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7.3: Racism and Privilege

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    As I write this portion of the text, protests provoked by the brutal murder of George Floyd, an African-American man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, have reached historic levels in the United States. These protests are occurring in communities large and small, and even in several other countries. Major cities from Sacramento to Philadelphia are under nightly curfews. Of course, these protests aren't just about the murder of George Floyd. Rather, his murder is preceded by a long history of highly publicized instances in which African-Americans were killed by law enforcement. Consider this partial list:

    • March 3, 1991: A video camera captures four Los Angeles Police Department officers beating Rodney King in one of the first viral police brutality videos.
    • April 21, 1992: A jury acquits the four officers who beat Rodney King. Riots ensue.
    • Feb. 23, 1999: Four NYPD officers shoot and kill 23-year-old Amadou Diallo. The officers were acquitted on all charges.
    • Nov. 26, 2006: Seven undercover NYPD officers fire more than 50 rounds of ammunition at unarmed Sean Bell at a bachelor party. The officers were acquitted on all charges.
    • February 26, 2012: 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is stalked, chased and shot by George Zimmerman after 911 operators tell Zimmerman to leave the teenager alone. Six weeks after the shooting, Zimmerman was arrested and subsequently acquitted of murder.
    • March 21, 2012: Chicago police officer Dante Servin shoots unarmed Rekia Boyd. He is acquitted on all charges.
    • July 17, 2014: NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo kills Eric Garner. Pantaleo has never been convicted of a crime.
    • Aug. 9, 2014: Ferguson, Mo. officer Darren Wilson shoots and kills 18-year-old Mike Brown Jr. Wilson was not charged with a crime.
    • Nov. 22, 2014: Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehman kills 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Loehmann is not charged with a crime.
    • April 4, 2015: A bystander captures North Charleston, SC police officer Michael Slager shooting unarmed Walter Scott as Scott runs away during a traffic stop. Scott plead guilty to federal deprivation of rights under the color of law and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
    • April 12, 2015: Baltimore resident Freddie Gray was arrested for carrying a knife and died from injuries while being transported to jail. No one involved was convicted of a crime.
    • July 19, 2015: University of Cincinnati officer Ray Tensing shot and killed Sam DuBose during a traffic stop. Tensing was not convicted of a crime.
    • July 13, 2015: Sandra Bland is found hanged in a jail cell after a dashcam captures her brutal arrest by State Trooper Brian Encina, who is never convicted of a crime.
    • July 2, 2016: St. Anthony, Minn. police officer Jeronimo Yanez shoots Philando Castile during a traffic stop in which Castile was not driving or committing a crime. Yanez was acquitted on all charges.
    • July 5, 2016: Baton Rouge, La. officers shoot 37-year-old Alton Sterling as he lays on the ground, restrained by officers. No one is charged with a crime.
    • Aug. 1, 2016: Moments after authorities coerce Facebook and Instagram to shut off the live feed for 23-year-old Korryn Gaines’ standoff with police, Baltimore County police officers burst into her home and shoot her dead as she holds her son in her arms. No one is convicted of a crime.
    • Sept. 16, 2016: Tulsa, Oklahoma police officer Betty Shelby shoots unarmed Terrance Crutcher as a news helicopter records the footage. She is acquitted of first-degree manslaughter.
    • March 18, 2018: Sacramento police officers open fire on 23-year-old Stephon Clark, striking him eight times, six of which were in his back. No one was ever charged with Clark’s death.
    • Sept. 6, 2018: Officer Amber Guyger enters the home of Botham Jean and shoots him dead. She is convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
    • Oct. 12, 2019: Fort Worth, Texas police officer Aaron Dean shoots through the window of 28-year-old Atiatana Jefferson, killing her. Dean is fired and charged with murder.
    • February 23, 2020: A vigilante mob in Brunswick, Georgia chases down and shoots 23-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, killing him. Travis and Gregory McMichael have been arrested for his death after more than 2 months of freedom. A third man, William “Roddie” Bryan, has also been charged after filming the crime.
    • March 13, 2020: Louisville, Ky. police officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison and Myles Cosgrove entered the apartment of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor to serve a “no-knock warrant” on her boyfriend and shot Taylor dead. No one has been charged with a crime.
    • May 25, 2020: Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneels on the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds; 2 minutes and 53 seconds of which occurred after Floyd was unconscious. Floyd Dies. Chauvin is charged with third-degree murder after four days of freedom. Three officers who were present — Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, who helped restrain Floyd, and Tou Thao, who stood near the others, were not initially charged. After days of global public outcry and protests, Chauvin's charges have been upgraded to second degree murder, and Lane, Kueng, and Thao, are now charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter. Still, Derek Chauvin is eligible for over one million dollars in pension benefits.

    These examples span a 30 year period, but racism can be traced back to the 15th century when European imperialists set out to colonize the rest of the world. Alongside these imperialist ventures, racialization also ensued, where colonized peoples were positioned as inferior. This process was extended across the planet and became embedded in countries colonized by Europeans, resulting in a redistribution of world resources through the politicization of biological attributes. In other words, the dynamic of racism, whereby individuals and groups of people are discriminated against and subjugated on the basis of perceived physical characteristics such as skin color, has been and continues to be a pervasive and destructive force in many human societies. In this section, we will examine the ideology and consequences of racism, and the interconnected concepts of power and privilege.

    The United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination defines racial discrimination as: Any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, color, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.


    Racism is a set of economic, political and ideological practices whereby a dominant group exercises control over subordinate groups. Racism is a concept founded upon the scientifically false premises that there are physical and psychological inequalities between human races (See Chapter 3). Racism can be expressed through more overt expressions of individual discrimination or exclusion based on race, and may also be expressed through institutional discrimination, where the disenfranchisement of groups based on race is embedded into the culture. Institutional discrimination based on race, or Institutional racism, refers to the way in which racial distinctions are used, whether intentional or not, to organize the policy and practice of state, judicial, economic, and educational institutions. As a result these distinctions systematically reproduce inequalities along racial lines. Just as institutional discrimination in general is often harder to prove and identify, institutional racism specifically is pervasive in our society and significantly impacts the lives of those in the nondominant group.

    One of the most pressing examples of institutional racism can be seen by the disproportionate death rate of African-Americans due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As of the writing of this text, The United States has suffered more than 118,000 deaths due to the Covid-19 pandemic, more than any other nation, and nearly one fourth of all deaths worldwide. The actual number is likely to be much higher and is expected to rise considerably in the next few months. The latest report by The Color of Coronavirus, published June 9th, 2020, revealed that Black Americans are dying at 2.3 times the rate as White Americans. Considering institutional discrimination, you may reason that poverty helps explain this disparity. People in poor urban areas often live in food deserts, areas with no access to affordable, healthy food. You may consider that poor people live in areas with significant air and water pollution. These environments lead to higher rates of diabetes and asthma, which could influence the mortality rate of those who get infected with Covid-19. There may be some validity to this reasoning, but we need to explore further and recognize how racism distinguishes black poverty from white poverty, and makes black poverty more vulnerable to a lethal contagion. This notion reveals the hidden toll of institutional racism. An increasing amount of evidence suggests that being black in a society filled with racial prejudice, discrimination, and inequality takes what has been called a “hidden toll” on the lives of African Americans (Blitstein, 2009). African Americans on the average have worse health than whites and die at younger ages. In fact, every year there are an additional 100,000 African American deaths than would be expected if they lived as long as whites do. Although many reasons probably explain all these disparities, scholars are increasingly concluding that the stress of being black is a major factor (Geronimus et al., 2010).

