Note: this article was written with a white, American, conservative community audience (my hometown) in mind. But this writeup contains a lot of things that are hard to hear for "us white folks." Like it or not, we need to realize that we do indeed have unearned privilege, whether we're a society of individuals or not.
White privilege is a side effect of institutional racism
. If blacks are oppressed
in society, white privilege is its flipside
: those with white skin have unearned benefits
This concept is nothing new, but it’s hard to hear for the majority of Caucasians. I, too, found it surprising and difficult to hear when I first read about it. As a white female I tend to believe that I am uninvolved with racist issues. The words "white privilege" implies that you are at fault for being white, that you’re obligated to feel guilty for reaping society’s benefits, that you are an oppressor to the minorities, even though your daily life might show the opposite.
The statement means none of that.
But it does mean that there are opportunities opened for you, conveniences available to you, and levels of benefit you take advantage of, all due to the light shade of your skin. For example, can you walk in the store at the same time as a Hispanic man and be left alone to shop while the man is followed and harassed for “looking suspicious”? Can you apply for jobs and be pretty sure that you will talk to members of your own race? Can you be pulled over by a policeman and be certain that you weren’t being pulled over because you're a minority? Can you buy a "flesh-tone bandage" and have it more or less match the color of your skin?
Peggy McIntosh, in an essay entitled "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," developed a list of 50 ways whites enjoy privilege over minorities. Here are a few select items:
- I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
- I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the newspaper and see people of my race widely represented.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
- I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
- I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person's voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
- 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 which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser's shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
- Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
- I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
- 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.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
- 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.
- I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
- 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.
- 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.
- I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children's magazines featuring people of my race.
- 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.
- I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.
- If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn't a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
- I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
- I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
- If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
- I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
- I can chose blemish cover or bandages in "flesh" color and have them more or less match my skin.
These things you can’t do if you happened to be a minority.
As a dominant
, it’s hard to recognize all of the privileges and gifts white skin has given the majority of society. It is easy to recognize that minorities are underprivileged
in this world, but no one steps up to the challenge of confessing the other equal side of the equation: that whites are OVERprivileged
. We enjoy benefits in society that are taken completely for granted
White privilege is the cause behind the idea for affirmative action, an attempt to cancel out the unbalance. Some people shudder when affirmative action is even mentioned, because they believe it’s not equal rights, it’s special rights, and race should not play a part of a decision-making role in any case. Theoretically, it shouldn’t, as we are all equal and deserve equal opportunities based on merits alone, not the color of our skin. Unfortunately, this is the real world. People ARE discriminated against in the workforce. Whites already HAVE unearned privilege. The playing field is already uneven, and affirmative action attempts to even it.
Robert Jensen, a professor at the University of Texas, tells a story about a discussion with a bright and conservative student. "The student says he wants a level playing field with no unearned advantages for anyone. I ask him whether he thinks that being white has advantages in the United States. Have either of us, I ask, ever benefited from being white in a world run mostly by white people? Yes, he concedes, there is something real and tangible we could call white privilege. 'So, if we live in a world of white privilege – unearned white privilege - how does that affect your notion of a level playing field?' I asked. He paused for a moment and said, 'That really doesn't matter.' That statement, I suggested to him, reveals the ultimate white privilege: The privilege to acknowledge that you have unearned privilege but to ignore what it means."
To say "That really doesn’t matter" to an issue as large as white privilege is to say, ultimately, that we can sit back and take in the unearned benefits of our skin color while arguing against anyone else who dares issue out other unearned benefits to attempt to reach the white man’s level.
Whites are ABLE to take their privileges for granted. This is something minorities see every day from the outside looking in, but it takes a wake-up call to the white population to get them to see their own benefits.
We white folk are benefited because we fit in with mainstream. We look and act like the people who make the rules around us, from landlords to employers, college administrators to the legal system. This is unearned privilege. In a perfect world, we will not need affirmative action. But it’s the sad truth that employers DO discriminate against minorities and will not hire a proportionate mix of non-whites. There IS unearned white privilege. Opponents to affirmative action would definitely have a point if the playing ground was level in the first place. But it is not.
"Blacks must be twice as good as whites in order to be deemed equal," says Richard Kenyada, an African-American. "I can imagine that the quintessential white privilege is to go through your day without having to think of yourself as being white first. It must be the ultimate freedom, psychologically speaking".
This seems to be a sentiment very common in those whose race is not the automatically accepted race of society. Their efforts have to be doubled up in order to even compare. They consciously have to watch everything they do so as to not disgrace their race with negative stereotypes – a burden we Caucasians have had the privilege of never having to deal with.
