Why Talk About White Privilege?

By Paula Rothenberg

Why talk about “whiteness” and white privilege? On the one hand, these are topics that make some people uncomfortable by seeming to take them to task for privileges they never noticed they had, and on the other, these topics appear to divert attention from racism and its effects, making white people the center of attention once again. But rather than providing reasons to avoid talking about whiteness and white privilege, these concerns actually underscore our need to do so. Discomfort of this kind is a sure sign that we need to continue the conversation. If education is about learning to see the world in new ways, it is bound, at times, to leave us feeling confused or angry or challenged. Instead of seeking to avoid such feelings, we should probably welcome some degree of discomfort in our lives and feel short-changed if it is not present.

As for the concern that looking at whiteness and white privilege will deflect our attention from racism, this could not be further from the truth. White privilege is the other side of racism. Unless we name it, we are in danger of wallowing in guilt or moral outrage with no idea of how to move beyond it. It is often easier to deplore racism and its effects than to take responsibility for the privileges some of us receive as a result of it. By choosing to look at white privilege, we gain an understanding of who benefits from racism and how they do so. Once we understand how white privilege operates, we can begin to take steps to dismantle it on both a personal and an institutional level.

The above is from the introduction to White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, ed. Paula S. Rothenberg (New York: Worth Publishers, 2002). Reprinted with permission.