When and how did white privilege start?

White privilege is a phenomenon that has played a major role in history, shaping everything from religious beliefs and social norms to political systems and economic structures. But when and how did it start? The phenomenon can be traced back all the way to the early days of Christianity, when it was used as a tool to spread the faith and gain control over new territories. In this way, white privilege was used to exert power and influence over people of different races, religions, and cultures. In this article, we'll explore the origins of white privilege in more detail.



Is white privilege real?


First, it's important to consider what we mean by white privilege. White privilege is defined as a set of unearned advantages given to white people simply because they are white. These privileges may be social, political, or economic in nature, and they often go unnoticed or unacknowledged by those who benefit from them.


Many people dispute or misunderstand the reality of white privilege, arguing that it is nothing more than a "social construct" or a "myth." They claim that successfully navigating society is about personal responsibility, hard work, and individual achievement — not race or privilege.


However, the many examples of white privilege — throughout history and today — demonstrate this is not the case. From entrenched biases in the workplace and education to economic disadvantages and unequal treatment by law enforcement, white privilege significantly impacts the lives of people of colour.

Some examples of white privilege that persist today include:

  • Access to higher-quality education, which leads to better employment opportunities and higher earnings

  • The ability to move through public spaces freely, without the constant threat of violence or harassment

  • The ability to feel safe and respected in interactions with law enforcement

  • The ability to travel and explore the world without facing additional scrutiny, barriers, or risks due to one's race or ethnicity


Photo by Kevin Olson on Unsplash

When did white privilege start?


One of the early examples of white privilege is the rapid spread of Christianity during the Middle Ages. By taking advantage of existing power structures and exploiting new opportunities created by unstable societies, Christian missionaries could convert large numbers of people in Europe and beyond.


The spread of Christianity was due in part to the privileged status that white Christians enjoyed over non-Christian people of colour, who were often treated as second-class citizens. Missionaries used this privilege to gain access to new territories, expanding their power and influence.


This was only the beginning of white privilege, however. Over centuries, Western Christian powers continued to expand their control over other parts of the world, often at the expense of native populations whose beliefs, cultures, and traditions were overruled.


This colonization paved the way for the white privilege we see today.


Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

How to talk to your coworkers about white privilege

Although the topic of white privilege can seem controversial, it's crucial that we start having more open and honest conversations about it in our workplaces to overcome the disparities and microaggressions experienced by people of colour.


Here are a few tips for talking to your coworkers about white privilege:


1. Educate yourself on the issue. Start by learning as much as you can about what white privilege is, how it manifests in different areas of life, and the impact that it continues to have on marginalized communities.


2. Be open to listening and learning from others. As you talk about white privilege with your coworkers, you must approach the conversation with a willingness to truly listen and learn from their perspectives and experiences, even if they may differ from yours.


3. Raise awareness about examples of white privilege in the workplace. One of the best ways to start a dialogue on white privilege is to point out examples you have personally observed, and also point out examples that may be questionable.

4. Support efforts to promote diversity and inclusion, such as employee resource groups, mentorship programs, or diversifying one's talent pool. These types of efforts help promote a more equitable workplace for all employees.


We can't change history. But we can rewrite history books that hide the true origins of white privilege, and instead focus on education reform and social healing still needed today. It is only through having these tough conversations can we ensure that non-white people experience fewer barriers to social inclusion, participation and wealth.


Let's make this uncomfortable topic a teaching tool to better understand each other and move beyond the negative impacts it still has today. Set up a meeting so we can plan your team's next tough convo.