Critical Concepts of Race Privilege1
In the mid-1980s, two sociologists affiliated with Ethnic Studies developed and promulgated the
theory of racial formation, which explains that race is a social construct, a concept that people impute
with evolving meanings as societies change historically.2 The theory of racial formation is foundational to
understanding the centrality of race and racism in the United States and offers a significant challenge to
other paradigms of race, including those that are biologistic or based on constructs of ethnicity, class, or
A few years later, some feminist scholars adapted critiques of patriarchy to extend critical
understandings of race in the United States. They conceptualized white privilege—the sometimes hidden
yet significant motivation for the continued subordination of minority social groups in the United States.3
By the early 1990s, feminist legal scholars had extended critical knowledge about race and racism by
naming the transparency phenomenon—a key component of white privilege that explains why most
people who are socially constructed as white tend not to think about how race affects their daily lives but
instead think of race as something that other people have.4 Race is a colored thing; race marks some
people’s differences from the (putative) norm.5
Responding to these ideas about race and racism, critical race theorists critiqued and supplemented
the concepts of white privilege and the transparency phenomenon to extend critical comprehension of the
social construction of whiteness and the maintenance of white supremacy in the United States.6 One of their
several important insights is that the transparency phenomenon incompletely explains white privilege:
throughout the United States’ racial formations, law has naturalized the constitutive privileges of racial
whiteness. By statute and judicial opinion, legislators and judges reified the social construction of racial
whiteness as a biological reality that is confirmed by everyday common sense.7
These critical concepts can help people who are dedicated to effecting social justice better
understand the current era of “colorblind constitutionalism”8 promulgated by the Renquist Court and to
intervene against this aspect of the neoconservative project (shared by the Federalist Society), which
directly supports the United States’ racial hierarchy. Additionally, developing critical understanding of how
race has been socially constructed to privilege the white social group by subordinating all social groups
defined as non-white and dubbed minorities may help people of good will work together successfully
across the diverse categories of social difference to which we are all subject, e.g., age, dis/ability, gender,
race, sexuality, etc. Developing such critical understandings is a project of critical race praxis and
1 Prepared by Marc-Tizoc González for the “Race Privilege Town Hall Meeting,” held on Wednesday January 26,
2005 at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall) and hosted by the Center for Social Justice as part of its Spring
2005 “Privilege Series,” with minor revisions on October 11, 2006 for the “Introduction to LatCrit Theory:
Scholarship and Practical Applications” panel of the Tenth Annual National Latina/o Law Student Conference.
2 MICHAEL OMI & HOWARD WINANT, RACIAL FORMATION: FROM THE 1960S TO THE 1980S (1987).
3 See e.g., Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, in Working Paper 189: White
Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s
Studies (1988), available at http://www.utoronto.ca/acc/events/peggy1.htm.
4 See BARBARA J. FLAGG,WAS BLIND, BUT NOW I SEE:WHITE RACE CONSCIOUSNESS & THE LAW (1998); STEPHANIE
M. WILDMAN, ET. AL., PRIVILEGE REVEALED: HOW INVISIBLE PREFERENCE UNDERMINES AMERICA (1996); Stephanie
M. Wildman, with Adrienne D. Davis, Language and Silence: Making Systems of Privilege Visible, 35 SANTA CLARA
L. REV. 881 (1995); Barbara J. Flagg, “Was Blind, But Now I See”: White Race Consciousness and the Requirement
of Discriminatory Intent, 91 MICH. L. REV. 953 (1993); and Trina Grillo & Stephanie M. Wildman, Obscuring the
Importance of Race: The Implications of Making Comparisons Between Racism and Sexism (or Other-Isms), 1991
DUKE L.J. 397 (1991). Professor Wildman was the first director of Boalt’s CSJ. She now teaches at the University of
Santa Clara School of Law where she directs its Center for Social Justice and Public Service.
5 See Angela Harris, Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory, 42 STAN. L. REV. 582, 604 (1990).
6 See e.g., IAN F. HANEY LÓPEZ,WHITE BY LAW (1996).
7 Id. at 160-64.
8 See Neil Gotanda, A Critique of “Our Constitution is Colorblind”, 44 STAN. L. REV. 1 (1991).
9 See Eric K. Yamamoto, Critical Race Praxis: Race Theory and Political Lawyering Practice in Post-Civil Rights
America, 95 MICH. L. REV. 821 (1997); and Eric Yamamoto, Rethinking Alliances: Agency, Responsibility and
Interracial Justice, 3 ASIAN PAC. AM. L.J. 33 (1995).