Doc Bonn Confidential: I Dislike My White-man Privileges


Those of us who are white and male in the U.S. are born with significantly more chips to play the poker game of life.  Although our white, male status is a biological reality, the unearned benefits that our race and gender identity provides us are a social construction, that is—they are perks of a white patriarchal society.  Given that white men generally dominate the halls of power and influence in the U.S., our unearned privileges are generally taken for granted and remain invisible to us.

As a white, male sociologist, however, I have been trained to recognize and to be aware of the fact that I receive certain unearned privileges.  These “white-man privileges” range from the relatively insignificant, such as preferential access to taxis, to the profoundly significant, such as preferential access to social clubs, peer networks and unadvertised job openings.  These various privileges accumulate and bear interest over a lifetime much like an annuity or compound interest on an investment.

The old adage that who you know is more important than what you know is not just a common cliché it is a powerful social reality.  For example, the fact that the upper tier of Fortune 500 companies is dominated by white men is not an accident.  Such men are mentored to the top by other white men.  Sociologists call this process “homosocial reproduction.”  Stated differently, birds of a feather flock together.  This flocking of white men at country clubs and in barrooms and boardrooms virtually ensures that their dominance of corporate America is perpetuated from generation to generation.

It is important to emphasize that gender (male) and race (white) are not the only factors which determine quality of life in the U.S.  Certainly, education, skill, attitude and effort do matter in determining one’s life chance opportunities.  Using myself as an example, I am educated, somewhat talented, dedicated and reliable—all attributes that are valued in the U.S. labor market—in addition to the fact that I am a white man.  So, to a certain extent, I influence my destiny through factors within my control such as effort and attitude.  Yet, overwhelming empirical evidence such as salary statistics by race and by gender demonstrate that I have distinct advantages based solely on my biological makeup.  This is not fair but it is an undeniable social reality.

As a sociologist and humanist, I find white patriarchy disturbing despite the fact that I often benefit from it.  Call it white-man guilt.  Perhaps, if I was oblivious to my unearned advantages and adopted an attitude of entitlement, then I could reduce my angst and not feel guilty when I receive special treatment.  Fortunately, however, despite the discomfort it may cause me, I am able to see the patterns of inequality that exist along racial and gender lines and how I benefit from them. Moreover, if I fail to recognize it when I receive an unearned white-man bonus, even something as seemingly minor as special attention from a salesperson in a department store, my Asian-American girlfriend is happy to point it out to me.  I love that about her.  For only by recognizing inequality when it occurs, pointing it out, and then discussing it freely and openly, do we have a chance of bringing about meaningful social change and passing out the poker chips of life in a more equitable fashion.

Dr. Scott Bonn is Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Drew University and a media expert.  He is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq” and is currently writing a book about the public’s fascination with serial killers. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter.


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Posted on March 21, 2012, in Social Issues and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. So glad to read your article. Hope to see many more of them my friend.

  2. Thanks, Teresa; and I hope you are well!

    • You are so welcome. I have always valued your opinion and you can tell things that no one else can. I am still fighting the cause,to see Bush and his posse,put in jail. I wonder how you feel about the Trayvon Martin killing. Any you could share? I am out raged by this event and consider it to be a pre-mediatated murder.

  3. To add a point of to the article, I see that the white and male attributes are a self-fulfilling prophecy for success in society. Being a white male born into this society, there are certain advantages and opportunities given because of the race and male status of an individual. With these advantages and opportunities, those that recognize that, which are usually are in the same qualifications will aid the ones born a white male. With the structure of power, there is a correlation that male whites are in power. This is due to the aid of other white males and are able to reach this elitist communities because of others in the same race and gender. This only makes social mobility difficult for those that are not in the category of a white male. The inequality is fueled by those that make white male transitions easier in society. Thus success is not really self made, but made easier because of peers that guide the way.

  4. For males, the ascribed characteristic of being a man automatically gives them better opportunities for success than say, females, or African Americans. A woman has to work harder in order to be recognized for her achieved characteristics, because the ascribed characteristic of female provides inequality on the basis of gender. Symbolic interaction takes precedence when we think of specific attributes that allow white males to obtain status, power, and prestige quicker and easier than non-whites or females. For example, as a female I may speak in a certain way that reinforces my sub ordinance to a male colleague. However, since gender is socialized to make females the subordinate gender, it is difficult to even notice specific actions or behaviors that allow someone to take advantage, and achieve higher positions. The glass-ceiling prevents women form obtaining the same occupational positions and salaries as men, simply because men overwhelmingly control and occupy positions of power. I agree that the only way to reverse inequality based on gender and race is to recognize instances when it occurs, and discuss how one can be controlled or dominated and how one can control or dominate another group of people. As bell hooks states in her article “Feminism: A Transformational Politic:” “Working collectively to confront difference, to expand our awareness of sex, race, and class as interlocking systems of domination, of the ways we reinforce and perpetuate these structures, is the context in which we learn the true meaning of solidarity.” However, it is difficult, despite critical group discussion, to change the way people are socialized to think and believe because inequality is rooted in the structure of society, and systematically perpetuated in every aspect of life.

