From White Privilege to Allies

From White Privilege to Allies

Definition of White Privilege

White privilege is the term for unconscious assumptions and practices that favor—or give privilege to– Caucasians compared to people of color. Implicit assumptions include everything from who has voice and authority in meetings, to definitions of success, to who is and is not feared when walking down a sidewalk after dark.

Having whites recognize white privilege is like a fish recognizing that it is swimming in water.  For whites, it is so natural and unconscious that unless it is brought to a consciousness, it seems invisible.  On the other hand, people of color easily see, but do not benefit from white privilege.  The less privileged confront the hard truths of exclusion, fear, and racism every day.

Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

Peggy McIntosh has developed a powerful exercise for helping diverse groups recognize white privilege.  White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, is a discussion-based activity that guides participants in understanding privilege as a concept and recognizing the ways their own privileges benefit them and impacts daily life.

Everyone gathers in a line at one end of a large, unobstructed room. One-by-one, the facilitator calls out more than four dozen possible scenarios. A few examples:

  • I can turn on the television or open the front page of the newspaper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  • I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

Each time a person recognizes themselves in a scenario, they take one step forward. If the statement is not true for them, they remain in place.  Every time I have participated in the Invisible Knapsack, a few other white men and I (and sometimes a few white women), end up on the opposite end of the room from where we began. People of color are spread across the room.  Most African Americans are usually still near the starting line. People look around the room and share their reflections. Inevitably, many whites express surprise, unease and guilt; while people of color proclaim that the privileges whites enjoy ought to be obvious. The exercise is a visible, kinesthetic way of bringing unconscious assumptions about power and privilege to consciousness.

White Privilege is Not About Being Mean

Notice that the exercise is not about Caucasians being mean to people of a different shade. White privilege is not about using derogatory or forbidden words about another group, or hating a group, or not liking another culture’s music. The exercise is not about overt racial discrimination. It is about the more subtle and insidious ways white privilege affects individuals and society.

I am convinced that most white Americans who consider themselves good, decent, and not racist are unaware of the insidious impact of their white privilege. They sincerely believe that they never racist and resent the accusation that they are. Few people like to be told they are uncaring or insensitive. This reaction misses the point. White privilege is underwater, the below-the-surface part of a cultural iceberg.

So, what should the privileged do with the guilt that comes from a recognition of white privilege? Guilt is a powerful emotion. Sometimes it is a good motivator. However, guilt that boils over into resentment does no one any good.

From Guilt to Ally

The best answer to one’s feelings of guilt is not resentment towards the other. Nor is silence an antidote to privilege. The solution for a person of privilege is to become an ally with people of color. Make the guilt productive by acting your way into hope.

Here are a few examples:

  • Listen more, talk less.
  • In meetings, invite people who have not spoken to speak. Typically, people of privilege speak more often than the less privileged. By inviting others to speak and reducing your verbosity, you help them claim their power.
  • When a person of color brings forward a new idea, never claim it as your own. Instead, affirm the idea as coming from the person who first mentioned it.
  • Ponder what you are going to say before you say it.
  • Confront abusive and exclusive behavior in people who look like you.
  • Step forward to take on roles typically assigned to others less privileged: take minutes, supply refreshments, and clean up after the meeting.

Taking steps such as the above comes from consciousness of your privilege and moves beyond guilt. By doing so, you help build more inclusive and equitable workplaces, schools, and communities.

Order a Copy of THRIVE

For dozens of ideas to make your meetings more inclusive, order my book THRIVE: The Facilitator’s Guide to Radically Inclusive Meetings.

Visit my website: and drop me at email

Copyright © 2019 Mark Smutny and Civic Reinventions, Inc. All rights reserved. For permission to distribute copies of this article in any form, contact .