It is easy to figure out what society values.

From an early age, we realize things like beauty, success, intelligence, and athletic skill are valuable assets. We notice how people with these traits make up the “valued” group, and they receive all sorts of subtle, or not so subtle, benefits—like the halo effect. The halo effect refers to the phenomenon in which someone who is perceived to have one desirable trait (such as beauty) consequently is also assumed to have other desirable traits (such as competence or trustworthiness). That is not to say that beautiful people are not competent or trustworthy—they just don’t have to go to the same extent proving it as the average-looking person.

Assumed positive traits are unearned benefits that come from being a member of the “beautiful” group, which is valued by society.

These benefits or privileges extend to other groups as well, including racial groups. It doesn't take long for children to learn what skin color is most valued. The famous Clark Doll Experiments in the 1940s revealed that the majority of Black children preferred playing with White dolls rather than Black dolls. A replication of this experiment in 2005 by Kiri Davis revealed that more than 70% of Black children preferred White dolls, describing them as the “good” dolls and the “nice” dolls.

Where do these ideas come from? What leads these Black children to think White skin correlates with goodness or niceness?

These messages stem from our societal system that privileges some groups while simultaneously oppressing others. Like other valued groups, members of the White racial group receive benefits and privileges. A White woman named Peggy McIntosh referred to this phenomenon as White privilege; a state of receiving unearned advantages that often are invisible to Whites, yet are obvious to those of different racial groups. McIntosh gave several examples of White privilege to help make the invisible visible. She noted that members of the White group can go shopping alone without being followed, be around others who look like them most of the time, move to a new neighborhood with confidence their neighbors will respond positively toward them, and purchase flesh-colored Band-Aids that actually match the color of their flesh.

These benefits come with membership in the White racial group and are not extended to members of all races. Indeed, members of other racial groups incur obstacles and difficulties simply due to their group membership. For example, a Black male walking down the sidewalk may encounter suspicion solely on account of his skin color. An Arab American may only ever see people who look like him portrayed as villains in the media. An Asian American may be mistaken as a server in a restaurant rather than a paying customer. These are but a few examples of unearned disadvantages that individuals experience simply due to their racial group membership.

Does this mean all members of the White racial group have it easy? Does it negate how hard they work to create good lives for themselves and their families? Does it minimize their struggles? Absolutely not.

What it does indicate, however, is that if you were to extract a White man out his life story and replace him with a Black man, it would be even more difficult. The unearned assets, the benefit of the doubt, the lack of suspicion, the halo effect, and the assumed moral “goodness,” would be stripped away, making it that much harder. Thus, White privilege is not a reflection of the morality or character of the White individual, nor a statement about the ease of his or her life. Instead, White privilege reflects the systemic valuing of some groups at the expense of others.

Being White means attaining membership in the racial group that is valued in American society; and that membership comes with benefits and opportunities not extended to all.

Amanda L. Giordano

Amanda L. Giordano, PhD, LPC, NCCis an author, speaker, educator, and licensed professional counselor