  5. You’re right in saying that white men are born privileged, but many times they don’t see it. This reminds me of reading Michael Kimmel in a Women’s & Gender Studies course — he attended a conference and, as part of a social experiment, claimed that when he looked in the mirror, he only saw “a man.” However, an African-American participant said that the difference between them was that he looked in a mirror and saw himself specifically as “a BLACK man.” This is when Kimmel’s unearned, ascribed privileges became visible to him. How people are socialized is influenced by their interactions with key organizations and processes, so if a white male is born into a well-off family with a business-man father, he is likely to also do well in the business world, simply by being white and having the ability to hang out with other white guys who are also well-off. However, if a black male is born into a family with some money, this man is still more likely to eventually reach the ‘glass ceiling,’ even if he works harder than the white man. This happens to women too — it’s like the American dream is attainable to everyone… as long as you’re white and male. Race is definitely still an issue in today’s society. If we, as Americans, claim to be the land of prosperity and equality, why is it that only whites can confidently assert their manhood and power? We are a melting-pot of diversity, but you wouldn’t know it the way race is socially constructed, as your article shows.

  6. Andrew McGibbon

    The above blog presents an extremely strong point about white men receiving easy upward mobility to gain the most desirable occupations in the job market, while those that do not fit the description of being “white” or “male” are subject to social constraints. Social constraints are limitations put on an individual’s opportunities or options in life because he or she lacks the “resources” to obtain access to social, cultural, economic or political resources. Looking at this definition, the question becomes, why aren’t these individuals receiving such resources? Well, the blog lays it out plainly, it is largely due to unfair social constructions, such as homosocial reproduction, that favor white males. Some may disagree and say that it is because certain candidates for jobs lack motivation or just don’t work hard enough. However, let’s put this explanation for one’s lack of resources into full perspective. Why is it that some who do not fit the white male description lack motivation or the work hard mentality? During my studies in the Sociology of Education, I found that, at a very young age, minority children begin to be aware that they are handicapped in our society because of their race or gender. With this in mind, as they grow up they experience these constraints and soon do not see the point in pursuing more education or other resources because in their eyes, they are going to be denied certain opportunities anyway just because of their social identity. And thus, at a young age, we see the disparity in resources between minorities and the advantaged increase before children can even enter the job market. And, when they do try to enter, they are subject to these constraints and stigmas of not being good or motivated enough. All this because of the prevalence of white male dominance. Frankly, I find it very disheartening that such limitations are so obvious within our American society that even children are exposed and aware of it before they can even get to become mature teens. All this just because of a social identity, which is highly subjective as one travels the world. But, I agree with Doc Bonn, it is only when we expose these inequalities that we can begin to close the gaps and engage in meaningful social change.

  7. I agree with the fact that white men are privilege and get special treatment compared to minority races. Being an African American Female in a male dominated world, I have two negatives against me in order to work harder. In this blog Dr.Bonn makes it clear to reader that the advances and available connection to white males are the cause of unfair social constructions, such as homosocial reproduction. When mentioned about the Fortune 500 mainly allowing elites to run the company, it reminded me of the movie Something New. It was a movie on race and how in a Fortune 500 company the main character had to work harder because she was a black woman trying to make partner. I highly believe that our world in designed socially to make the elites stay on top. Success is about who you know and the connection you make, therefore big corporations keep close to other that are similar in race, gender, and financially.

  8. Christina Strompf

    Our society has had a long history of discrimination based on gender and race. Do to homosocial reproduction, this history is continually repeated throughout history. I found Dr. Bonn’s stance on this issue to be very interesting. Far too often, white men do not realize that they are looked at differently than black males or even white women. As a white woman, I believe that I have been afforded many opportunities based on my race as well as being slighted due to my gender. All too often, men are chosen over women to represent their peers in important meetings or class discussions. Growing up, I used to feel that I could not be assertive in classes and even now, I sometimes feel that my personality can be too pushy and it puts people off. Due to the fact that I am a woman, I tend to take a step back and let my male peers take the lead on some issues. I was recently at a meeting that the school asked me to participate in and I was 1 of 3 females in a room full of males. The individuals running the meeting were also male. This post was great to read because it made me realize that not all males are using their race and gender as an advantage. We cannot help the world that we were born in but we can take steps to try to fix it.

