“I don’t have white privilege–I worked hard for everything I have.”
It’s not uncommon to hear the argument from another white person that white privilege isn’t real. Some will deny it, claiming that they grew up poor in a house with eight hungry kids and never took a hand out. Some will say that they have never gotten a leg up in the world just for being white.
But the simple truth is: yes you have. We all have. Simply having ivory skin has given us privilege beyond most of our understanding. Not realizing it is in itself part of white privilege: not having to think about it because that is just always how it has been. You and I have always been treated like we were white, because that is our reality. We have never had to think about what it would be like to be Black. We have been shielded from racial issues, and that’s why so many white people will also say that racism is no longer an issue: because we have never experienced institutional racism.
This is not to say that white people don’t face hardships, or that we haven’t earned or don’t deserve where we are today. Some of us grew up poor. A few of us were born rich. Most of us have worked our tails off to land somewhere in the middle. White privilege does not mean that everything is handed to us on a silver platter. It doesn’t mean that you or I have had it easy and/or don’t deserve where we are today. What it does mean is that, as white people, we do not experience the racially motivated hardships that people of color do each and every day. No matter what our problems are–and they might be extensive–we have no idea what that feels like.
My life can be full of challenge and turmoil, but I still enjoy the privilege that inherently comes with having white skin. We all have axes to bear, but Black people and people of color have additional burdens.
I think why most people get confused about white privilege is because they equate it with privilege in general. White privilege refers to racial privilege — basically, that white-skinned people have advantages over dark-skinned people that occur due to institutional racism. There are other kinds of privilege, and Black people can enjoy those types of privilege if they fit the bill. For example, straight Black people with good educations, great jobs, and money in the bank will benefit from heterosexual and socioeconomic privilege.
But no matter how high they rise, they will always be Black. Some people will automatically assume that they got where they were only because of affirmative action laws. If they decide not to shower or shave and wear a hoodie shopping on their day off, they could be followed around the store by security. If their teenage sons get stopped by police for a traffic violation and appear confrontational, there is an exorbitantly higher rate that they will killed by that police officer than if their sons were white. By now, you have heard that Black mothers and fathers have to teach their children as young as seven and eight to not affirm their rights if questioned by police and that there are numerous things their white kids can wear or say or do that they can’t. (I will have to teach my own Black son this and it breaks my heart.)
At the end of the day, arguing over whether or not white privilege exists is a waste of time that would be so much better spent trying to relate to Black people or people of color. It’s called empathy. Let’s each of us, try to imagine what it’s like to walk a mile in their shoes. What would it feel like to be judged solely on the color of your skin? What if your resume was thrown away because your name was “too black?” What if your child had to grow up way too fast?
Think about other ways that you have benefitted–even subtly–by the fact that you have white skin. Turn on the TV or go to a movie–what color skin do you see reflected back at you? Which race is in all the marketing advertisements? What do these subtle messages tell you about yourself? Even small, seemingly inconsequential things like this are examples of white privilege.
White skin is held up as the ideal by our society and that leads to disadvantages for people of color. It’s as simple as that. We didn’t cause this, and we don’t knowingly contribute to it. There is no reason for white people to get offended by the term white privilege. No one wants us to apologize for simply being white, but the world will be better if we realize what it means and has meant today and throughout history. We don’t have control over the course of events that brought us to this point, but we do have control over where we go from here.
Take the time to open your eyes and you will see that white privilege is real. Do some research. A good place to start would be to read On Racism and White Privilege from the Southern Poverty Law Center, or What White Privilege Really Means from Slate, or even this blog post from Huffington Post called White Privilege Doesn’t Meant What You Think It Does.
Simply recognizing that white privilege exists is an important first step in creating true racial equality. Stay tuned for a series of posts on the ways I have been observing that I benefit from white privilege in my own life.