Nathan McCall, in his book Makes Me Wanna Holler, writes about his earliest memories of white privilege, as opposed to his own black skin: "Whenever we were going to restaurants or other public places where a lot of white folks would be around, my mother reminded us to sit, stiff as soldiers, and be quiet. Every now and then, if one of us dared to cut up in public, Mama said through clenched teeth, 'Stop showing your color. Stop acting like a nigger!' My brothers and I would sit solemnly and watch as rowdy white kids entered those same public places, shirtless, barefoot, and grimy... I envied their freedom and craved the specialness that excluded them from our self-defeating burden; It seemed we were niggers by birthright and destined to spend our entire lives striving in vain to shed that rap. But white people could never be niggers, even when they acted like niggers with a capital N."
Minorities, then, have a right to complain. They are not just being "oversensitive" to race issues – this is something they live with every day of their lives, while we Caucasians have the undue privilege of ignoring our race and living as individuals – something we assume that if we can do it, so can everyone else. In actuality, they can’t.
I will agree, however, that in some cases minorities try to use their plight as an excuse. A Hispanic, being arrested for assault with a weapon, will try to say to the policeman that he’s only being arrested because he is Hispanic. While that may not be the case in his situation, imagine living under that burden day in and day out, being constantly reminded that you are not as white or as affluent as you should be. It then becomes easier to see how his error in logic came about. He’s been singled out for being Hispanic all of his life, so why not now? Perhaps his rowdy behavior comes FROM the fact that he’s been placed into a category and has been told what he was expected to be. Perhaps this was his way of living up to expectations.
We’ve seen these "unfortunates" at the bottom of the barrel. But it’s easy to overlook why they are at the bottom and we sit comfortably on top. One of the major causes is white privilege itself, and our reluctance to let it go. Whenever someone impedes on our supposed "rights" to have this kind of privilege, sometimes our feathers get ruffled and we misinterpret their demands with "minority whining." But it’s essential to realize that we do have a privilege we were born with and did not earn on merits alone, and that the "whining" you may hear could be very valid complaints from the outsiders.
While I’m sure there are many examples of minorities who do rise above these limitations, that doesn’t mean that all are expected to do the same. Some of them gain their privileges only if they are middle or upper class, or if they act and sound white. Again, it's "them" trying to grasp "our" level. As long as white privilege remains on top, as long as whites have a better chance at getting those esteemed careers, as long as whites assume they deserve their given white privileges, these barriers will consistently be there, working against minorities.
Does this mean that those on the higher end of the social scale should give up their privileges and live in poverty for the rest of their lives? No. It only means that those who are granted the opportunities that come at the right time in the right place should realize that it was more than good luck that brought them there. The only way to even out the playing field is if those individuals on the higher end of the social ladder give back to the community who don’t seem to have that sort of luck that the white skin affords them.
When one comes to grips with the realities of white privilege, undeserving guilt is a natural emotion. Robert Jensen describes his feelings of disappointment: "Like all white Americans, I was living with the fear that maybe I didn't really deserve my success, that maybe luck and privilege had more to do with it than brains and hard work... I let go of some of that fear when I realized that, indeed, I wasn't special, but that I was still me. What I do well, I still can take pride in, even when I know that the rules under which I work in are stacked to my benefit. Until we let go of the fiction that people have complete control over their fate - that we can will ourselves to be anything we choose - then we will live with that fear." The word "meritocracy" is used to describe the myth that you can go anywhere based on merit alone. As long as we, the believers in the American Dream, still hold on to that myth, we will be stuck forever in the situation we are currently in, with no progress towards the ultimate goal of racial equality.
Jensen goes on to point out that guilt is also a hindrance to the effort – in short, we should not feel guilty for the white color of our skin, because this is something that can’t be helped. However, we must do all that we can to eliminate ignorance about white privilege around us.
The only solution I can give is to stop, look, and realize. Ignorance gets us nowhere. As soon as we see how high whites have been riding, only then can we begin to lessen the divide. Stop the open hostility to minorities – specifically the minorities in the poor lower classes. Consider the fact that not everyone has the same open opportunities that were afforded to you. Consider the fact that they were not born and raised to go to college, get a degree, and start an illustrious career like many white people have. Realize that your idea of success and theirs can be two completely opposite things. As long as you assume these things, the minority community will grow more hostile to those who have the good fortune of being born with white skin. If you show your willingness to give up your attitude, the divide will lessen and the hostility will dwindle.
Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.