    In this way of thinking, African Americans are much more likely than whites to be poor, to live in high-crime neighborhoods, and to live in crowded conditions, among many other problems. As this chapter discussed earlier, they are also more likely, whether or not they are poor, to experience racial slights, refusals to be interviewed for jobs, and other forms of discrimination in their everyday lives. All these problems mean that African Americans from their earliest ages grow up with a great deal of stress, far more than what most whites experience. This stress in turn has certain neural and physiological effects, including hypertension (high blood pressure), that impair African Americans’ short-term and long-term health and that ultimately shorten their lives. These effects accumulate over time: black and white hypertension rates are equal for people in their twenties, but the black rate becomes much higher by the time people reach their forties and fifties. As a recent news article on evidence of this “hidden toll” summarized this process, “The long-term stress of living in a white-dominated society ‘weathers’ blacks, making them age faster than their white counterparts” (Blitstein, 2009, p. 48).

    Privilege and Power

    It is difficult to travel very far along the path of cultural understanding, and in particular an understanding of cultural difference, without running up against the issues of racism and privilege. A significant challenge in understanding the nature and impact of racism and privilege is being open to examining our own experience of these issues. Hopefully, you have been thinking about your own cultural identity as you have been reading this chapter. If so, then you have been thinking about labels that define you culturally. Maybe you have defined yourself as female, Latina, and heterosexual. Or maybe you have labeled yourself as gay, white, working-class, and male. When we give ourselves labels such as these, often we ask ourselves, “Where do I fit in?” This is a good question to ask and demonstrates a recognition of the fact that you belong to more than one culture and that your cultures intersect in various ways. The most significant manifestation of these intersections is power—-the ability to influence others and control our lives. From the information given earlier in the chapter and from your own experiences, you should realize that some groups have more power than others. These people are what we refer to as the dominant group: white, male, Christian, middle-class, able-bodied, educated, and heterosexual. People whose cultural identities do not conform to this model are the nondominant groups and have less sociopolitical and economic power. As you think about privilege and the resulting advantages that some groups have over others, you should also keep in mind two facts. One, privilege is a relative concept that varies according to context. In some situations we may be more privileged than others, and in order to access some of that privilege we may decide to highlight or conceal parts of our identity. For example, unless a person tells you, you have no way of knowing their sexual orientation. Thus, a gay man might decide to “pass” as straight at a family reunion to avoid conflict from a heterosexist family. Two, we may have aspects of our identities that are simultaneously advantaged and disadvantaged. The gay, white, working-class, male above is advantaged by the fact that he has light skin and is male, and is disadvantaged by the fact that he is gay and working-class.

    White Privilege

    Skin color is one of the more disturbing, largely unexamined, and persistent social constructs that perpetuates discrimination and divides power. For Indigenous scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson, the category of race subsumes all other sources of social division, including gender. Whether they realize them or not, White people enjoy societal advantages in their daily lives, simply because they are white. Social scientists term these advantages white privilege.

    This chapter’s discussion of the problems facing people of color points to some of these advantages. For example, whites can usually drive a car at night or walk down a street without having to fear that a police officer will stop them simply because they are white. Recalling the Trayvon Martin tragedy, they can also walk down a street without having to fear they will be confronted and possibly killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. In addition, whites can count on being able to move into any neighborhood they desire to as long as they can afford the rent or mortgage. They generally do not have to fear being passed up for promotion simply because of their race. White students can live in college dorms without having to worry that racial slurs will be directed their way. White people in general do not have to worry about being the victims of hate crimes based on their race. They can be seated in a restaurant without having to worry that they will be served more slowly or not at all because of their skin color. If they are in a hotel, they do not have to think that someone will mistake them for a bellhop, parking valet, or maid. If they are trying to hail a taxi, they do not have to worry about the taxi driver ignoring them because the driver fears he or she will be robbed.

