For Professionals: Health Care Disparities

A Discussion on White Privilege: Part II

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Published: June 2005

The last edition of California Medicare News began a discussion on race and racism, exploring how and when the concept of race was created and defining racism and its differential effects on people of color. This article is Part II of that discussion, focusing specifically on racism’s corollary, white privilege. Again, with the growing diversity of the Medicare population, part of effectively advocating for the entitled benefits, rights, and services of these people is understanding how racism and privilege are powerful forces affecting the health, opportunities, and life situations of all Medicare beneficiaries. Only with a thorough understanding and a willingness to engage in both dialogue and action, will we make progress in undoing racism and the myths of white supremacy and creating a more equitable society. The article below provides both a discussion of white privilege and a list of resources for further reading and education.

A history of white privilege

U.S. institutions and culture give preferential treatment to people whose ancestors came from Europe over peoples whose ancestors are from the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Arab world. Institutions and culture also exempt European Americans (white people) from the forms of racial and national oppression imposed upon peoples from these parts of the world. This web of institutional and cultural preferential treatment is called white privilege. While many people with white skin also experience forms of discrimination, such as sexism, classism, ageism, and homophobia, the doors associated with race remain open to them. In this respect, they are privileged in relation to people of color.

The history of white privilege goes back to the foundational roots of this country. Throughout U.S. history, non-ruling class whites have been granted specific civil, political and economic rights that have been denied to people of color. Some examples from an article “What is White Privilege” and the film series Race: the Power of an Illusion include:

  • The right of European (white) immigrants to become citizens, and hence landowners, was denied to most non-European (non-white) immigrants from 1790 to 1952.
  • State laws prohibited non-citizen immigrants from owning land. This means that only European (white) immigrants could own land, and therefore had greater means to accumulate family wealth and opportunity for descendants.
  • All European (white) immigrants were allowed the right to marry either before or after they came to the U.S., while most Chinese and Filipino immigrants were not allowed to bring families or to marry in the U.S.
  • In the late 19th century, white children, children of European immigrants, were given the right to an elementary school public education. Children of color, namely children of African, Asian, and Chicano or indigenous parents, were not.
  • White women won the right to vote in 1920 after 100 years of struggle. In the South, however, black women and men were not legally able to vote until the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed.
  • After World War II, the federal government spent billions of dollars in loans to veterans for homes and college education. While the program was supposed to be for all veterans, because the federal government did not challenge the racist policies of university admissions programs or of suburban housing developments, the loans were effectively for white people only. In fact, less than two percent of the government money went to people of color.

Although just a few of a long list of examples, this overview exposes some of the history of white privilege and how the idea of race combined with these past laws and policies directly contribute to current societal inequities.

Having white people acknowledge the role race and privilege play in creating and maintaining our society’s systems of advantage and disadvantage, is essential to effectively address these current inequities. Some white people argue that since the idea of race has served as a source of division among people, rather than working to adopt a sense of themselves as white, all people should work to move beyond the idea of race. While it’s true that people created the concept of race (as discussed in Part I of this discussion), asking for a ‘color blind’ society effectively means erasing the fingerprints of history rather than dealing with their consequences. Only by taking seriously the social structures built through hundreds of years of exploitation, will we see how race and privilege are woven tight into the fabric of society. When white people acknowledge that they are white, they are acknowledging that race affects them and is one of the forces defining their life situation/experience/position in our society.

White privilege today

Acknowledging white privilege can be challenging because, growing up in today’s dominant culture, white is seen as ‘normal.’ Many of the advantages white people enjoy are also often seen as normal, and can largely go unnoticed. In an article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh, associate director at Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, describes white privilege as an “invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in on each day, but about which I was meant to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” As a white woman, McIntosh describes doing an exercise of looking at her life and identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege. Most, if not all, of these conditions are ones that her African American co-workers could not count on. A few of the items she mentions include:

  • I can turn on the television or open the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented;
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about civilization I am shown that people of my color made it what it is;
  • I am never asked to speak for all of the people in my racial group;
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies without being seen as cultural outsider;
  • I can easily buy posters, post cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area that I can afford and in which I would want to live;
  • I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

McIntosh notes that the pressure to avoid recognizing this privilege is great. In seeing and acknowledging this privilege, one can no longer claim that life is an even playing field. If racism and white privilege are true, the U.S. is not such a free country; one’s life is not just what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.

A big part of undoing racism in the U.S. depends on white people beginning to dialogue with each other and with their friends, neighbors, and co-workers of color about these privileges. They need to be able to recognize the privileges they have been taught to be blind to and to see the ways in which intentional or unintentional personally-mediated racism and institutional racism keep racism and its negative effects alive. (Note: personally-mediated racism refers to prejudice or discrimination, such as differential assumptions about or actions towards others according to their race; institutional racism refers to the differential access to the goods, services, and opportunities of society by race.) In the article, “From White Racist to White Anti-Racist: the Life-long Journey”, author Tema Okun encourages white people to take responsibility for racism even if they were not personally involved in its historical foundations. In doing so, white people may begin to understand that they are participants in racist institutions and a racist culture, that they do benefit from racism, and that they may participate in perpetuating racism, even when that is not their intention.


Listed below are some resources advocates can use for personal learning and staff discussion groups on the issues of race and privilege. Also, a linked one-page word document provides a convenient resource list of websites, articles, videos, and papers that are helpful in beginning dialogues on ethnicity, race, racism, and white privilege. Several of these resources were mentioned in the Part I article. Often times it is useful to have an article or film from which to begin a dialogue with others on these issues. This list can be distributed to co-workers, friends, and family interested in dialoguing on these important topics. All the listed sources in the document are linked to the internet.

  • Challenging White Supremacy Workshop – Under the “Resources” section of this organization’s webpage, they have extensive information, articles and materials on the topics of 1) U.S. white supremacy; 2) U.S. white privilege; 3) legacies of liberation; 4) an anti-racist agenda; and 5) anti-racist organizing. On white privilege and has numerous articles/materials on the subject. Below are two such articles:
A few highlighted articles on white privilege:
  • Frances Kendall, 'Barriers to Clarity' or 'What Keeps White People from Being Able to See Our Whiteness, and therefore, Our Privilege?'
  • Sharon Martinas, 'Shinin' the Lite on White' (also contains cartoon by Bennet on Affirmative Action)
  • Cynthia Kaufman, ‘A User’s Guide to White Privilege’ – this article continues Peggy McIntosh’s discussion on white privilege and further explores the ways racial privilege manifests itself in the lives of white Americans. It discusses some of the reasons why white privilege can be hard for white Americans to see, and how once seen, white Americans can responsibly take action in efforts to undo racism.

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