a secret terrorist plant were just too much, and opted not to talk to the media any more on the grounds that they were racist. Would anyone, anyone at all, consider this defensible behavior? Would he even have a candidacy if he did this?

I’m not suggesting that Obama should want to strive for these things, or that these are behaviors to be glorified. But I don’t believe that he could have McCain’s sordid marital history, Palin’s familial dynamics, or her arrogant hostility towards the press with the same consequences. The double standard has a name, and that name is white privilege.   John Ridley writing at Huffington Post has even more examples of this sort of thing in his recent column.


  1. I agree with S in T. Excellent job of turning the tables. Just one quibble–Palin isn’t avoiding the press only because of its (real or imagined) sexism. She also won’t talk to the press because she’s studying–she’s being “briefed.” Which means, of course, that she’s getting a crash course on how to handle the press, presumably on such things as who the supposedly significant world leaders are, and how to pronounce their names and those of their countries.

  2. Great post. All those scenarios are pretty ridiculous.

    @macon d: I wonder if George W. Bush was ever briefed about these things. At least Bush’s lack of qualification was attributed to Bush’s stupidity, while you attribute Palin’s lack of qualification to gender affirmative action.

  3. adia

    Macon D: thanks for the comment, but in a sense you’ve proved my point further. Could Obama be at the stage he is if he needed “briefing” (or to put it more accurately, tutoring) on world leaders and international politics? Would he generate any support whatsoever if it was widely known that he would be taking two months to study up on world affairs like a college kid cramming for a final?

    On another note, I wrote this blog entry before I learned that Levi Johnston (Bristol Palin’s fiance) defined himself on his myspace page as, among other things, “a fuckin redneck.” Again, it is completely unimaginable that 17 year old Malia Obama could be pregnant out of wedlock by a black kid who identified himself as “a fuckin gangster” and that the entire family would not be pilloried as an example of what’s wrong with black people, liberals, and the general decline of moral standards.

  4. Seattle in Texas

    I am so not shocked, which is very sad…. A couple of side notes related to Palin ran through my mind. One, will she get death threats or any type of threats that both Billary and Obama got–especially Obama, which he still has to worry about…and will have to worry about even more when he wins the election. Suppose something went wrong with McCain considering his health history and Palin were bumped up to President (supposing they were to win), how would she lead the nation with her own lack of experience and with her conservative obediance to men? In addition, I say openly some democrats are obviously racist, such as the white feminist folks…I am disturbed at the apparent support that Geroldine seems to be showing for Palin and Hillary’s lack of countering against Palin seems to indiciate something if you ask me. I think Palin’s motto should be: “White Supremacy and Exploitation with Ethics” (…right…). Even worse, Alaska is so different from the rest of the nation–if Cocaine, oops, McCain were to win, how would she lead the U.S. and approach many regional problems that are not in Alaska, whether they pertain to the East, North, South, Southwest, Midwest, Pacific Northwest, or West? Obama supporters, get to work man, get to work!

  5. GDAWG

    Hi Adia. Cognitive dissonance, hypocrisy, and, group-self interest or self-serving, comes to my mind when trying too explain the lack of clear moral outrage by the society at large, in the face of the multitute of personal and moral failures displayed by the Palins and McSame as you have quite accurately shown. Yeah. Just imagine the outrage and moralizing if they were the Blacks in this race for POTUS with ALL of these flaws.
    As such, not surprising all the same.
    Keep up the good work and astute analysis.

  6. David Owen

    Well done Adia! This unmasking of how whiteness is normalized is essential in the struggle for racial justice. The special challenge, as I see it, is to convince those who are not currently convinced of the existence of whiteness and its effects (namely, white privilege) to see that whiteness. I wonder how they would read these hypotheticals and how they would respond. I can just hear them saying–skin color would not make a difference…. We need to keep up the constant unmasking of whiteness if we are ever to overturn its status as a norming structure. Keep up the good work.

  7. GDAWG

    Adia. To continue on my theme of the cultural and moral relativity of MSM and ‘others’ in light of the scenarios you presented concerning the Palin/McSame family and personal narratives: selective morality, selective outrage, asymetric family values, selective moral projection, duplicity, etc.

  8. Hi Adia, you are so right. We cannot be oblivious to the color of my skin, for society does not reward Black skin privilege the undeniable power it awards to White skin privilege. Obama cannot exhibit Black privilege in ways similar to the White privilege exhibited by McCain and Palin, where they can cash in any day on an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, tools and blank checks, according to McIntosh (1988).

  9. Race is righr in front of you if you are not blind.Obama is the one that bought race.He said he did not look lke our other predidents.i do nor thing people are blind.It’s not race,Obama in no way can lead this coumtry.He has been a senator up in washington not even three years and thinks he can run this country.His change will be the same old same old thing.All Obama is doing is lying to the people.He even has said with his big mouth that he never got into washington but he knew it needed a change. What was he doing up in washington those three years sleeping.He is the most inexperienced person that ever ran for the presidency.obama says he will surround himself with advisors.Bush is surrounded with advisors and one named Cheney is running this country.

