Over the last few years, I’ve posted many messages, and hosted many discussions, about the social injustices created by deep seated and systemic racism.
One of the most controversial recurring topics is the concept of “White Privilege.”
Currently, the majority of white people who want to help are asking their black co-workers and acquaintances to explain how they as white people can help. Every person of color that I know is sick of having to attempt to respectfully explain the concept to people who take the term itself to be a direct and personal insult. Now, imagine for just a second if you get so angry at being called privileged, how upsetting it would be to be told for your entire life, by an entire society that you were unworthy of obtaining that privilege based on the skin color with which you were born. The fact that we can dismiss even having to talk about centuries of oppression by taking offense at the way it is phrased is the essence of that privilege.
It should not fall on the oppressed to educate their oppressors. That falls on those in the privileged class who have the ability to recognize the injustice and use their privileged status to begin to affect change in the system.
So, I am going to use this essay to attempt to address the very real issues of White Privilege by explaining the concept from the perspective of a White male in our society, who has inadvertently benefited from that privilege.
To do so, I would like to begin by sharing with you two very common types of responses I get from the white people when this issue is raised to them. I have edited them just slightly to make the context more appropriate to the generalized discussion of the essay without altering their meaning or intent.
White Person 1:
“I’m going to go way out on a limb here…let’s face it, ‘white privilege’ is an accusation against people you may know nothing about. it’s a derogatory label. and means nothing to racist people, but it hurts people who’ve strived their entire lives to be good, do good and stand up for justice – it can make you feel guilty for something you have no control over – the color of your skin. ‘white privilege’ divides people, it doesn’t bring them together. it puts an entire race of people in a box. we should find a better conversation to solve OUR problems – us vs them never helps. ‘he who forgets the past is doomed to repeat it’”
White Person 2:
“From personal experience I can assure you these types of situations happen not just to people of color, but whites, latino/hispanics, and peoples of all race and creed. The problem I have with ‘white privilege’ is that it feeds stereotyping in the same derogatory way that the proponents of this ideology claim they are victims of. I find it to be a narrative, founded in fact, and important to recognize, but in doing so, the narrative to be complete must acknowledge that this is not a phenomenon particular to the ‘privileged whites’ and ‘non-privileged blacks’, but is a phenomenon that occurs between those ‘in power’ and those ‘with no power’. While this does happen to the black community, and probably statistically more so, it happens to everyone else too.”
Instead of attempting to address each specific question and comment within those statements, I would like to start with a clarification of what “White Privilege” really means, why it isn’t a derogatory accusation, discuss some very specific anecdotal instances where it has affected my life personally as a white man and how I have benefited from it, and what I am doing and what you can do to help address it.
“White privilege” isn’t an accusation, it is not something we should feel guilty for (unless we become complicit in maintaining or worsening it), it is something we must, however, acknowledge and work to address — not by removing any of the privileges associated with it from white people, but by making sure those same privileges are made available to all people.
If we see injustice and do nothing to address it, we become complicit in it. White privilege begins with the ability to convince ourselves that since we aren’t actively racists that fixing racist oppression isn’t our problem.
Allow me to use an analogy. I do not abuse my children. If I see someone else abusing theirs and I do nothing to help, can I honestly claim that I carry no blame in the harm they receive from that point on?
I would become complicit in allowing it to continue by convincing myself that since I’m not the one hitting the child it isn’t my problem to fix.
In reality I have a responsibility to do everything within my power to protect that defenseless person from further victimization, by interceding to stop it, by calling the police and reporting what I’ve seen, by making sure the child is removed from the danger of immediate threat.
People of color are quite literally the abused children in our society, subjected to emotional and physical abuse on a daily basis by our society.
That is not to say that there are not also a significant number of white people who also are subjected to societal abuse, suffering from injustice, poverty, and other problems, but they have the privilege of knowing that the color of their skin isn’t the cause of it, and won’t be the reason they can’t someday manage to rise above it.
