2. Readings and Resources

Differentiating Privileges from Benefits from SURJ 

It is not necessarily a privilege to be white, but it certainly has its benefits. That’s why so many of our families gave up their unique histories, primary languages, accents, distinctive dress, family names and cultural expressions. Giving these up seemed like a small price to pay for acceptance in the circle of whiteness. Even with these sacrifices, it wasn’t easy to pass as white if we were Italian, Greek, Irish, Jewish, Spanish, Hungarian or Polish. Sometimes it took generations before our families were fully accepted, and then it was usually because white society had an even greater fear of darker-skinned people.


Privileges are the economic extras that those of us who are middle-class and wealthy gain at the expense of poor and working class people of all races. 


Benefits, on the other hand, are the advantages that all white people gain at the expense of people of color regardless of economic position. Talk about racial benefits can ring false to many of us who don’t have the economic privileges that we see others in this society enjoying. But though we don’t have substantial economic privileges, we do enjoy many of the benefits of being white.



For the classic article by Peggy McIntosh on Unpacking the Knapsack of White Privilege, clickhere.
PictureAnother benefit of being white. We can generally count on police protection rather than harassment. Depending on our financial situation, we can choose where we want to live and choose safer neighborhoods with better schools. We are given more attention, respect and status in conversations than People of Color. Nothing that we do is qualified, limited, discredited or acclaimed simply because of our racial background. We don’t have to represent our race, and nothing we do is judged as a credit to our race or as confirmation of its shortcomings or inferiority.

These benefits start early. Others will have higher expectations for us as children, both at home and at school. We will have more money spent on our education, we will be called on more in school and given more opportunity and resources to learn. We will see people like us in textbooks. If we get into trouble, adults will expect us to be able to change and improve and therefore will discipline or penalize us less harshly than children of color. These benefits accrue and work to the direct economic advantage of every white person in the United States. First of all, we will earn more in our lifetime than a person of color of similar qualifications. We will be paid $1.00 for every $.60 that a person of color makes. We will advance faster and more reliably and, on average, accumulate many times as much wealth. A white family will, on average accumulate $116,800 in assets, a Black family $1,700, and a Latin@ family slightly more. The gap for single women-headed households is even more stark – in 2007 a white female-headed household had on average $41,000 in assets, a Black female-headed household $100, and a Latina-headed household $120.
There are historically derived economic benefits too. All land in the US was taken from Native Americans. Much of the infrastructure of this country was built by slave labor, incredibly low-paid labor or prison labor performed by Men and Women of Color. Much of the housecleaning, child care, cooking and maintenance of our society has been done by low-wage-earning Women of Color. Today Men and Women and Children of Color still do the hardest, lowest-paid, most dangerous work throughout the US. And white people enjoy plentiful and inexpensive food, clothing and consumer goods because of that exploitation.

Retaining Benefits, Avoiding Responsibility by Paul Kivel

Introduction | Readings | Activity | Committment