What do we mean by White Privilege?

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On April 1, I stumbled upon an article in Vice on a newly launched academic journal about Somalia. That an academic journal had been launched didn’t seem to be news in itself but the author took exception to the fact that a journal about Somalia did not have a single Somali voice. As far as the author of the article is concerned, this is yet another case of White Privilege in Academia.

This got me thinking about Privilege general and White Privilege in particular. Do we know what it means? Is this something that we all think we know and even understand but the facts are more complex than we think? Are we in danger of misusing the “White Privilege” label?

Having failed to come up with answers to mine own questions, I reached out to fellow bloggers here and this is how our conversation unfolded


This is an interesting topic. I most often sigh whenever I hear the words ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’. Should we assume blacks and/or females have no privileges? Or have they failed to take full advantage of their privileges? Or they do have some but they aren’t enough?

I personally don’t believe our woes are because of white privileges. I feel the black man has caused more harm to the Black man than the white man has. The problem is from within. The leaders who steal billions from our coffers and store them in Swiss accounts are not white…. or are they?  I don’t think one needs to be Somali in order to bring the plights of Somali to light. Does one need to be a woman to be a gynaecologist and understand women healthcare needs?  The modern tampon was invented by Earle Haas, who happens to be a man and dedicated his life to making women’s hygiene his primary concern. Was that male privilege?

What we should rather do is to see how we can assist these persons tell the stories as it is. We don’t necessarily need to be in the driver’s seat just because we are the ‘victims’. The ‘US vs. them’ will get us nowhere.

We need them, they need us!


These things get complicated for sure. As a Black person in the US, I know that there are hierarchies and systemic privileging that are white and/or male. However, one should take care not to immediately raise or carelessly raise such alarms.

I believe that the one who controls the narrative has the power. I am weary of having my story told my others and my identity being shaped solely by others without any real input from or in collaboration with me. I am weary of advocates who never care enough to engage in a relationship with me.

I’m not alarmed that non-Somalis have launched a journal about Somalia. I will be concerned if Somalis never become an integral part of the work in the sane way I would be concerned if woman were not part of the conversation and on-going development of hygiene products


I think the concept of privilege is sometimes contextual but we don’t often recognise it as such.

As someone who works with rural communities in Uganda, I would be lying if I said I was not “privileged” in that context. In fact it is because of my privilege that I am able to work with those communities.

My privilege gives me access to networks and people with money that I need to effect the change that those communities need.

In that context, I am privileged

On the other hand White privilege is real and at times enforced by black people

On my recent visit to Uganda, I had to meet with the Regional District Commissioner (RDC) and various detectives in the district where our project is located. The reason, a white woman with whom I worked previously had decided that she is the only one entitled to do development work in the village. She went to great lengths to influence (there were rumours of bribes too)  locals as well as community leaders including writing a letter to the Police, Internal Affairs officers to drive anyone from the village that is working for me.

The detectives took this on and by the time I got there, the authorities had come to a decision that one of my volunteers had to leave the village if she didn’t move to a place they considered safe

I asked the RDC to invite this woman to a meeting. At the meeting I asked her what gave her the right to dictate who could  and couldn’t work in a given location in Uganda. Her answer was ” the other villages have never seen a white person and it is not fair that you are helping this village when I am already here.

To the best of my knowledge, I would not be able to make such demands in any office here in UK.

Back to this journal, it is curious that the people who set it up did not think to invite Somalis to collaborate with them


“On the other hand White privilege is real and at times enforced by black people…”

Yes, this is what often happens. In the U.S., this is a legacy of slavery and in other parts of the diaspora; it’s the legacy of colonialism. It is not easy to disrupt the dominant paradigm. Tutu gets lots of pushback with his vision of Ubuntu because folks like the trifles that come with complicity with such the privilege of the oppressing/dominating.

And for sure, to have privilege (or favour) is not necessarily bad. I too have sine degree of privilege as a result of education, etc. But, one must be always aware of how it shapes and positions one in relationship to others.


@But, one must be always aware of how it shapes and positions one in relationship to others. – I think this is at the heart of matter. Some of us are not always aware or even recognise when we are in a position of privilege and this translates into a sense of entitlement.

In community development, this leads to those serving communities thinking and even believing that they are more important than the communities they serve and indeed that the community should be grateful for whatever they get.


Interesting discussion about privilege, and I agree that people don’t always recognize it when they have it – Buzzfeed has a good privilege checker (one of many available on the Internet if anyone’s interested http://www.buzzfeed.com/regajha/how-privileged-are-you) 

I agree White Privilege is real  it happens when people go and get seats in restaurants, get assistance in shops, apply for housing etc.. both here and in Africa. I don’t think that folks are trying to play “victim” by observing that privilege happens, rather than “blaming the victim” for not being served first or not getting a house because of their race is constructive either, there should also be a focus on holding society responsible for their own behaviour towards certain ethnic groups and races.

Sometimes trying to be colour-blind leaves us just blind to injustices going on – and yes, we have racial hierarchies in Africa as well!


