A lot of people, yes white ones [like me], switch off when we hear the term ‘white privilege’ [please don’t!].
Some people, yes white ones, get angry when we hear the term ‘white privilege’ [please don’t!].
But I sometimes wonder if it is because of a misunderstanding of what people who talk about ‘white privilege’ mean when they do so.
So please take a deep breath and try and approach this piece with fresh eyes [forget what you think white privilege is and see if what I am suggesting it might be is something worth engaging with] knowing that this will at the very most scrape the top of what is a deep and wide barrel. Because I am a white male and live in South Africa I believe it is essential for me to try and understand something of this description of ‘white privilege’ that follows.
So let’s look at a couple of official definitions:
“White privilege (or white skin privilege) is the set of societal privileges that white people benefit from beyond those commonly experienced by people of colour in the same social, political, or economic spaces (nation, community, workplace, income, etc.). [Wikipedia]”
“White privilege has been defined as unearned advantages of being White in a racially stratified society, and has been characterized as an expression of institutional power that is largely unacknowledged by most White individuals.” [Neville, Worthington, & Spanierman, 2001]”
I feel like the term and the idea of ‘White Privilege’ is one that is too complex to explain simply, but at the same time, that it is really helpful that we try to come to at least some understanding…
I feel like this cartoon does a good job of depicting the problem. People who benefit from ‘White Privilege’ tend to have an easier path through life or some area or aspect of life, whereas those who are not white have the odds stacked against them to varying degrees and extents. When you are a circle and have made it easily through a hole that is circular, you tend to expect things to be as easy for everyone else, not necessarily noticing or realising what the same task might mean to someone of a different shape.
I asked some people for their definitions or understandings of ‘White Privilege’ and this is what they said:
Andrew Enslin: I see white privilege as the belief that 20 years of a 60/40 relationship makes up for over 40 years of apartheid.
Alexa Russell Matthews: White Priv Def: The things in life that I only know I have once i realise that my friends of different colours don’t assume that they have, or have a reaction to which my peers and I don’t always understand…
Susannah Prinz: this probably won’t work in the context where you are now and it’s not the exact question you are asking, but since you were just in this fair city i’ll share anyway: one easy example that sums up my white privilege? even though i am in the ethnic minority on the street/neighborhood where i live (being white), i can fairly assume that if i ever break minor traffic, etc laws, i will not get a second glance from a police officer…much less be pulled over, harassed, ticketed or worse. why do i think that? not from my car- which is old. not from my flawless driving- because i drive way too east oakland around here. simply because i am a white woman. (and in addition, i have absolutely *no* fear that i would be pulled over or stopped by a law officer without legitimate reason.) i could list a lot more reasons, but that’s one that instantly comes to mind.
Lara Harler Lahr: System if advantage based on race
Gayle Evers: White privilege is like being right-handed. You live in a world subtly and not-so-subtly geared to accommodate your needs, while completely ignoring the existence of others.
If you have a bit of time to dig a little deeper into this, then I would encourage you to read these three articles that came out of Stanford which look at the same concept from very different sides that I shared a little about in my post titled, ‘I will not apologise for my white privilege’ a while ago.
For those who have less time, this cartoon will give some idea of one clear way in which ‘White Privilege’ manifests in the world today.
I saw a similar idea demonstrated on a picture that read, ‘If we discover that the Boston Bomber is white, no-one is going to go around saying, ‘All whites are terrorists.’ White Privilege.
Or perhaps this one shows it even more blatantly:
The language we [and the media] use to describe events can demonstrate the effects of ‘White Privilege’ on a nation. The guy with ‘White Privilege’ is described as ‘misunderstood’ despite the horrific things he did, whereas the black guy is described as a criminal despite the horrific things that were done to him. If you change the pictures across and attribute the opposite thing to each person, then just imagine what description will be used to describe what went down.
White Privilege. Knowing you will be treated better, viewed better, granted less or no suspicion, given the benefit of the doubt…
It is so important for us white people to realise that as the big fish in this picture, we are more likely to view the world as a just place, because we don’t experience the same things that those without the privilege do. We might also be guilty of minimalising the genuine concerns/grievances of those without the privilege we have, by comparing things which are not equal to begin with, like in this picture:
The point of ‘White Privilege’ is that you started with a loaded deck. The playing fields between myself as a white person and the majority of black people did not start level.
By being born into the family I was, I gained privilege.
By living in the area I live, I gained privilege.
By going to the school I was able to go to, I gained privilege.
And so on…
Admitting to White Privilege is not saying that I was personally responsible for apartheid and need to feel bad about that for the rest of my life. It is acknowledging that because I was born at the time I was born, when apartheid was still rampant in South Africa, that I had an easier passage through life in many respects [at least in terms of opportunities and treatment].
This blog post by Manic Pixie Dream Mama, written in the aftermath of the Ferguson chaos that resulted after a young black man [Mike Brown, see above] was shot, is worth having a read as I think she explains it really well:
“To admit white privilege is to admit a stake, however small, in ongoing injustice. It’s to see a world different than your previous perception. Acknowledging that your own group enjoys social and economic benefits of systemic racism is frightening and uncomfortable. It leads to hard questions of conscience may of us aren’t prepared to face. There is substantial anger: at oneself, at the systems of oppression, and mostly at the bearer of bad news, a convenient target of displacement. But think on this.”
She goes on to list a number of things her young white sons will get to do or be when they grow up [with links to actual stories of where black youth were involved and it went the other way] and some of those include the following [As a helpful exercise, why don’t you read this list out loud to yourself, saying the phrase ‘White Privilege’ after each one]:
“Clerks do not follow my sons around the store, presuming they might steal something.
“Their normal kid stuff – tantrums, running, shouting – these are chalked up to being children, not to being non-white.
“People do not assume that, with three children, I am scheming to cheat the welfare system.
“When I wrap them on my back, no one thinks I’m going native, or that I must be from somewhere else.
“When my sons are teenagers, I will not worry about them leaving the house. I will worry – that they’ll crash the car, or impregnate a girl, or engage in the same stupidness endemic to teenagers everywhere.
“They will walk together, all three, through our suburban neighborhood. People will think, Look at those kids out for a walk. They will not think, Look at those punks casing the joint.
“People will assume they are intelligent. No one will say they are “well-spoken” when they break out SAT words. Women will not cross the street when they see them. Nor will they clutch their purses tighter.
“My boys can grow their hair long, and no one will assume it’s a political statement.
“No one will stop and frisk my boys because they look suspicious.”
She ends her post with three lines that flip this whole thing on its head. And while this is a story specific to Americaland, there is enough of an overlap for us to learn its lessons here as well:
“For a mother, white privilege means your heart doesn’t hit your throat when your kids walk out the door. It means you don’t worry that the cops will shoot your sons.
“It carries another burden instead. White privilege means that if you don’t school your sons about it, if you don’t insist on its reality and call out oppression, your sons may become something terrifying.
“Your sons may become the shooters.”
I’m not sure I’ve done a great job in unpacking what ‘White Privilege’ is, but hopefully this will give some of us some more stuff to think about. I am hoping that one or two other friends of mine will write their own piece so that we can engage and learn together.
If hearing the phrase ‘White Privilege’ makes you angry or frustrated and you want to respond by blocking your ears or running away or starting an argument, take a moment and ask yourself why that is. Is it because the conversations on ‘White Privilege’ should really not be happening? Or is it possibly because of the realisation that if this stuff is true, then there is still a lot more work to be done. Don’t be like the toilet door people.