This morning, I had a brief but enlightening talk with my wife (Black Girl in Maine…check her out at her blog and on Twitter) about privilege. White privilege. Except that it began by being about “luck.”
Now, first off, let’s be clear: After being in a relationship with a black woman for around 20 years, the vast majority of those married—and having a couple of biracial kids (which really means black kids, because society isn’t going to treat them “half white”)—the existence of white privilege has not gone unnoticed by me. I know I have it, even if I don’t use it to its full potential, and I see white privilege in action everywhere, every day, all around me. If you’re non-white, you don’t need to remind me it’s there; if you’re white, don’t try to tell me it doesn’t exist.
But I learned something new today—something that even my wife herself hadn’t been able to pinpoint until now: It’s kind of insulting to black people (as well as a diminishing how screwed-up American society is about race) to say, as a white person, that you are “lucky” or “fortunate” not to have to deal with racism toward you on a constant basis.
No, you are privileged.
And there is a difference.
But more on that in a moment. First, a reminder: This “I’m lucky that my white child won’t have to worry about walking home from a store and being shot down by a police officer” and many, many similar sentiments have most recently arisen out of the chaos and pain recently in Ferguson, Missouri. While we don’t have video to give us a clear picture of what happened, all indications thus far lean toward the scenario that a white police officer got unnecessarily confrontational with two black youth, and when one of them (Michael Brown) attempted to surrender with hands raised, he got six bullets and a death sentence instead. Also, when the community protested and marched and had vigils, local police responded by yanking away their 1st Amendment rights to assemble and to exercise free speech and violated their 4th Amendment rights with all kinds of violations of personal space/property (including harassing a man for “violating curfew” when he was on his own lawn) and unlawful seizure (including raiding a church and taking supplies they were using to tend to protesters attacked by police). There were many needless arrests, and the police basically tear-gassed, terrorized and shot at the community while dressing up like an occupying military force.
But I digress (as I usually do).
The killing of yet another unarmed young black man by a white police officer, followed by the overblown police response toward the entire community of black residents, prompted a lot of white people to post selfies and messages online about how lucky they were that they didn’t have to worry about their children getting shot for walking home or going to visit someone. How they were fortunate to be able to march in protest over just about anything without being arrested. And so on.
The sentiment was sound and well-meaning. A show of recognition that things are not balanced and that non-whites tend not to get the full slate of rights and privileges that white Americans get. A sign of sympathy and solidarity across racial lines.
However, the use of words like lucky and fortunate skirt around the concept of privilege.
You see, even the most well-meaning white people often cringe at the term “white privilege.” They don’t want to think of most of the institutions and systems in the United States being inherently racist, because to do so is to admit complicity in some way in the perpetuation of that inequitable system that is slanted overwhelmingly toward white people in terms of law enforcement, the justice system, employment, education, housing, healthcare, banking, loans and so many other things. Even the most liberal white person who hates racism chafes many times about being called “privileged” and they respond, “I’m not privileged; I struggle to get by and get ahead, too.” And the people who don’t believe racism even is a problem anymore say that even more vociferously.
On an intellectual level, I understand this. Even people who actively treat non-whites badly often don’t want to be called racists. They often prefer “white pride supporters” or “white rights defenders” or something like that. Likewise, white people who don’t like racism and who operated in a society that privileges white people don’t want to be labeled as “privileged” because it makes them part of the problem.
Well, almost all of us white folks are part of the problem. Because we’re all privileged.
In terms of white privilege.
You see, white privilege doesn’t mean you don’t struggle. It doesn’t mean affluence. It means you have the advantages—almost all of them—relative to non-white people. It means that when you, as a white person, are pulled over by police, chances are that while you might be nervous and anxious, you know that unless you are drunk, high or very stoned, you will not be hauled off to jail. And you almost certainly don’t fret that you will be removed from your vehicle and assaulted.
As a white person, chances are that you have never been harassed for jaywalking. That you don’t get scrutinized and followed while shopping. That you don’t get passed over for interviews or loans because of your skin color. That you don’t have your credential and qualifications questioned when you do get a good job. And so on and so on and so on.
Basically, white privilege means being able to walk around and almost never have to think about your skin color unless potential sunburn is involved. To never have to wonder except in very rare circumstances whether your skin color caused you to be treated as less than worthy or even less than human. To not have to adapt yourself to the society around you in such a drastic way that you have to deny who you are and how you feel much of the time. And, you know, when you add heterosexual and/or male privilege, you get even more free run of society. White people rarely need any kind of unity rallies or pride events or things like that (except where gender and non-hetero sexual preference come into play) because they are allowed to be who they are all the time. We whites shouldn’t complain about why so many other groups have pride events—they need them to call attention to the injustices they suffer; most whites don’t need such events at all because they’re already ahead of the game.
Non-white people get to be concerned about how they are perceived, based on skin color alone (something they can’t hide ever), pretty much ever day—and they have to worry about being treated to micro-aggressions and sometimes overt harassment or violence on a regular basis.
That is what white privilege is about. A cocoon of relative comfort and safety where your skin color is concerned. A knowledge that overall, the systems will work for you often enough, usually pretty often, frequently most of the time and—for some—pretty much all the time. But it’s never a feeling that the entire society is designed to crush your spirit or make you the butt of demeaning/dehumanizing jokes or marginalize you.
So, it’s nice for you to acknowledge that as a white person, you (like me) will not have to experience many of the fears, abuses and sometimes horrors of being black in America. Or even light brown/tan or any other shade other than pink/white. That’s an important first step. Acknowledgement of the inequities.
Please realize, though, that you aren’t lucky that you don’t face racism every day.
You are lucky that you were born white; all that comes out from that is privilege.