I was encouraged reading the comments of a diary that was recently on the rec list where many commenters identifying themselves as white showed understanding and empathy with regard to the daily struggle that African American’s still face to walk, talk, bike, purchase, drive, be heroic, be smart, be stupid, be arrested, not be arrested, have pets, and just plain be human while black.
I am also appreciative of the view expressed in some comments that all humans, regardless of race, should be treated with basic human dignity and that those who are, should not be viewed as “privileged”. Makes sense right? Well..sort of. Follow me below the jump if you think there might be something missing.
A couple of commenters offered the alternative term, “nonwhite encumbrance” to describe mistreatment of people of color because of race. This term is so cumbersome (pardon the pun) that it makes you wonder what the point of it would be. Most of the people willing to have this conversation already recognize the myriad ways that people of color are encumbered by racism and discrimination. In my opinion, that term adds nothing to the conversation whereas the term “white privilege” acknowledges much more than the standard humane treatment whites expect to and do receive simply because they are citizens of this country. Specifically, it acknowledges how mainstream cultural norms advantage whites, intentionally and unintentionally, to the detriment of people of color.
Based on the examples of "Nonwhite Encumbrance" presented in the comments (i.e. courteous interactions with the police), I can see how some people might argue that this shouldn’t be called “privilege” since everyone should be treated humanely by default. But just because certain types of abuse of people of color might fall into the "Nonwhite Encumbrance" category doesn’t mean that active white privilege doesn’t exist in the same way that say, class privilege exists.
What I think these commenters miss is that white privilege is NOT just about whites not being routinely subjected to the all the indignities, abuse, violence, etc. that people of color are individually and collectively subjected to because of race. Rather, white privilege encompasses interactions between and among whites themselves in the majority culture that go above and beyond simply being treated fairly. Like institutionalized racism, white privilege often operates systematically (i.e. without the conscious intent or effort by individuals) to advantage whites. Perhaps a more acceptable term to those who find “white privilege” offensive or inaccurate would be “white advantage”? However, like “nonwhite encumbrance", I suspect the term falls flat because it states the obvious and leaves out the subtleties connoted by "white privilege".
For example, every job interview that most African Americans will EVER experience will be a scenario where they have very little in common, culturally, with the person or group of people interviewing them. Can you honestly say that this is case for most whites? Even if the interviewee and interviewer have vastly different lifestyle choices or political and religious views, this is not something that is immediately and glaringly obvious to the person conducting the interview. Now, in no way am I saying that conscious or unconscious racism is a part of every interview, although in some cases it certainly is. I am simply saying that when you are only twelve percent of the population and you have the history that we have in this country, it is a fact that every job interview for an African American where the interviewer is white (i.e. all but one I've had in my 46 years) carries an additional stress. Job interviews are stressful enough without them also being a “cultural” encounter with someone whose views about black people might be entirely second hand.
In other words, African Americans must constantly interact with, and often get to know personally, countless whites throughout their lives. We have authentic opportunities to know them as individuals and human beings with positive and negative qualities and to form opinions about the content of their individual characters by direct and constant interactions with them. This is NOT true of millions of white Americans, particularly those living outside major urban areas. We can argue about whether or not that is a privilege or an encumbrance for whites in a different diary that I hope someone else will write.
Returning to the job interview scenario, consider furthermore that I, as an African American, may not even get to the interview stage since so many positions are filled through “networking”. And I don’t mean just high level positions. I mean so and so’s brother’s cousin’s fiancé’s niece got the job. Given the segregated nature of many communities as well as the sheer scarcity of blacks in some parts of the country, this is likely a bigger problem than outright racism. And I am not talking about nepotism. In many cases, black people are just not in the network, not on the radar. For white progressives born and bred in urban America it might be hard to fathom what I am saying but the rest of you know what I’m talking about.
