Unpacking White Privilege

by Thormaclennan on November 13, 2016 - 7:36pm

Swartz, Arogundade and Davis’ study (2014) focuses on the reflections of 164 students in a South African university in Cape Town, on their own personal experiences with the social structures and historical contexts of “white privilege” or any sort of un-earned advantages or disadvantages they feel that society gives them based upon certain attributes, either race, gender or sexuality. The study investigated the relationship between perceived experience with either societal advantages and disadvantages with race, gender, sexuality, etc. While many studies previous just focus on the types of privileges that are awarded to white people based on one person’s perspective and data, this study focuses on all types of privileges awarded to all races, while mainly focusing on those awarded to the white participants, from a first-hand perspective of the students.

To get this information the researchers gave this assignment to 164 sociology students who all come from different races, genders, sexualities and nationalities. They asked the students to recount the times where they feel that they have been awarded unearned privileges by society, or whether they have seen someone of a different race or their own, being awarded an advantage or disadvantage based upon their skin tones. They then looked for keywords or phrases within the answers and made a code and found that people of colour notice “white privilege” as well as their own privileges that are specific to their race or gender, such as having the door held open for them in a woman’s case or being able to walk through primarily black neighborhoods with ease as a few examples. It also reaffirmed that white students either don’t realize that they have a privilege over people of colour, or fail to acknowledge it. The findings were based off of the person accounts from each student.

The authours concluded that educators should be teaching their students about anti-racist ideas, as opposed to “multi-cultural” ones. In the sense that the white students should be made aware of their unearned privileges and should be educated on how their privileges affect the lives of others, mainly those of people of colour. They also discuss how, by making people aware, it will help to end the cycle of racism and privilege, whether it be advantages or disadvantages.


The article focuses on many aspects of white privilege and what privilege means to different people from different races. I found that this study did well in addressing what white privilege is and how it affects the lives of the privileged (whites) and the non-privileged (people of colour). I found that this study, however, was lacking in terms of subjects. It was a fairly small sample size of 152 that ended up completing the assignment. The students also all came from a sociology/social science class and were thus already aware of the ideas surrounding white privilege and the arbitrariness of race and racial concepts. I feel that if they were to expand the study to a wider test group from a plethora of different fields such as, engineering, medicine, law, computer science, etc. where the participants are perceived to not having the same knowledge of race as those in social science, I believe the information would give a better representation of “the average joe” person that has a lesser understanding. I believe then, it would be more applicable to the wider public. Also this study takes place in South Africa, a place notorious for racism and Apartheid. It would be interesting if they were to do this same sort of study in America or Canada or even Europe.

Swartz, S. Arogundade, E. Davis, D. (2014). Unpacking (white) privilege in a South African university classroom: A neglected element in multicultural educational contexts. Journal of Moral Education 43(3), 345–361, DOI: 10.1080/03057240.2014.922942.



I thought the title of this post was unique and a great way to represent what your post was about. Your point that this research was only done on a sociology class that is already educated on racial issues is a valid concern regarding the results of the data. However, you also stated that the research in the article confirmed that white students lack the realization of their privilege. I think it is interesting that a sociology class who is educated on these issues still doesn’t realize their privilege. This makes me wonder if those who had never been formally educated on race issues would know even less about their privilege. Since I live in an area with little racial diversity and the majority whites, I wonder what the results would be like in my town. As you stated, it is definitely crucial that those with privilege recognize it before these power inequalities can be diminished.

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