Why Can’t We Close The Gap? Is White Privilege Getting In The Way?

Incredibly disturbing. These were the words Linda Burney used to describe the latest Closing The Gap results[i]. There was some progress on birthweight, preschool enrolments, youth detention and land rights, and all of these advancements must be celebrated. However, critical areas such as children’s development level, children in out-of-home care, adult imprisonment and suicide had all worsened. While Linda Burney may react with disappointment, it is difficult for me not to react with disgust. Despite investments being made, we can still not achieve just a basic level of social justice for our First Nations peoples. What is the barrier to closing the gap? Could it be white privilege?

I begin this article by declaring my assumption that inherently the leaders at all levels of government and commerce want the best for their people. I don’t believe that the suffering of others would sit well with them. And yet, the Close The Gap targets can only be met

“when all parties are invested and there is a coordinated effort from all jurisdictions in partnership with First Nations peoples.”[ii]

The fact that in many areas, performance is going backwards would suggest that there is not a sufficient investment in the initiatives, either through time, money or goodwill. What could be holding back the investment in actions that can reduce suffering? I propose that it is the subconscious and insidious existence of white privilege.

The Other Side Of The Coin

You see, there is always another side of the coin, and at the 3rd Edge, we are constantly investigating what aspects may be missing from a full and considered understanding of an issue. For it is usually the unseen perspective that creates a barrier to change.

In the case of Close the Gap, there is a continual focus on the disadvantage of our First Nations peoples. We are shown consistently how far below the line of social justice they have been pushed. Because of their race, they must deal with higher rates of the most traumatic events in human life – fear, mistrust, discrimination, unemployment, incarceration and suicide. But we don’t consider just how far above the line of social justice many of us sit. For there is a flipside to racial disadvantage, and that is racial privilege. In the case of Australia, this plays out as white privilege (more specifically, white male privilege, but more on that later).

I believe white privilege is the elephant in the room – and the one blocking the opportunity to close the gap.

“I realised I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” ~ Peggy McIntosh

What Is White Privilege?

White privilege is

“the unearned and mostly unacknowledged societal advantage that white Australians have over First Nations peoples and other people of colour.”[iii]

White privilege is a function of[iv]:

  • circumstances of birth and
  • positive projections.

We do not choose our skin colour, yet it determines so much of our experience in this world, including our levels of advantage or disadvantage. This is because our skin colour determines how others see and treat us. Due to the colour of our skin, we are seen to be worthy or unworthy of trust. Being born white in this country is an advantage and comes with many freedoms unknown to those born with a different coloured skin. Being born white means, we are immediately given special provisions not endowed on our First Nations peoples.

The Prevalence Of Privilege

While many may try and contest that white privilege exists, you only have to look at the Close The Gap results to see the evidence. White privilege began with colonisation and has endured ever since. We have used it as the rationale to claim lands, separate families, kill and maim an incredible culture. These days there is less overt brutality. Instead, it is used to prop up institutional disadvantages.

Yes, we all have difficulties in life. But the one that white people have never had to face is the barrier of skin colour. Peggy McIntosh took a deep introspection into her own life and came up with 26 daily events where white privilege is in effect[v]. How often have you stopped to think about the following areas of advantage in your own life:

  1. I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
  2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area where I can afford and would want to live.
  3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbours in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  5. I can turn on the television or open the paper’s front page and see people of my race widely represented.
  6. When I am told about our national heritage or “civilisation,” I am shown that people of my colour made it what it is.
  7. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  8. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
  9. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
  10. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin colour not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
  11. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  12. I can swear, dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters without having people attribute these choices to my race’s bad morals, poverty, or illiteracy.
  13. I can speak publicly to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
  14. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
  15. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  16. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of colour who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
  17. I can criticise our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behaviour without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  18. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
  19. If a traffic cop pulls me over or my tax return is audited, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  20. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  21. I can go home from most meetings of organisations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
  22. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
  23. I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
  24. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  25. If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
  26. I can choose foundation or bandages in “flesh” colour and have them match my skin.

Unravelling Meritocracy

A gut-wrenching aspect of white privilege is the concept that societal advantage is unearned. We all like to think that any benefit we have received is because of merit – that we deserved the privilege or won the prize fairly. We pride ourselves on being a nation of the “fair go”. It hurts to stop and think that maybe we didn’t, and maybe we had a huge headstart all along. The truth is, as a white Australian, all of our material benefits are secured by an inherent advantage over people of colour. Yes, that stings, but ripping the band-aid off is the only way the wound can be exposed to light and heal.

With privilege comes the ability to make decisions that favour the people who look like you and, without being aware of it, disadvantage those that don’t. Discrimination is a symptom of privilege, and the extent of discrimination against our First Nations peoples in education, employment, health and the justice systems is a sure sign that white privilege is still prevalent.

Expressions Of Privilege

In addition to discrimination, other expressions of white privilege include:

  • Dominating the conversation. Socialisation teaches white people that their knowledge and views are better than those of colour. We are imbued with The Ivory Tower Effect[vi] – assuming that our relatively privileged education means that we know more than others. This belief may be completely unconscious and part of the silent socialisation that maintains the privilege. However, it was very interesting to hear Scott Morrison openly admit this when he ascribed the failings of the Close The Gap programs to government arrogance.

“We believed we knew better – we don’t,”~ Scott Morrison[vii]

This is why having the Voice to Parliament is such a significant move forward. While it may not be openly admitted, it is one way to reduce the domination of conversation by white Australians in our top decision-making body. It is a recognition that there is a privilege that must be shared with our First Nations peoples, and it is one step towards pulling them up to be above the line of social justice.