    Peggy McIntosh defines white privilege as an invisible knapsack of advantages that some people carry around. They are invisible because they are often not recognized, seen as normative (i.e., “that’s just the way things are”), seen as universal (i.e., “everyone has them”), or used unconsciously. Below is a list of some of the privileges McIntosh identifies. Can you think of others?

    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 that I can afford and in which I would want to live.
    3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors 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 to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
    6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color 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 deal with my hair.
    10. Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color 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, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
    13. I can speak in public 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 color, who constitute the world’s majority, without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
    17. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior 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 if the IRS audits my tax return, 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 organizations 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 coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
    23. I can choose public accommodation 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 blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color that more or less match my skin.

    Social scientist Robert W. Terry (1981, p. 120) once summarized white privilege as follows: “To be white in America is not to have to think about it. Except for hard-core racial supremacists, the meaning of being white is having the choice of attending to or ignoring one’s own whiteness” (emphasis in original). For people of color in the United States, it is not an exaggeration to say that race and ethnicity is a daily fact of their existence. Yet whites do not generally have to think about being white. As all of us go about our daily lives, this basic difference is one of the most important manifestations of racial and ethnic inequality in the United States.

    For those of us who come from a privileged racial background, unpacking what it means to be white can prove a challenging and confronting task. Research
    found that the question ‘What does it mean to be white?’ was very challenging for white Euro-Americans – the question simply did not make sense. Interviewing in downtown San Francisco, researchers found that the most common response to this question was to ask if it was a trick. Incredulity was usually followed by a declaration that this was not something they ever think about.

    Perhaps because whites do not have to think about being white, many studies find they tend to underestimate the degree of racial inequality in the United States by assuming that African Americans and Latinos are much better off than they really are. As one report summarized these studies’ overall conclusion, “Whites tend to have a relatively rosy impression of what it means to be a black person in America. Whites are more than twice as likely as blacks to believe that the position of African Americans has improved a great deal” (Vedantam, 2008, p. A3). Because whites think African Americans and Latinos fare much better than they really do, that perception probably reduces whites’ support for programs designed to reduce racial and ethnic inequality, such as Affirmative Action.

    Engaging with issues of racism and privilege can be very challenging – both intellectually and personally. The above discussion about privilege and Whiteness is not meant to suggest that those people with white privilege should feel ashamed or guilty. This is often a trap that people fall into and it can shut down important thinking and conversations about intercultural communication. It's important to realize that everyone has a racial identity. Effective change lies in making whiteness visible, by exploring it as a racial or cultural construct, and defining whiteness in a non-defensive and non-racist manner. When we remove the White race from the often-unidentified “normative” group, it provides a context for studying, talking about, and hopefully improving race relations. Such an understanding will involve thinking about these issues not just as abstract concepts but also as they manifest in our own lives. For some this may mean reflecting on the experience of racism themselves, while for others it will involve recognizing and understanding the often-invisible experience of privilege. In order to do this: White society must be willing to look at themselves honestly, to confront the truth about themselves and the world, and to liberate themselves from the invisible cultural conditioning of a racialized society.

    From an intercultural communication perspective, the goal is to create a society that is antiracist, which involves the active practice of identifying, challenging, and changing organizational structures, policies, practices, and attitudes that perpetuate systemic racism. While this may seem like a daunting task, every person can do their part. Consider these three action steps:

    1. Notice differences in treatment
    2. Talk about white privilege and other forms of social privilege.
    3. Be willing to teach other people about privilege and power.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Introduction to Sociology, 2e, OpenStax. License CC-BY

    Intercultural Learning: Critical Preparation for International Student Travel, by, James Cook University, Provided by UTS ePress. License: CC-BY-NC-SA

    Social Problems: Continuity and Change, by University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing. License: CC-BY-NC-SA

    Intercultural Communication for the Community College, by Karen Krumrey-Fulks. Provided by LibreTexts. License: CC-BY-NC-SA

    This page titled 7.3: Racism and Privilege is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Tom Grothe.