Q: Why do all white people have white privilege, even though not all white people are well-off?
A: White privilege is different from having money, and white privilege is different from class privilege. When ‘white privilege’ is discussed, whiteness is not a proxy for wealth. All white people have white privilege, not some or most white people. Saying that all white people have white privilege is not lumping all white people together. It is not denying that individual white people may have other disadvantages due to gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, or class.
Because this idea is often misunderstood when communicated through prose, a mathematical equation may be more accessible and precise for some audiences. Let a person’s total privilege be represented as:
p = Aw + Bx + Cy + Dz + …
where A, B, C, and D are some positive constants,
w is whether or not the person is white (or how much the person can pass for white),
x is whether or not the person is male (or how much the person can pass for male),
y is whether or not the person is heterosexual (or how heterosexual the person is),
z is how much the person is able-bodied.
For all white people, w = 1, and the first term (white privilege) is A.
For all non-white people, w = 0, and the first term (white privilege) is 0.
Notice that saying that all white people have white privilege is not saying that the total p for every white person is greater than the total p for every non-white person. It just means that every white person has the advantage of A. White privilege is one dimension of privilege, and it holds for all people who are white.
Of course, the above equation is just an expression or model of how white privilege fits together with other privileges, not a proof of the privileges. The purpose of expressing it in an equation is to clear up the misunderstanding that saying that all whites have white privilege is equivalent to saying that all whites are the same.
For more concrete examples of white privilege, refer to the Daily effects of white privilege section of Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. (Update: For a 2001 version, see How I Benefit From White Privilege by Laura Douglas.)
One caveat of expressing privilege as the sum of the different dimensions of privilege is that it does not account for the intersection of race and gender, gender and sexual orientation, or multiple combinations of oppression. A person who deals with multiple levels of oppression is actually dealing with something more complex than the sum of its constituent parts.