Should a white person feel guilty about this? NO! Is it their fault that they are in the majority and may live somewhere where people of color are exotic entities? NO! White guilt is neither accurate nor helpful! Should whites be aware of this and ponder the implications? YES!!!. Why? Because it might assist you to better understand discussions about racism, affirmative action, profiling, and what many of us call "white privilege" so as to be in a better position to take corrective action.
Other places where the dynamics of white privilege are present for people of color include most other public and financial spaces and activities such apartment or house hunting, car loan applications, hotel stays, libraries, school classrooms and anywhere else where humans interact. Setting aside outright racism, many decisions are made based on who you feel comfortable with. That is, who does the decision maker FEEL comfortable with. Who can they more readily relate to? What does a hard worker look like? Treating everyone fairly is difficult when you don't even know you are biased. Not everyone is reflective and self-critical.
White Privilege is also about black people subconsciously internalizing, or worse yet consciously embracing, negative mainstream views about themselves.
A black teacher who has to remind herself that the white students are not automatically smarter than the black ones.
Little black girls who prefer to play with the white doll over the black doll.
The fact that many black people agree with mainstream society that lighter skin and straighter hair is more beautiful.
Black politicians who agree with negative memes about black people's work ethic.
Yes, white privilege incorporates a great deal of cognitive dissonance on everyone's part.
These dynamics are also present in ways that may seem trivial or even funny at first glance like trying to find hair and skin products if you don’t live in a big city, to the beige color crayon in the Crayola box being called “flesh,” to the fact that it just didn’t occur to white school administrators that treating black students “equally” by requiring them to swim every day for weeks in the winter in Chicago in P.E. class would present all kinds of hair and skin problems for the black students (my mother for example). Attack on human dignity? No. Racism? No. Just the default setting. Rinse, repeat.
People, when you ARE the default setting because you are the large majority, when your health issues, skin, hair and body type, language and speaking patterns, food choices, learning styles, etc., etc., etc. are the default setting…OR When you live in white America instead of black America - that is an unearned PRIVILEGE granted you at birth and if you believe in equality and human rights you might make efforts to understand how not recognizing that privilege can do harm.
One poster mentioned the great analogy of life being a role playing game where “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting. It doesn’t ONLY mean that the game was intentionally rigged for straight white males of property from the beginning, which was indeed the case at our nation’s founding. It also means that once the game is rigged, if no one does anything else, it will stay rigged and unfair advantages will be reinforced systematically (think generational poverty).
By now I am sure you’ve picked up the fact that I believe the term “White Privilege” is an accurate descriptor of a real phenomenon. At the same time I recognize that it provokes strong reactions from proponents and detractors and that this can be divisive. However, I believe that people who prefer using other terms don’t only disagree with the term "white privilege" on semantic grounds but that they also view the phenomenon itself differently, and perhaps don’t agree that the examples I provided above constitute white privilege. If that is the case, then we'll agree to disagree. I will also take this opportunity to reiterate the value of these kinds of conversations and even of debating the appropriateness of the terminology we use to characterize consequences and facets of racism, past and present.
I’ll end by recounting a personal experience that may or may not help to further illustrate my point but which I think belongs in this diary. I grew up in lower working class neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago and VERY rarely ever came into contact with black people who were middle class. The only middle class blacks I knew about were highly educated doctors, lawyers, etc. I naturally assumed that the middle class white lifestyle I saw on TV or in my infrequent travels during daylight hours through white neighborhoods (en route to somewhere else) were the domiciles of highly educated doctors, lawyers, business owners, etc. I didn’t realize until I was an adult that millions and millions of white Americans lived comfortable middle class existences boasting nothing more than a high school education (and a public education at that). My black friends and family always thought that to be middle class meant that you were EXCEPTIONAL. Because that is what it meant for us.
It wasn’t until later that I learned that for most of white America, living the American Dream was viewed as normal and attainable and AVERAGE, because it truly was attainable by them.
I’m stopping now, not because I don’t have more to say, but because I find this topic very difficult to write about and suppose it must also be difficult to read and think about in more than bite sized pieces.
Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 12:01 AM PT: Wow! From rescued to the rec list. I am humbled.