Tag Archives: social justice

It’s Not Luck; It’s Privilege

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.


Failure to Acknowledge

Pop quiz: What s the single biggest impediment to an alcoholic or any other kind of addict getting the help he or she needs to break the addiction?

I’m sure that most of you get an A on this quiz, because it’s pretty obvious to most people.

It’s the failure to admit that you have a problem to begin with. As long as an addict says, “I can quit any time I want” or “I’m not hurting anyone else” or any number of other excuses that minimize or deny there is an addiction, the person will not get help. Or if the person does, it will be help that does little or no good.

Maybe the person changes their ways slightly. Gets drunk less, for example. On the one hand, you could say it’s improvement, but is it really a good thing that the person is driving drunk only a third of the time now? That’s still potentially deadly, for the alcoholic and all the poor innocent bystanders. Or maybe the person only gets drunk and beats his or her children violently a quarter as often as before. Is that improvement? Yes. Is it good? No. Is it enough? No.

This is largely what has happened with racism. Too many people say things like, “Well, I don’t do anything racist” or “Slavery and Jim Crow is over and has been a long time.”

Those are good things, certainly. But did ending slavery end racist acts and policies? No. Ending Jim Crow didn’t do that either, as there are many ways to discriminate. Not hiring qualified workers or color simply because of their color. Arresting people of color more often and giving them harsher sentences than whites. Revitalizing white areas or making downtrodden areas attractive for white people and leaving impoverished areas to languish or forcing people of color out of the neighborhood to make room for the white people.

The cycle of privilege goes merrily on, and while there has been improvement, and continues to be in some areas, the basic problem remains: racism.

It remains in part because it can never truly be eradicated. But it flourishes quietly and continues to harm people of color in the United States because too many people live in denial of its existence and power.

People like Thordaddy, who once posted here before I banned him, and who posts at Big Man’s blog and other places. Heck, you can go to the comments of this post to see how he does exactly what I’m talking about (by the way, many of my own comments there are going to see revamping and repeating here, so if some of the rest of my post sounds familiar, you’re probably a visitor here and at Raving Black Lunatic, and I apologize for the repetition). He suggests (and sometimes has said outright) that because blacks have rights, and more than they did at one time, that racism is a myth, and that blacks are simply lying that racism is increasing and that their lives are as bad as in slave time.

First, I don’t know of many blacks who claim that things are just as bad as they were in slave times or Jim Crow. What they are saying is that a lot of bad things are going on, and some thing that were improving are now getting worse.

And it’s true. Because too many people claim that when things got better, the core problem vanished. It didn’t. And if you blithely ignore that the racism remains, you give it room to grow again, like a weed in an untended garden.

Failure to acknowledge racism is permission to let it grow.

Of course, the problem is that no one wants to be labeled a racist, as Big Man pointed out in his “Stigma” blog post.

Racism, as a word, is a pretty neutral one. Racism doesn’t mean evil in all cases. If I see an elderly female Asian behind the wheel of a car and assume she will be a bad driver, as I do about 90% of the time, that is racist. Is it evil? No? Does it harm her? No. But it is racist.

We’re all racist. The trouble is that so much baggage has been attached to the word that it is assumed to be a pejorative term. And so no one wants to acknowledge its pervasive power, lest the label be attached to them.

How do we get around that? As Big Man notes, he doesn’t know the answer.

Frankly, neither do I, and I don’t think there is a good answer, at least none that can be broadly applied. Because the answer is for whites to take a good long hard look at history and the current day and to recognize things like white privilege and inequity. Many aren’t willing to do that, because they don’t want to believe it exists, they are ashamed of the prospect, or whatever else.

But let’s say you get them to recognize such things exist.

Then they have to care. And recognition doesn’t always equal caring. Or at least not caring enough.

And if you’re someone who thinks privilege is totally normal and should be encouraged and continued, as Thordaddy does, then you you won’t want to have a society that is fair and based on merit and personal traits (rather than connections, skin color, etc.), and you won’t ever care. Instead, you will try to convince the gullible that racism is a myth and that it hurts no one anymore, simply because it no longer enslaves them or allows them to be lynched with impunity.

And frankly, even if your aren’t as bad as a Thordaddy and you’re simply scared (of losing jobs, of economy tanking, etc.), and you’re white, you might start to see things like equitable and fair treatment as threats, even if only on a subconscious basis. And if you do, you will want to narrow things like the definition of racism, or pretend it’s gone.

It’s all about education, and people are very selective about what they really want to learn. It requires more self-education than anything else, in order for it to be internalized and be productive, and people are even more selective about the knowledge and learning they will actively seek out.

As I noted, we’re all racist on some level, about someone or some group or something. It’s all levels and gradations, though. And some people’s racism has the power to do more harm than other people’s racism. But because many of us, of all colors, have lost the ability to treat the word racism neutrally and really talk about things openly, we get nowhere.

Racism had long since become a dirty word, and so people can’t see it as an accurate and useful word, and understand that it has gray areas and doesn’t equal “evil.”

There’s not making it a neutral word again. No chance of it. And if you pick a new word, the stigma eventually attached to that will make it a dirty word too, unless people are willing to learn and to grow.

People have to want to learn and see and understand and do better. They can only do that, I think, by continued exposure to one another and honest communication.

But I don’t have much hope for that in this age of Tweets and Facebook and niche discussion boards and hypersensitivity.

I fear we’ve lost our ability to discuss widely, and most of us now retreat to those places and groups where we don’t feel threatened.

I think about my own travels online and among people in real life (not simply the racial ones), and the problem is that so often, I will try to talk about real shit with folks, and then they get defensive, no matter how diplomatic or reasonable I try to be. No matter how hard I try to show that we’re both right and wrong about some things and that some things aren’t cut-and-dried. But it breaks down quickly, and the ability to have real discourse disintegrates.

All too often, I’ve been in discussions with agnostics, atheists, racists, liberals, conservatives, etc., and I can say things like, “hey, I see your point” or “yeah, you might be right about that” but they never budge on their own positions and never consider that their positions need adjustment (or so rarely that it might as well be “never.”)

Discussion is a two-way street and there needs to be give and take. But very few people are really willing to give…not even a little.

It’s very disheartening, and has led me to leave many online venues and to distance myself from people in real life because they only want to hear their own views parroted and supported and reinforced.

I’ve rarely been that way. Yes, there are core concepts that I hold strongly to, but I don’t hold any of them as sacrosanct because all of them rely on my own interpretations and filters, and I know that I can be wrong.

About race. About religion. About money. About politics.

But pride is a powerful thing. And so is fear.

And as long as we hold tightly to those things, and continue to fail in our ability to even acknowledge that a problem remains, we will never fix it.