White privilege (or white skin privilege) is the societal privilege that benefits white people over non-white people in some societies, particularly if they are otherwise under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. With roots in European colonialism, the Atlantic slave trade, and the growth of the Second British Empire after 1783, white privilege has developed in circumstances that have broadly sought to protect white racial privileges, various national citizenships and other rights or special benefits.
In the study of white privilege, and its broader field of whiteness studies, academic perspectives such as critical race theory use the concept to analyze how racism and racialized societies affect the lives of white or white-skinned people. For example, Peggy McIntosh describes the advantages that whites in Western societies enjoy and non-whites do not experience, as "an invisible package of unearned assets". White privilege denotes both obvious and less obvious passive advantages that white people may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice. These include cultural affirmations of one's own worth; presumed greater social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely. The effects can be seen in professional, educational, and personal contexts. The concept of white privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one's own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal.
Some scholars say that the term uses the concept of "whiteness" as a proxy for class or other social privilege or as a distraction from deeper underlying problems of inequality. Others state that it is not that whiteness is a proxy but that many other social privileges are interconnected with it, requiring complex and careful analysis to identify how whiteness contributes to privilege. Other commentators propose alternative definitions of whiteness and exceptions to or limits of white identity, arguing that the concept of white privilege ignores important differences between white subpopulations and individuals and suggesting that the notion of whiteness cannot be inclusive of all white people. They note the problem of acknowledging the diversity of people of color and ethnicity within these groups.
Writers have noted that the "academic-sounding concept of white privilege" sometimes elicits defensiveness and misunderstanding among white people, in part due to how the concept of white privilege was rapidly brought into the mainstream spotlight through social media campaigns such as Black Lives Matter. As an academic concept that was only recently brought into the mainstream, the concept of white privilege is frequently misinterpreted by non-academics; some academics, having studied white privilege undisturbed for decades, have been surprised by the seemingly-sudden hostility from right-wing critics since approximately 2014.
White privilege is a social phenomenon. Although the definition of "white privilege" has been somewhat fluid, it is generally agreed to refer to the implicit or systemic advantages that white people have relative to people who are the objects of racism; it is the absence of suspicion and other negative reactions that people who are objects of racism experience.
The term is used in discussions focused on the mostly hidden benefits that white people possess in a society where racism is prevalent and whiteness is considered normal, rather than on the detriments to people who are the objects of racism. As such, most definitions and discussions of the concept use as a starting point McIntosh's metaphor of the "invisible backpack" that white people unconsciously "wear" in a society where racism is prevalent.