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Discussion Topics

White Privilege

White privilege has been defined as unearned advantages of being White in a racially stratified society, and has been characterized as an expression of institutional power that is largely unacknowledged by most White individuals (Neville, Worthington, & Spanierman, 2001).

Beverly Daniel Tatum writes that most white people do not think to describe themselves as "white" when listing descriptive terms about themselves, whereas people of color usually use racial or ethnic identity descriptors. Tatum suggests this is because the elements of one’s identity that are congruent with the dominant culture are so normalized and reflected back at one that one is apt to take such traits for granted. White privilege becomes invisible. Definitions of privilege also include not experiencing racism (the absence of racism) as a privilege.

In her personal account of experiencing white privilege, Heidi Zetzer, the Director of the Hosford Counseling & Psychological Services Clinic at the University of California, Santa Barbara explains why white privilege is such a persistent problem. She categorizes it as an “institutional and individual manifestation of racism, however indirectly or unintentionally.” This indirectness of white privilege is what makes it so prevalent. If people are not educated on the matter, it is unlikely that they will take note of it. Secondly, those that are aware of it suffer from benefiting from an unfair system. Zetzer asks “How can I see myself as a just person when I willingly participate in a system that is inherently unfair?” “White guilt,” as Zetzer deems it, is an impediment to change. Consequently, even if people become educated on white privilege it is unlikely that they will take action to change it and instead allow the problem to persist.

Zetzer also specifies the type of changes necessary to make progressive steps in dealing with white privilege and its implications. She notes that most people who become educated on white privilege undergo a first-order change in which they gain increased awareness, knowledge and skills. However, for progress to be made in equalizing problems such as white privilege, individuals need to undergo second-order change. Second-order change is characterized by a paradigm shift in which people use their awareness, knowledge and skills to take action. Zetzer believes the first, and easiest, way to initiate this transformation is through dialogue. Honest and multicultural dialogue is the first way to build alliances which can then “transform people and systems and turn intention into action,” thus slowly changing the persistence of white privilege.

With that in mind, the aim of the media clips and discussion questions contained here is to stimulate such honest and multicultural dialogue with the hope that through such dialogue real change can begin.


Neville, H., Worthington, R., Spanierman, L. (2001). Race, Power, and Multicultural Counseling Psychology: Understanding White Privilege and Color Blind Racial Attitudes. In Ponterotto, J., Casas, M, Suzuki, L, and Alexander, C.(Eds) Handbook of Multicultural Counseling, Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel (1999). Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. New York: Basic Books.

Zetzer, H.A. (2005). White Out: Privilege and Its Problems. In S.K. Anderson & V.A. Middleton (eds.), Explorations in Privilege, Oppression, and Diversity (pp. 5). Belmont, CA: Thomson Brooks/Cole.

Media Links and Discussion

Each of the following topics includes a link to a piece of media and discussion questions that can be used in discussion.

Does White Privilege Exist in America?

Audience: high school and beyond
Discussion questions:

  1. Have you observed white privilege in your lifetime?
  2. Have you experienced it?
  3. Have you experienced other types of unearned privilege (based on your gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, religion, national origin or other trait you did not choose)?
  4. What caused you to become aware of that privilege if you did?
  5. What was your response to Shelby Steele’s comments about “black irresponsibility”?
  6. How could we understand those remarks?

The Brain - The Rotting Properties of White Privilege

Audience: High school, college, and beyond
Discussion questions:

  1. What is “reverse discrimination”?
  2. Is it possible?
  3. Can it exist?

Crash - Is it a White Supremacist Movie? by Robert Jensen & Robert Wosnitzer

The Oscar-winning best picture -- widely heralded, especially by white liberals, for advancing an honest discussion of race in the United States -- is, in fact, a setback in the crucial project of forcing white America to come to terms the reality of race and racism, white supremacy and white privilege.

The central theme of the film is simple: Everyone is prejudiced -- black, white, Asian, Iranian and, we assume, anyone from any other racial or ethnic group. We all carry around racial/ethnic baggage that’s packed with unfair stereotypes, long-stewing grievances, raw anger, and crazy fears. Even when we think we have made progress, we find ourselves caught in frustratingly complex racial webs from which we can’t seem to get untangled

For most people -- including the two of us -- that’s painfully true; such untangling is a life’s work in which we can make progress but never feel finished. But that can obscure a more fundamental and important point: This state of affairs is the product of the actions of us white people. In the modern world, white elites invented race and racism to protect their power, and white people in general have accepted the privileges they get from the system and helped maintain it. The problem doesn’t spring from the individual prejudices that exist in various ways in all groups but from white supremacy, which is expressed not only by individuals but in systemic and institutional ways. There’s little hint of such understanding in the film, which makes it especially dangerous in a white-dominant society in which white people are eager to avoid confronting our privilege.

So, “Crash” is white supremacist because it minimizes the reality of white supremacy. Its faux humanism and simplistic message of tolerance directs attention away from a white-supremacist system and undermines white accountability for the maintenance of that system. We have no way of knowing whether this is the conscious intention of writer/director Paul Haggis, but it’s emerges as the film’s dominant message.

While viewing “Crash” may make some people, especially white people, uncomfortable during and immediately after viewing, the film seems designed, at a deeper level, to make white people feel better. As the film asks us to confront personal prejudices, it allows us white folk to evade our collective responsibility for white supremacy. In “Crash,” emotion trumps analysis, and psychology is more important than politics. The result: White people are off the hook.

Audience: high school, college, and beyond
Discussion questions:

  1. Are white people off the hook? How if they are?
  2. Do you agree or disagree with the author of this opinion about how the invisible nature of white privilege is the real problem that goes unchallenged in Crash?

Tim Wise on White Privilege

Audience: high school and beyond
Discussion questions:

  1. What is your response to the connection Tim Wise makes between economic oppression and white privilege?
  2. What do you think keeps groups who are both economically oppressed from joining together to fight social class injustice across racial lines as Tim Wise asks?
  3. How does white privilege figure into this equation if it does?
  4. How could white privilege be used to fight social class injustice if it could?

White Privilege

(passage written by Tim Wise that compares the way Sarah Palin and her family were treated in the media with how Barak Obama and his family were treated in the light of White Privilege)

Discussion questions:

  1. Have you ever seen these kinds of discrepancies occur within your classroom or work place?
  2. Have you felt able to address them or silenced about them? Why?

Sesame Street "Monsters"

Audience: Grades K - 5
Discussion questions:

  1. What's wrong with the yellow mnster playing with the blue one?
  2. Was one monster smarter or prettier than the other?
  3. Should the blue monsters only play with the other monsters? Why or Why not?
  4. Do you play with people with a different color?

Mirrors of Privilege

Audience: adult
Description: Excellent film focusing on personal experiences of learning about one’s White privilege. Interviews with Peggy McIntosh, Tim Wise, Gary Howard, and other leading scholars.
Discussion questions:

  1. Who or what was easiest for you to identify with? Who or what was the hardest?
  2. What were the parts of the DVD that brought up feelings for you, such as shame, guilt, envy, anger, sadness, recognition, joy, satisfaction, hope or other feelings?
  3. What are the messages about race, culture, privilege or entitlement that are part of [or that connect with] your own stories?
  4. What do these messages have to do with power at the cultural level and at the institutional or systemic level?