Yes, indeed. I agree there are privileges. There are white privileges and there are black privileges. There are male privileges and there are female privileges too. Everyone has a privilege. And I totally agree, we just don’t see our privileges as a people of colour because it is hard to see privileges when you are privileged.

Let me give a clear instance that we take for granted. In many countries in Africa, the Sun is out throughout a great part of the year. We are privileged to have this weather which is conducive for us to go out and make a living. Our crops also taste good sunny weather because of the climate.

Elsewhere eg. Norway and Canada, they are not privileged enough to have this kind of climate. It is practically winter 8 months out of 12 in Canada and the cold sometimes sends people to their graves. Their crops don’t do so well because they don’t get the right amount of sunlight to develop. In Norway people, it is dark when people go to work, and dark when they return.

With all this privileged it is still interesting to know we have famine whiles they don’t. They feed their mouths whiles we starve ours.

It is always easier to think that the grass is greener on the other side. We need to acknowledge our privileges too and take advantage of them. East African are privileged to live in highlands, this their system is great for long distance marathons. And they do sweep almost all the long distance medals. During sprint, the fastest runners are usually black.

Do we see these as assets at all? Do we intend to use them to our advantage or are we just going to keep crying about someone else’s privileges whiles we keep mute on ours?


I think we need to also differentiate between environment based privileges which differ from ones constructed by society – the environmental ones are problematic but we have little control over them, other than technological adaptations or physical ones over time or moving.

However, when people talk about privilege, they are usually referring to the societal ones, and one can’t arguably “move” away from being black or male (outside of gender corrective surgery and perhaps skin lighteners).

The social ones are worse because they hold us back as a human race and we created them! The idea of black privilege though is interesting, whilst I agree that black people have privileges based in other factors like class or gender – those usually fall under those privilege categories – in other words if we are talking about race based privilege, we have to talk in terms of colour or race and not a different privilege category.

As an example, a black man can have gender privilege but that would be in a discussion about make privilege and not white privileges.

Also, a black man can have  privilege but cannot be said to be having black privilege as well unless he is in a society where blacks are getting unearned advantages and where they are not being discriminated against as a racial category – we would be hard pressed to find such a society though (all the former colonies had race – based privileges where black as a racial category was at the bottom and those attitudes in to their post colonial societies and the US had slavery that was based on race where blacks were at the bottom too and those attitudes still lingers beyond slavery too).

As an example, it would also be hard pressed to talk of Muslim privilege when Muslims are being discriminated against left right and centre in most societies (Except predominantly Muslim ones). However, in those societies where they aren’t dominant it doesn’t mean that Muslims aren’t recipients of class privilege in some cases, male privilege, or any other form of privilege.

However, I don’t think that recognising privilege or pointing it out is necessarily a bad thing, especially if it’s impacting your opportunity to live.

To be more dramatic, I’m thinking about the US embassy bombings in Kenya a few years back, where US officials were rushing to help all the “White” and presumably American bodies first because race was what they had to go by when they could trench uses who’s who, in such a case privileging of white bodies becomes a life or death situation.

So, calling out privilege before situations like that happen is not just for nought. However I agree that we do need to all check our own privileges in the process of trying to check someone else’s!


I think there is definitely something to be said of the sense of ownership, and legitimacy of a ‘white institution’ purporting to tell the ‘black person’s’ story.

Firstly if Hargeysa’s Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies had launched a journal on its own, how far would it’s writing have gotten? Were it not of SOAS’s standing as a University would even have been possible to get a credible journal on Somali issues off the ground?

Secondly isn’t it taken for granted that African institutions have no capacity to generate credible academic research and whose responsibility to resolve that?


Why does racial privilege exercise us more than any other type of privilege


That’s a good question, and perhaps a one that doesn’t have a single correct answer – or is even rhetorical. But I think in part it’s because race does affect people’s opportunity to life, Justice, liberty and other economic advancement more than other privileges just because it so visible, I think which is why gender privilege upsets people too almost or just as much – you can see someone’s gender and race (arguably), but things like  class and religion are easier to hide and subsequently less likely to cost you similar strife. Thanks


Yes @Sitinga Kachipande, I like what you say about the visibility. From my conversations and travels, this seems very much an issue and folks spend lots of money to not look a certain way, to be perceived and identified in more positive ways (positive being some external standard set by “the other.”)

This is not simply a beauty issue. In the U.S., especially in Black literary studies, we talk at length about “passing” which is to be light enough or to become light enough to be perceived as White and as a way of enjoying greater freedom, greater economic opportunity, more justice, and less surveillance. I also agree that the very strong interconnectedness of race with economic power and social mobility is the key.

I would love to hear your views on this. Do you understand what is meant by White Privilege? Share your views below.

Do try Buzzfeed Privilege test, you will either be surprised or  confirm what you already know.  I scored 57, meaning that I had some struggles growing up but are fairly privileged and I am recommended to be aware of privilege and to use it to help others.

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