As protesters have taken to the streets in support of Black Lives Matter, many families have begun looking for ways to take part in this important movement. As part of this work, many white parents, in particular, may have started to examine their own relationship with the racism that’s so deeply rooted in our society. And, inevitably, at some point in this journey they have probably come across the phrase, white privilege

So, what is white privilege—and what does it mean for white parents? 

White Privilege 101

White privilege describes the advantages that white people have based on their skin color. Though some of these advantages might be subtle—or almost feel invisible—they’re the result of the racism that still persists in nearly every aspect of life. Of course, having white privilege doesn’t mean that you’ve never struggled in life. Having white privilege simply means that, despite those other obstacles you may have faced (perhaps due to your gender, gender identity, sexuality, or income level), your skin color has given you a built-in leg up over Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC). 

In her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh, who coined the term white privilege, lists examples of white privilege in daily life. Some of these include: being able to shop without being followed or harassed, being able to find “flesh”-toned bandages or makeup that actually matches your skin, and being able to seek medical or legal help without worrying that race is working against you. It’s a long list. 

While these can be uncomfortable facts to sit with, being able to recognize white privilege is a really important first step in righting so many racial injustices—to ultimately ensure that today’s children live in a more just and equitable society than their parents do. 

So, let’s unpack some of the underlying racial disparities that lead to advantages for white parents and children…starting even before birth.

White Privilege in Pregnancy & Early Parenthood

White mothers are much more likely to survive pregnancy and childbirth.

Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than white women. Factors that might contribute to these deaths include lack of access to care or to high-quality care. Plus, doctors tend to be more dismissive of their Black patients’ complaints than white patients (Serena Williams’ experience is an example of this). 

Likewise, Black mothers are 2.5 times more likely to die from child birth or child-birth related causes than white mothers. Even in examples when Black mothers are affluent and well-educated, the standard of care is simply not as high as it is for white mothers and they still are likely to die at higher rates than white women at the same socioeconomic level. 

White moms get more breastfeeding and postpartum mental health support.

After birth, Black mothers are 9 times more likely to be offered formula in the hospital than white mothers. This presents one of several barriers Black women face in their breastfeeding journeys. And, these barriers have serious consequences, as research shows breastfeeding has health benefits for both Mom and Baby, including the reduction of SIDS risk. 

In addition, Black moms are less likely to receive postpartum depression treatment than their white counterparts, even though PPD affects up to 20% of new mothers. 

Adoption also has built-in biases that favor white children.

Children with darker skin tend to have to wait longer to be adopted than children with light skin. According to one study, white kids waited 23.5 months in foster care on average, while Black children waited 39.4 months. 

White Privilege in Children’s Health & Safety

White parents don’t have to worry that race puts their baby’s health at risk.

Just as healthcare disparities can have a devastating impact on Black mothers, racism in healthcare disproportionately affects Black children. This, too, starts early. The risk of SIDS is higher for Black babies, and Black infants die at more than twice the rate of white babies. Black babies are also more likely to be born premature than white babies. 

This healthcare gap persists throughout childhood. For example, Black children are more likely to be hospitalized or die from asthma than white children, less likely to be diagnosed and treated for food allergies, and are referred less quickly for kidney transplants.

Black kids often don’t get the mental health treatment they need, either. Where 31% of white children receive mental health services, only 13% of Black and other non-white children do.

White parents can encourage and allow their children, especially boys, to express anger and frustration without fear that their children will be seen as a threat.

Black boys are more likely than white boys to be mistaken for being older than they are, to be perceived as guilty, and face police violence if accused of a crime. With that, Black people are more likely to be victims of police brutality than white people. This means that White parents are spared from having “The Talk” with their children about what to do when they encounter a police officer.

White Privilege in Education

White students typically see their culture, history, and likeness reflected in their school’s curriculum. 

The standard K-12 school curriculum in the U.S. tends to be Euro-centric and does not adequately include Black history or the histories of Indigenous people and other People of Color. As the educator and activist Jose Del Bario once said, “white privilege is your history being part of the core curriculum and mine being taught as an elective.” 

This gap doesn’t solely exist in schools. Children’s books are overwhelmingly white. Only 8% of kid’s books are written by or about Black people. Additionally, white families can easily see their skin color in other media they consume, including TV, movies, and video games. 

White parents don’t need to worry that their child’s skin color will negatively affect their education.

School segregation still exists, evident in the country’s achievement gap. White students benefit from higher funding, more opportunity for exposure to math and sciences, and higher graduation rates than Black students. The graduation rate is currently 87% for white students, versus 73% for Black students

White students face less harsh discipline than their Black peers.

Black students are almost 4 times as likely to be suspended or otherwise disciplined in school, placing them further behind academically than their white student counterparts. This has helped fuel a higher dropout rate for Black students than white students. 

And, this discipline disparity starts long before high school. Black preschoolers are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than white preschoolers. Although Black children make up only 19% of preschool students, they make up 47% of preschool suspensions. 

White Privilege in the Workplace

White mothers are less affected by the wage gap than Black women.

 White women make $0.81 to every $1 white men make, but the wage gap is even wider for Black women. Black women make as little as $0.47 to every $1 a white man makes in states like Louisiana, and nationally, Black women make about two-thirds what white men make ($0.66 to a white man’s $1).

At the same time, Black and Latina mothers are more likely to be ineligible for or unable to afford to take unpaid family leave than white women. They’re also more likely than white women to report being let go or to quit their jobs after giving birth in order to have some leave.

There also tends to be a disproportionate number of Black women in low-wage, hourly jobs—roles that present a hurdle for breastfeeding and pumping at work. Even though the Nursing Mothers law is designed to protect moms in these positions, many companies fail to comply. Working Black moms may feel like they're putting their employment at risk by pumping at work. Additionally, research shows that more than 1 million Black women (plus nearly 1 million Hispanic women) are not covered by this law.

Reversing the effects of centuries of systemic racism cannot be accomplished overnight. But for white families, it starts with recognizing white privilege, understanding how it has benefited them, and then pushing back against it…no matter how uncomfortable that may be. 

To find out more about white privilege and to learn how to talk to your kids and family about racism, check out these resources: