Explaining White Privilege
“Oh, Ashley, shut it with that race-talk. You’re only keeping racism alive by talking about it.”
“White privilege is something white liberals came up with to combat their guilt. It’s as real as global warming.”
“So you’re saying I’ve never worked hard? That everything came easy for me? Listen, my great-grandparents came from [insert European country] and busted their butts and were treated horribly as immigrants. Because of Obama and affirmative action, I didn’t get into the school I wanted and I also have to work two full-time jobs to pay for school. That’s not privilege, get over yourself.”
Actually, white privilege wasn’t coined by white liberals experiencing some sort of racial guilt. It is a legitimate term widely recognized in higher education and among sociology professions.
It doesn’t discredit white people from their financial or economic struggles. It doesn’t mean white people cannot undergo poverty. God knows it sure doesn’t suggest white people are unable to pull themselves up by their own boot straps.
White privilege does, however, often give white Americans the benefit of the doubt in social situations. It grants whites advantages they may not have ever considered due to their entitlement in a country that socially and institutionally caters to a white, color-blind perspective. In essence, white folks are often immune to recognizing racism or “seeing race” because of their whiteness.
Now, this isn’t to say that being white is a fault of theirs. It’s not. It is, however, important to be socially aware of one’s position in society, no matter how disadvantaged or advantaged he or she is so that efforts can be made to eradicate racism and racial discrimination.
Having been raised in an upbringing and education system that focuses primarily on white literature and drama (Shakespeare, Salinger, Joyce, Twain, Fitzgerald), a white historical perspective, white theatre (Sound of Music, Singing in the Rain, Annie, Grease), and white composers (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven), this has been considered quite normal. Of course, America’s public education system does not dwell on why this is the norm, or why the classroom subjects are not called “white” anything, because that’s sort of the point. White Americans have the privilege of not having to see color because for the most part, they are not mistreated because of it.
Anti-racist activist and author Tim Wise, a Jewish and white American, devotes much of his adult life having educational and professional talks at social conventions surrounding race, racism, and white privilege. He has written several books, including White Like Me: Reflections on Race From a Privileged Son and Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority.
He says in one of his presentations,”When you understand your own white privilege, you’ll be better equipped to see and understand systemic discrimination and inequality.”
And he’s right.
In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, a new website was created, titled, We Are Not Trayvon Martin. It is a blog where primarily non-blacks submit posts explaining not only their white privilege, but also social advantages whites and other non-black racial groups have, and how they wish to stand against racism and racial profiling.
A white male posted, “I am never looked at suspiciously. I am always given the benefit of the doubt. No one ever thinks that I might steal something. I have never been threatened with violence by law enforcement. And I seriously doubt that any stranger has ever truly felt threatened by my presence.”
A white girl submitted, “I didn’t ask for this privilege, but I benefit from it every day of my life. It’s my responsibility to recognize this process as it’s occurring, and call it what it is. This means asking questions that make other White people uncomfortable. It means admitting that I myself have biased beliefs—that I am not above anyone else just because I can participate in White Liberal Discourse. Most of all, it means learning how to raise my children, who will be White, to see and appreciate color, to question systems that oppress, to recognize that injustice hurts us all and to never stop fighting to overcome the privilege.”
Another person listed, “In eight years working in East New York, I was never stopped or frisked; My qualifications and accomplishments in school and work have never been called into question as merely the result of Affirmative Action; I had no difficulty completing Family Tree assignments throughout the years; People are not afraid of me when I walk down the street. They do not follow me when I enter a store, except to offer genuine assistance.”
Peggy McIntosh, mastermind behind White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, gives several additional examples of the advantages white Americans benefit from.
“I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race wisely represented.”
“I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.”
“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.”
“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.”
White privilege is no one questioning George W. Bush about his academic credentials at Yale or his birth records, while Donald Trump and other white Americans question President Obama about the falsification of his birth certificate and make the assumption Mr. Obama graduated from Harvard and was in the top of his class because of affirmative-action.
White privilege is looking at a Greek organization product catalog and the embroidery options include the “white” sorority and fraternity organizations and not the multicultural or historically black letter organizations.
White privilege is having the power to decide if a non-white person’s negative experience has anything to do with race. It’s being able to minimize a black person’s troubles, claim they are using the race card, and let that be the end of the discussion.
But let’s think about this for a moment. First of all, the term race card implies there is a game being played; a game where presumably, black people wish to exaggerate their racial experience to somehow “win” in a conversation. Second of all, why would anyone want to dramatize a negative racial experience? It’s not something most people wish to openly discuss or glamorize.
Let us also consider that if a game is being played, the directions and rules have been written by, systematically designed, and catered to the convenience of a white person.
As identified in What Would You Do? and an experience Tim Wise can personally recall from his college days in New Orleans, white privilege is also when a white person or group of white men surround a locked car in a parking lot, trying to get (or break) in, and no one calls the cops on them. In Mr. Wise’s case, he forgot his keys and was trying to get in his car. A police officer came up to him and even offered to help. On the television program, however, black actors surrounded a vehicle trying to break in a vehicle and calls were made to the police.
So what can you do? As a white person, you can start off by acknowledging your privilege. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing so. You should not be ashamed of it. Use your inherited social privilege to your advantage.
Do not simply air your privilege to people of color, instead, make the decision to use your privilege for the better in educating other white people on the matter. Join the fight against racism and consciously make the effort to improve race relations for non-whites. The struggle to end racism is an interracial effort. We need help on all sides of the racial spectrum to eradicate it.
The point of this article is not to bash white people or say that they are evil for inheriting racial privilege. We must understand that it’s an American reality; something we cannot necessarily change in a swift moment. It is a progressive effort. Whites have privilege, Christians have privilege, men have privilege, and heterosexuals have privilege.
I have the social privilege of being a straight person and an able-bodied American, as most things in America are designed and operated at the benefit of straight and able-bodied people.
My intent is to shed light on white privilege, a social reality that plenty of Americans choose to deny and ignore. Ignorance is not bliss in regards to race relations. It only perpetuates the ongoing actuality of racism in America.
If you wish to learn more about white privilege, visit the Un-Fair Campaign website. You can search Tim Wise on YouTube and see his many talks explaining white privilege and encouraging his white counterparts to acknowledge theirs. Be sure to keep an eye out for his upcoming documentary, White Like Me: A film about race, racism, and white privilege, coming this fall.
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