White Privilege – many deny it’s existence, unaware that the leg up they’ve received in their own lives simply because they’ve been born with the right skintone – yet in the wake of Mike Brown’s death in Ferguson, 12 year old Tamir Rice’s murder in Cleveland, and Eric Garner’s murder at the hands of police in New York many other whites are still having a hard time recognizing their own white privilege.
While I personally posses a trifecta of privilege – being straight, white, and male – I cannot deny that white privilege has probably been the most beneficial to me throughout my life, and most detrimental to my black counterparts throughout theirs.
Defining White Privilege
“Experts define White privilege as a combination of exclusive standards and opinions that are supported by Whites in a way that continually reinforces social distance between groups on the basis of power, access, advantage, majority status, control, choice, autonomy, authority, possessions, wealth, opportunity, materialistic acquisition, connection, access, preferential treatment, entitlement, and social standing (Hays & Chang, 2003; Manning & Baruth, 2009).”
- — Vang, C. T. (2010), An educational psychology of methods in multicultural education, New York: Peter Lang, pp. 36 and 37, ISBN 978-1-4331-0790-0
I think the above definition covers all the bases, but what are the roots of white privilege in America?
Privilege generally occurs when any one group has the advantage of population, wealth, and power over another in any given area and over a given time frame – in America it’s blatantly obvious that whites have long held all three and blacks (among other races) have a very long history of being the marginalized group. Whites have the advantage having no immediate ancestry who were slaves or who couldn’t determine their own destiny, yet when asked if blacks still feel the effects of their ancestors’ slavery and later persecution after emancipation many whites will loudly pronounce that these events happened generations ago; forgetting that while generations of blacks were unable to amass wealth, property, or rights whites were doing just that and passing it all on to their children. Furthermore, barely a generation has passed since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in the struggle for equality just 46 years ago.
White people must not believe that finally leveling the playing field 450 years after the foundation of a society actually eradicates white privilege because it is that very privilege that has been compiled and compressed over those long years on the backs of the blacks that our privilege disenfranchises.
The playing field isn’t level so long as white privilege exists – it’s just ever so slightly less advantageous to whites since legislation like the Civil Rights Act.
My White Privilege
I grew up poor and without a stable father figure in my life, but when I compare my life to the life of a black male living just a couple miles down the road from me in the projects I know that it was much easier because the sole provider in my household (my mother) was always able to be employed in some way and she never had to worry about an employer holding her race against her – so we certainly struggled, but we didn’t struggle like someone who had difficulty finding employment might or who might make 1/3 less than his or her white counterparts.
Every interview I’ve ever had prior to the 2008 economic crash lasted roughly 5 minutes with instructions to either report to work the next day or after providing 2 weeks notice to my current employer, I recognize that isn’t a luxury often afforded to people of color. In most of the jobs I’ve held I’ve always noticed that my black counterparts get nitpicked by white supervisors over performance issues while white employees – including myself – with the same issues get no feedback regarding them. I’ve seen a number of black coworkers either pressured to leave their jobs or fired because their work was scrutinized far more than that of their peers.
I’ll likely never have to worry about my kids or relatives being killed by an overzealous police officer over some minor offense, in fact – my family tree has quite a few lawbreakers and brawlers in it, none of whom were shot 6 times at a distance of 135 feet as they surrendered.
As a white male my interactions with other white males are often superseded by racist remarks, epithets, and disrespect of President Obama- which leads to an often uncomfortable conversation about what words mean and why it’s not acceptable to pretend like it’s still 1950, even in Georgia. Some white people often assume that other white people think, act, vote, and discriminate just like they do – they feel a kinship based on race and a superiority to all others, and when confronted about this the time honored tradition of “my black friend” is always defense number one.
Simply because I am seen as “same” by white people I will be given the advantage of their business and their trust before a black person with the same or better skills – even though the very thought of our “sameness” makes us as different as night and day.
Without a doubt my white privilege has been a benefit to me in far more ways than mentioned here that I have the luxury of not recognizing in my life.
Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward correcting it so recognizing and admitting your own privilege as a white person opens the door to becoming an agent and an ally of change.
Beyond admission and recognition we must also be cognizant of our privileged behavior and speak up when racism occurs in our presence, align with people of color on issues that they find important, support strong voices in these communities, and become one in your own. It’s important that we shame those who say the shameful, and lift up those who carry our generation into a better place.
Listen and learn to become the best proponent of change that you can – and you will.