  • Reframing experiences to meet the dominant paradigm. There are so many myths that perpetuate white privilege. I wonder how many people believe that it is impossible for First Nations peoples to achieve the same level of wellbeing and sense of belonging as us because they “live differently from us”. How often might we convince ourselves that they all have the same opportunities but do not want to use them because they are “not a part of their culture”? Unfortunately, things like affirmative action and quotas can work to strengthen this issue if it is done with the intent of superficial inclusion, without the desire for authentic belonging. We can allow ourselves to feel good because we have let people “fit in” to the dominant paradigm without addressing the existence of the privilege itself. We assure ourselves of our kindness while ignoring the systemic distance that still exists.

The Dark Side Of Privilege

The fact that white privilege exists is a no-brainer. The real issues arise, though, when privilege:

  • Is unseen. You can’t fix an invisible entity. So as long as people refuse to acknowledge its existence, change is impossible. Microaggression and invalidation continue behind the curtain of ignorance. And making subjects such as white privilege taboo ensures their ongoing existence.

“Privilege is like magic—the very invisibility of privilege is exactly why it is so ingrained.[viii]

“To redesign social systems, we must first acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool.[ix]

  • Breeds guilt. As a white person, once you see the amount of privilege we have, it is very difficult not to feel guilty. Yes, through inaction, we have been complicit in entrenching systemic racial injustice. But feelings of guilt only lead to inaction[1]. Guilt shuts us down and keeps us from taking responsibility for doing things differently. Unfortunately, it is a place that is easy to get stuck. White guilt is not helpful for anyone.

“Underneath, there can be shame, guilt, and embarrassment about one’s own whiteness that comes off as aggression.[x]

  • Creates fear. Within privilege is woven an intimate identity. It tells us who we are, what we are capable of, and what we can expect from life. The thought of this being removed can then spark an incredible amount of uncertainty and anxiety.

“while it is really hard to see privilege, it is even harder to ponder giving it up.”[xi]

Fear, though, only leads to negative actions and shuts us down from finding creative solutions to social problems. It is the antithesis of the love we need to bring to reduce suffering and help all reach their full potential.

The Light Side of Privilege

This dark side of white privilege leads to harm above and below the line of social justice. It maintains acts of oppression to ensure that our place above the line is not compromised. It impedes the whole nation from being the best that it can be. And it hurts our hearts by living in guilt and fear and preventing us from living a life of authenticity and compassion. There are no winners on the dark side of privilege.

“One of the hallmarks of white privilege is the casual ability to ignore or avoid race at one’s whim.”~ Sharon H. Chang

However, there is always another side to the story, and that is the light side of privilege. By itself, white privilege is not a problem. It is what you choose to do with the privilege that counts. You can use your power to uplift others or oppress them. Australia’s history is tainted with the use of privilege to do the latter – to keep pushing people below the line. It began with our forefathers who stepped off the boats and believed they were better than the “blacks”. And has been ingrained in our psyches over many centuries. Now more than ever, it is time for us to grow up, be brave, confront our fears and use our advantage to appreciate, cherish, inspire and elevate.

Putting Privilege To Work

Peggy McIntosh is a heart-warming and courageous example of someone who has confronted her white privilege. She has boldly committed to putting her privilege to use in the service of weakening the systems that maintain it. She has stepped away from fear and towards love, opening the eyes of others to the hurt that continued ignorance and inaction proliferate. I can truly say she is a hero and a source of motivation for this article. If one woman can stand and declare that she is living in unearned advantage, so can I. I don’t know what the next step may be, but watch this space!

All I know is that the next steps must include acknowledgement and action. For white privilege to be removed as a barrier to social justice, we must acknowledge the white elephant in the room. We then need to be brave enough to start shoving it out of the way so that all Australians can thrive. It is time to choose to use our privilege for progression rather than oppression.

[1] Vol 1 No 1 (2010): Understanding & Dismantling Privilege | Understanding and Dismantling Privilege (wpcjournal.com)

[i] Online report – Closing the Gap Annual Data Compilation Report July 2022 | Closing the Gap Information Repository – Productivity Commission (pc.gov.au)

[ii] Latest round of Closing the Gap data shows ‘disappointing’ progress for Indigenous Australians, with four of 17 targets on track – ABC News

[iii] Based on Privilege Definition & Meaning | Dictionary.com

[iv] Peggy McIntosh: How to recognise your white privilege — and use it to fight inequality | TED Talk

[v] White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’ and ‘Some Notes for Facilitators’ | National SEED Project

[vi] Shabsin, Why It Is Important to Teach About Privilege. Vol 1 No 1 (2010): Understanding & Dismantling Privilege | (wpcjournal.com)

[vii] ‘Closing the Gap’ report shows disappointing results | Canberra CityNews

[viii] Vol 1 No 1 (2010): Understanding & Dismantling Privilege | Understanding and Dismantling Privilege (wpcjournal.com)

[ix] White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’ and ‘Some Notes for Facilitators’ | National SEED Project

[x] Govan, Collins. Common Expressions of White Privilege and How to Counter Them Vol 1 No 1 (2010): Understanding & Dismantling Privilege | (wpcjournal.com)

[xi] Shabsin, Why It Is Important to Teach About Privilege. Vol 1 No 1 (2010): Understanding & Dismantling Privilege | (wpcjournal.com)


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