Brief Thoughts on the Study of White Privilege

In semiotics, a word has three significations: denotative, connotative, and annotative (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2010). Denotative is the literal definition, connotative is the word in context, and annotative is the applied symbolic relationship of the denotative and connotative meanings. People often confuse the denotative and connotative meaning of the word privilege with the annotative and sociological meaning when discussing the concept of privilege. Gaining a better comprehension of the annotative definition of privilege in a social context means examining the concept of white privilege in contrast to lives of People of Color.

If a person has been pulled over by a police officer and does not fear for his or her life because of skin color, that is the annotative meaning of white privilege. If a person can turn on the television, watch a movie, or open a magazine and see people that they look like, that is the annotative meaning of white privilege. White privilege is the symbolic system of advantage afforded to white people, not a system of obvious reward such as doing the dishes earns an hour of playing video games.

Fundamental Attribution Error and Attribution Theory

A primary issue with white people understanding white privilege is the logical fallacy of Fundamental Attribution Error. Beebe, Beebe, and Redmond (2011) define Fundamental Attribution Error as the “Error that arises from attributing another person’s behavior to internal, controllable causes rather than to external, uncontrollable causes” (p. 77). In communications, Attribution Theory “is concerned with how individuals interpret events and how this relates to their thinking and behavior” (Attribution Theory, 2010, p. 1).

A man is driving home from work on his usual route and another driver runs a stop sign causing him to slam on your brakes. He thinks, ‘That jerk can’t drive!’ What the man fails to recognize is that

  • he knows the route and can operate on with minimal thoughts applied to the situation
  • he knows how to operate his vehicle
  • he does not have distractions such as children in the backseat or is listening to a navigation system
  • he has have been driving for many years so he his not learning a new skill.

However, the other driver may be lost, might have bought a new car, has a crying baby in the backseat, or just got a driver’s license. The man is applying his attributes to the other driver because human nature tends to externalize the behaviors of others while internalizing personal behaviors. Fundamental Attribution Error contributes to misunderstandings of why people act in certain manners.

Attributions to White Privilege

A person with white privilege attributes their knowledge about life to People of Color because information is processed through personal life experiences. However, failing to account for external problems is not an excuse for perpetuating misunderstanding once information is known. National conversations have shown that white people need to recognize that People of Color have to work harder and are afforded less opportunity because of external conditions.

Final Thoughts

The definition of White Privilege could easily be the definition of Fundamental Attribution Error because these two concepts are synchronized. Continuing these critical conversations until all oppressed voices are heard will be one way of communicating with each other. Learning to relate to other by recognizing that external conditions are not inherent flaws is one step in moving toward a post-racial America.


Attribution Theory. (2010, July 09). University of Twente. Retrieved from

Beebe, S. A., Beebe, S. J., & Redmond, M. V. (2011). Interpersonal Communication: Relating to Others (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Kovach, B., & Rosenstiel, T., (2010). Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload. New York: Bloomsbury.


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