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Culture Transformation: Learning How You Are Privileged

Get mad or get active when called out for your privilege.

Why do people get mad when their privileges are pointed out? We all think we are being good when we take action in the moment. Even many violent criminals think they are righting wrongs when they assault someone (Gilligan, 1976).

So, when our acting from privilege is called out, it insults our self-image of goodness. "Who, me? I wasn’t acting as a [racist/sexist/bad person]." Anger often results.

But America is highly unequal in all sorts of privileges that function like supremacies.

America has been an elite white man’s dream for some time, a place where “white, male, rich” is considered the baseline for what kind of person is normal/best/most respected (Fottrell, 2019; Isenberg, 2016; Miller, 1976; Painter, 2010).

For example, remember when Freudian theory stressed that a healthy woman’s characteristics (dependent, submissive) were those of an unhealthy man? Naturally, women were seen as innately inferior, a view still around. Jean Baker Miller (1976) pointed out the contradiction and changed the descriptors of women’s strengths to “connection” instead of “dependency,” “caring” instead of “manipulation,” and “relationship” instead of “fusion.”

The psychology of privilege is being uncovered by numerous activists and scholars these days. Privilege accrues to each aforementioned category but also to other categories that include most of the rest of us.

Everyone has some privilege that others do not have, as Ijeoma Oluo stresses. She is the author of So You Want to Talk About Race and was interviewed in The Sun (Leviton, 2018). Here are some excerpts.

“This is where intersectionality [“how class, race, sexual orientation, and other aspects of our identity are inextricably woven together”] is important: it invites you to come face-to-face with your privilege, your advantages—not to make you feel bad, but to show you opportunities for really helping. Being black, I’m automatically underprivileged in many areas of life, but I also recognize the advantages I personally have: I’m college educated. I’m not disabled. I live in a progressive area. I’m safely housed. I’m light skinned. The list is pretty long. There are times and places where I have an advantage that others do not, where I can speak when others won’t be heard. I can put those advantages to use to fight systems of oppression” (p. 10).

“If you are a critic of intersectionality, you are probably feeling frustrated. People with less privilege than you used to face their difficulties alone, on the outside. Now they are inside, and your sense of superiority is showing. Everything was fine when your needs were at the center. As long as the less privileged were standing for your issues, you considered their presence “diversity.” But you never had to stand for their issues or even consider how your actions might be harming them” (p. 9).

White Supremacism

“There’s no way to avoid absorbing our American culture, which was designed to benefit white males. We absorb American racism in ways we’re not fully aware of. You can’t undo a lifetime of experience in a few years of work. While you are struggling against racism, the culture keeps reinforcing it, telling you who is “normal” and who isn’t, who deserves o be seen and who is made invisible. Racism is alive… (p. 5)."

“In this country there are large racial divides in everything from infant mortality, to how much you earn, to your chances of being arrested or incarcerated. This is not because bunch of white people wake up every day and decide to oppress people of color; it’s not just the actions of individuals with hate in their heart. We cannot understand American racism unless we recognize it as a system that was built to run—and that still runs—on principles of oppression and domination. Four hundred years of history doesn’t go back into the toothpaste tube” (p. 5).

Why can’t minority members just "get over it"?

“White people will sometimes tell me how hurt they were when someone called them a “crack.” It stings, but they shrug it off. Why? Because it happens about once every five years. If someone called me a racial slur once every five years, I might be able to shrug it off, too. More important, “cracker” does not invoke the memory of whites being barred from lunch counters. It’s not tied to family stories about people screaming, “Cracker!” as they lunched a white man because he winked at a black woman. The word hasn’t been used as a tool of racial oppression, because there’s no system of power oppressing white people. In fact, there’s a system of power protecting the person who gets called “cracker.” (p. 6)

“There’s no way to be neutral about white supremacy as long as that system benefits you every day. Just because white people aren’t always are of their power—or don’t want to recognize it—doesn’t mean they don’t have it. For white people to do nothing is all the system needs for it to continue. But you can use that power I a way that helps rather than harms. You can be an ally and use your white privilege to help fight racism" (p. 8).

Although white people should not speak up for a person of color, there are many things to do:

“I have to ask white organizers [of marches]:…When are you going to stand with me, with all of your privilege? If you march next to me, your chances of being run down by a cop or dragged off in handcuffs are far less than mine. Black women are risking their lives when there are cops around. Look at those white women at the Women’s March taking selfies with the police, and then watch the video of cops in Seattle riding their bikes into groups of peacefully protesting black women. Watch the armored military vehicles rolling down American stress to confront Black Lives Matter protesters. …One of the most useful things white allies can do is provide a safety barrier in front of a line of cops, because white people are less likely to be mistreated. That’s a great use of privilege and power: surrounding people of color who are under threat" (p. 10).

“White people may first have to come over and listen to people of color, because they don’t have the awareness of white privilege that we do. But the next frontier is white people trying to dismantle the systems of racial oppression that benefit them. In a way, they’re the only ones who can do that. White people need to want racism gone" (p. 10).

The most valuable remark was this to the white male interviewer:

“I have only a few ways of being heard, and you have hundreds. Go use that power.” (p .13)

If we are going to spend time transforming ourselves, we may need to include the culture that formed us.


Isenberg, Nancy (2016). White Trash: The 400-year untold history of class in America. New York: Penguin.Painter, Nell Irvin (2010). The History of White People. W. W. Norton & Company.

Fottrell, Q. (2019). Incompetent, rich people are more likely to get ahead than smart people with no money. MoneyWatch, July 6.

Gilligan, J. (1997). Violence: Reflections on a national epidemic. New York, NY: Vintage.

Leviton, M. (2018). White lies: Ijeoma Oluo on privilege, power and race. The Sun, 516, pp. 4-13.

Miller, J.B. (1976). Toward a New Psychology of Women. New York: Beacon.