For some context, I am not rich, but I am also not poverty stricken. My children have a home and they have everything they need to live happy, healthy lives, despite the fact that they do not, and will not, have everything they want, or that I want to be able to give them. But in my life, I have inadvertently benefited from my white privilege in many ways that I can specifically point to, and probably many others of which I am unaware.
As a boy in school, I was privileged to never have to worry about being failed by a teacher who did not like me or my parents due to their own racist prejudices. I had the privilege to never have to worry about people burning crosses in my yard, throwing bricks through my window with death threats attached to them, or waiting to get a group of their friends together to beat me or someone in my family at any time solely because they hated people that looked differently than them.
As a young man, involved in a car accident or traffic stop, I had the privilege of not giving a moment’s thought to the fear that I might be beaten or shot by the police officer because I look scary, despite being a 6’ tall athletic young man at the time. I did not think for a moment I would be killed for not maintaining my composure and showing nothing but the utmost respect during one of the most traumatic events of my life up to that point.
In my early 20s, I was informed by a hiring manager that I was not receiving a job that I was the best applicant for due to the facility needing to hire a certain number of minorities. Despite my outrage at the time, I was privileged in many ways in this one incident. I had the privilege, first, of assuming that he meant I was best qualified because I was more skilled at the work, not because he would have preferred a white person. I had the privilege of receiving another and better job offer within a week; an opportunity that may well not have been available to that person of color at that time in that region of the country due strictly to his skin color.
At various points, I have been privileged to know, without even having to think about it at all, while applying for a car loan or home mortgage that I would not be denied my request because the person sitting across from me harbored racial animosity towards people like me, but that my approval or denial would be based entirely upon the merit of my application.
I have the privilege now of knowing that if a police officer knocks on my door, it is probably because they want to ask questions about something in the neighborhood, without worrying about if the neighbors have filed a false complaint against me about something in order to harass me because they don’t like people that look like me living here.
I enjoy very much having the privilege of being able to raise my children without having to teach them to avoid interacting with, or accidentally offending, the very police officers that are sworn to protect and serve them and us.
My Hispanic wife is certain that she has received at least one job offer for a position for which she would not even have been interviewed if she had applied with her maiden name on the application instead of her married name.
I also have the privilege now, as I am able to look back and recognize these instances, to be thankful for them and the opportunities they’ve provided me, without feeling guilty about them.
But I have an obligation, having recognized them to fight for all to be able to have that same sense of security and opportunity. It isn’t about removing what I’ve been afforded, it is about making sure that these things that I’ve mentioned are no longer available only to those of privileged status, but instead become the norm of decent human respect and treatment. A place where all being equal means all being treated at the highest standard, not dropping all of us to the lower. I am striving to elevate us all, not bring anyone down. And I am more than happy to use whatever privilege I may have to help accomplish that.
If I know about it, and don’t attempt to help fix it, I am complicit in allowing it to continue unchecked. It is no longer good enough to say “I’m not part of the problem,” because we have reached a point where if you aren’t part of the solution, you are the problem.
That is why athletes and celebrities speak out, they aren’t just the jesters and gladiators that gain some privilege that we can yank away if they get uppity. They are humans that have been lucky enough to break through some of the barriers if not all, and using that to help others do the same in any way within their means is exactly what they should do.
This is why protests happen, because after 400 years, there are still people living without the privilege of not needing to fear for their lives every time they leave their homes, or worse at home, for no reason other than that they look different than the people with more privileged standing within our system who know they can get away with the abuse and torment, because in the end, “Hey, it’ll just be their word against mine, who are they gonna believe?”
And when we chastise peaceful protesters for their method of protest, we are specifically telling them, “I don’t care what you have to say because I don’t approve of you.” Whether intentionally or not, we are inserting ourselves as nothing more than one more obstacle that must be overcome on their way to merely getting their voice heard, before we can even begin to address what they are saying.
That is a sure-fire path to forcing them to resort to more violent means of protest in order to bring the attention they need to the issues at hand.
And having the privilege of being able to tune out screams for help because we disapprove of the methodology of the screaming is the height of “White Privilege.”