  10. captain104

    Very good article Adia. I am a white male 57 yrs. I said from the very first day I saw Obama on TV that he needed to become our next president. I have worked hard to sway all my friends to vote for him and to look thru the lies of the McShame/Palin campain. Not all whites are looking at color and I hope we can prove it in the election. Obama/Biden all the way.

  11. Deb M.

    Certainly white privilege infects many actions in the world. The items you state though, are what I refer to as Republican Privilege. Democrats are run out on a rail for what Republicans take as a birthright. Look what was done to John Kerry, an actual war hero. Look how Al Gore was treated. We now have a singularly important task in front of us. Electing Barack Obama President of the USA. Both my husband and I and my mother-in-law, are actively engaged in working with the party to do that. We are all white.

  12. adia

    Josh, please try to be civilized. There’s really no need for all caps, my eyesight is just fine and I can read your comments quite clearly.

    Obama’s lead–and should he win, his election–does not signify the elimination of white privilege or racism, any more than L. Douglas Wilder’s election as governor in the 1980s meant that since that point there has been no more racism/white privilege in Virginia. That said, Obama’s lead and his potential win obviously points to the need for new paradigms and ways of thinking about race and racism. Jessie did an excellent post on this recently:, drawing attention to the ways in which racial inequality is entrenched in numerous social structures. Obama’s lead is significant and important, but doesn’t in and of itself change any of these continued forms of inequality. And the flip side of these issues–the neighborhood segregation, blatant inequities in the criminal justice system, educational disparities–is white privilege, which exists not only in these social institutions but is still manifested in important ways in this election cycle. To answer your question as to where the white privilege is, it is embedded in the examples cited above, which highlight the racialized assumptions Obama has had to anticipate and work around (assumptions that have not been present for white candidates in this race) in order for him to attain the lead he now has. I think it would be a good idea to avoid oversimplifying the complexities of centuries of racial inequalities in favor of a myopic view that allows you to see only Obama’s lead in the polls.

  13. Portia

    Let’s flip this around, since you used John McCain’s biography to state your case: If John McCain had run for president with Barack Obama’s resume, how far would he have gone? Would he still be the GOP candidate? Would any white man or woman have gone as far? I’m guessing not.

  14. adia

    Portia–why would having degrees from Harvard & Columbia, experience in state Senate and Congress, on top of running against an unpopular incumbent have disadvantaged McCain? If McCain had all of the things people seem to like about Obama–ability to inspire hope, plans for tax relief for middle class citizens, energy plans, on top of the resume–how would being white have disadvantaged him?

  15. Adia, I really appreciate you shedding some light on this, “white privilege” subject. I am just the average young black man growing up in Mississippi. I see the racism strongly in the little surrounding towns and of course in my own home town. I find often that white people as well as some black people just refuse to come to the grips of racisms and white privilege. Everyone wants to forget about it and say well that did not happen to me or well I am not the one who is doing that to you just forget about it. Did the Jews forget what happened to them or the Chinese or the Indians? Why are we the only race that has to forget about what happened to us and how come everyone else has been compensated weather it has been monetary or just a simple apology or both. How come we can’t get neither? Why did our “great government,” promise us 40 acres and a mule and still have not paid it to us. They promised it and still have not paid. I can go on and on of how racism still exists it is just done in a craftier way and sometimes it is just so blatant a child could pick up on it. I guess if you forgot what happened to your ancestors then you would not be able to recognize. I guess our 40 acres and a mule will come in the form of a presidency.

  16. O yeah, to all the white people out there. I am by no means an angry racist young black man. I have plenty of white friends who treat me as if I was a part of their family. I am on the other hand, awakening to the fact that there is a dog-gone big freaking elephant standing in the middle of the room. I am not blind, I see, and everything is very lucid. In order to solve a problem we have to admit that there is one.

  17. Portia, I am not trying to insult you by any means, but you need to wake up. John McCain would not stand a chance if Barrack Obama was white and had a name like, lets say, Joe the plumber. All jokes aside, if John McCain was in the same shoes as Obama he would have no problemwinning this election. McCain is an under achiever as a matter of fact, and he is still giving our best, which is the best of the best a run for his money. It is like that all through out America especially corporate America. Young Black Men have to be virtually flawless to even think about competing with a C level young white man who’s father knows the president of the firm. It has been like this for years I am going through this right now. I have seen where I being degreed could not get the job and it was giving to a white guy who just had connections and I know that I was more qualified. I see this and have been through this many times.


  1.   links for 2008-09-08 by ripples of hope
  2. » Blog Archive » Sarah Palin and White Women’s Racism
  3. » Blog Archive » More Examples of White Privilege in Election ‘08
  4. Contexts Crawler » ‘meet the bloggers’ features sociological commentary
  5. The Color Line » Sarah Palin and White Women’s Racism
  6. Video: Race in the Presidential Race on Meet the Bloggers (Friday, 1pm ET/10am PT)
  7. » Blog Archive » Racism as Medical Malpractice: Henrietta Lacks’ Cells

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