Is White Privilege Real? One Man’s Journey to Awareness

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How Not To Be Wrong" by James O'Brien. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Is white privilege real? How might you examine the issue more closely?

James O’Brien is one of the UK’s leading radio presenters, with over 1.2 million weekly listeners to his daily current affairs talk show. In his book How Not to Be Wrong, he explains how he had failed to see his own race as a factor in his success.

Keep reading to learn how O’Brien came to change his mind.

James O’Brien on White Privilege

Is white privilege real? There was a time when James O’Brien would’ve answered that question with a No. Or, at least, it didn’t apply to him. He used to feel that he’d worked too hard and endured too much “failure” early in life (primarily failure to win prizes and promotions) to have any real privilege. When he did start becoming successful, he wanted to believe it was exclusively due to his effort, and not to the color of his skin.

One of O’Brien’s callers made him see white privilege differently. He had an on-air discussion, in the wake of the 2020 George Floyd murder, with a woman who was an American filmmaker of East Asian descent. He’d asked callers to answer the question: What do White people need help understanding about racism? The caller talked about representation in film and media and said that even O’Brien’s radio station had only one presenter who was a person of color. He shut her down, saying they were there to talk about the brutal death of a Black man in America, not the racial makeup of his London radio station.

Upon reflection, O’Brien saw that the caller was talking about a type of white privilege: White people see themselves reflected and represented in the media in a way that people of color don’t, and that gives them a head start.

O’Brien called the filmmaker back a few hours later, apologized, and let her speak. In the interview, she pointed out that becoming a popular radio presenter like he was takes hard work and talent, but it also requires opportunities that people of color are often denied. The problem in overcoming systemic racism, she said, is that people in power (often white gatekeepers) want to hold on to power.

This helped O’Brien understand that white privilege doesn’t negate hard work, but it does give White people advantages that they’re often unwilling to acknowledge.

White Privilege

White privilege is a form of discrimination in favor of White people. It’s a byproduct of systemic racism and, as O’Brien’s filmmaker caller points out, of institutions designed to keep powerful people in power. White privilege grants White people access to greater resources, rights, and power than people of color in the same situation. In How to Be an Anti-Racist, Ibram X. Kendi says that examples of white privilege include:

· being afforded the presumption of innocence and intelligence

· being afforded compassion or empathy when hurt, angry, or in need

· being given opportunities by a White social network

· being able to vote easily

· having equal access to mortgages and good schools
Is White Privilege Real? One Man’s Journey to Awareness

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Here's what you'll find in our full How Not To Be Wrong summary:

  • Why learning to change your mind is a valuable skill
  • How to combat prejudice and gain empathy for others
  • Why you should take a step back and reexamine your beliefs

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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