  9. Atatholee Johnson

    The Trayvon Martin case highlights the racial privileges and differential treatments granted in our society due, especially, to race and gender. There have been many other cases and prior situations where we are reminded of racism in America. But I feel, this case particularly reinforces the structural injustices that minority groups encounter because they aren’t white and/or male. As I listen to many news commentary and reports that are trying to reconstruct the reality of what really occurred on the night of the killing, versus what Zimmerman and the policemen who went to the crime scene expressed in the police report, I learn about the white privileges that were introduced in the case. According to many sources, when the police arrived on the scene, they assumed Zimmerman was white, and therefore took his word to be ‘truth’. The words of the witnesses were even contorted in such a way to portray Zimmerman as the ‘victim’ and as the person screaming for help. Additionally, normal procedures, which are usually done at a crime scene, were not followed because Zimmerman knew the law and justified his actions, by saying he felt threatened and benefiting through the “Stand Your Ground Law”.

    We have come a far way in America,in terms of slavery and segregation, but sexism, racism, and privileges based on one’s identity are still major issues today, that must be addressed, as explained by Dr. Bonn. Dr. Bonn illustrates though, that addressing these issues, including white privileges and supremacy, and differential treatments, may be difficult as those who have such privileges, don’t understand that they have and often use them, because they remain invisible to the individual. If Zimmerman was recognized as a Latino when the police arrived on the scene, I think he would have been treated differently. They would have seen the situation as ‘minority against minority crime’. But, because he was perceived as white, he gained the “white-man privilege” and a ‘right’, if you will, to shoot first and ask questions later, all because he ‘felt threatened’.

    I agree with Dr. Bonn when he states in his blog,”[f]or only by recognizing inequality when it occurs, pointing it out, and then discussing it freely and openly, do we have a chance of bringing about meaningful social change…”. Trayvon Martin’s case is just another illustration of the white-man privilege that exists and the injustices that occur when being white and a male is more important that being wrong. Racial profiling, differential treatment, and “white- man” privilege, are not an individual issue, but a social issue that needs to be dealt with structurally nationwide because no individual is born racist, sexist or preferring any one particular group with a certain identity. It is our social interactions that occur during our social learning as we grow, that teach us these social constructions and have us think and behave the way we do in our society.

  10. White privilege and guilt is a very tricky thing. Especially since race is a social construct (not based on biological or cultural differences) along with gender. You have the option of denying your status as a white male but would you be willing to give up the benefits you gain from it? In general, this is something that not everyone is able to do which is another problem with privilege. However, not all white men have the same privileges you do. This is the same within every group.

    To step away from white patriarchy, there would have to be a redesign of the social hierarchy, which is based on gender, class, and race. Changing the social institutions in the United States would prove more difficult since they shape individuals both consciously and subconsciously. That’s not to say that a color-blind society is any better than the current system. Social hierarchies are an issue that all nations and communities deal with in some shape or form.

    I think that the best any of us can do is go against the status quo by being aware of our privilege (on our own and not through the prompting of others) and try to avoid using it to discredit or minimize the point of view or experiences of others.

  11. Privilege is often difficult to recognize unless you don’t have it. When someone does recognize it, it’s not normally considered socially acceptable to point out the problems it creates. It’s true that you, like the majority of heterosexual white males in the United States, have advantages that nobody else has. However, there is a specific part of this post I’d like to address. When you discuss other factors in determining one’s life chance opportunities, you mention education. I wanted to point out that education itself is a life chance opportunity that you had more access to than others because of your race and gender. Because the labor market is stratified and white males are given preferential treatment, they tend to get better jobs with higher salaries than people of other demographics. This, along with de facto segregation in the housing market, allows them to live in nice areas with good schools and makes them more likely to be able to afford to pay their children’s college tuition. Their children get educated at a university, and there are better job opportunities open to them because of this. The opposite is often true for women and racial minorities. They cannot find jobs that pay well enough for them to afford college tuition, which means their children are less likely to attend college. This means there are fewer well-paying jobs open to them. It’s a cycle that both race and gender heavily play into.

    Allan G. Johnson’s article “Patriarchy: the System” explains that patriarchy is not the fault of any individual or group. Johnson argues that while all people participate in patriarchy (whether it is intentional or not), it is so pervasive at this point that it can exist without anyone actively trying to perpetuate it. Since society is a process and is constantly changing, members of highly privileged demographics making an effort to focus on how they participate in the current system should ideally help to slowly restructure the patriarchy from within. Unfortunately, our current society is not ideal and it will take a lot more than that to change our society from its current oppressive state to one that fosters equal opportunities for all people.

  1. Pingback: Doc Bonn Explains the Power Elite in the US and how they Influence Your Life. « Doc Bonn Blog

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