Seeing Privilege—and the Obligations That Go With It

starbucks, coffee, woman
(Photo: Matheus Ferrero/Unsplash)

By Emily M. Farris,

Here’s an incomplete list of things some Americans should avoid doing, as @AudraEqualityMc points out, or else risk harassment and potentially death — for the simple fact that they are black in America.

As a white person, none of these things are risky for me in the same way.

With my skin color comes a certain privilege, one that I didn’t earn and one that we rarely wish to publicly acknowledge. Peggy McIntosh, a scholar at Wellesley, wrote a paper in the late 1980s called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” which contained fifty examples of white privilege. (“8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race. 24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.”).

Acknowledging that certain groups have privilege can be uncomfortable for those who wish to believe we live in a meritocracy. The reality is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life. I am advantaged by the fact that I was born in the United States to a white, middle class, English-speaking family. I am (mildly) disadvantaged by my clumsy body’s lack of athletic ability. Acknowledging privilege forces me to wrestle with the question: What do I have that I didn’t earn?

My privilege allows me to exist in my day-to-day life without thinking about race, if I chose to. That is a luxury I didn’t earn. Unlike black parents, I won’t have to sit my child down to explain how to safely interact with police. I don’t have to tell my child not to linger while shopping in case the store manager might think they are stealing. I don’t have to have a list of things I should or shouldn’t do to survive.

Even though I’m privileged to not have to think regularly about race, I chose to do so. As someone who benefits from the systems of privilege and power, I have the responsibility to challenge the status quo. It isn’t on people of color to solve the problem of racism. They didn’t cause the problem, they shouldn’t be responsible for its solution.

So, on my own list: Don’t avoid talking about race. We should acknowledge the privilege of sitting in a Starbucks waiting for a friend, of laughing with our girlfriends while playing golf or drinking on a wine train in Napa and of casually wearing a hoodie.

It is on us to start these conversations among ourselves to recognize the ways that black lives don’t matter in the United States. It is the first step to challenging that privilege.

Editor’s note: This op-ed was first published at

Emily M. Farris is an assistant professor of Political Science and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies, Texas Christian University.

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    Written by FM Editors

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