“White privilege” can be complex to understand. There certainly seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about what it means.
And a lot of that misunderstanding I can appreciate.
For me, the phrase “white privilege” invokes images of royalty lounging about on Roman-style chairs – perhaps with someone feeding them grapes. Or, perhaps, it might conjure images of rich people sitting around drinking tea and speaking in fake British accents. You know, as they do.
For a long time, I couldn’t understand how “white privilege” might apply to me. That wasn’t my life. That wasn’t me.
I’ve had racial slurs used against me. I’ve had violence threatened against me. I have buried my true self out of fear. I have seen things I’d rather not share, and I have experienced things I’d fight like hell to prevent anyone else from experiencing.
So, I wouldn’t call myself privileged.
But, you see, that’s not what white privilege is about.
I grew up in a predominately black neighborhood. A neighborhood with drugs, and crime, and gun shots ringing out every night.
It wasn’t always easy, but I got by. And perhaps, more importantly, I got out.
I got a world class education at schools which weren’t in my district. At schools where kids didn’t carry knifes or guns. Where students weren’t denied access to computers for fear of theft or vandalism. At schools with enriching arts programs and science field trips. Schools which inspired students to think critically and to speak out against injustice.
And no one ever questioned my right to be there.
I had to hide myself in someways, perhaps, but I could hide myself.
The school district where I went to high school recently hired a private detective to investigate whether a a 2nd grade Latina girl was legitimately a resident of the city.
No one ever investigated me.
I went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, and I have been fortunate enough to build a wonderful, middle-class life.
I earned those things, yes, but – it was also easier for me to earn them because I am white.
And make no mistake, “easier” does not mean “easy.” It has been tough at times. I’ve had little handed to me.
But I have still benefited from a system that favors whiteness. The trajectory of my life has been profoundly impacted by the color of my skin.
I am well qualified for my work, of course, but studies show that employers tend to favor resumes from people with “white” sounding names.
How is that fair?
The answer is simple: It is not.
And the real thing is, living in a society that favors whiteness, that makes success more attainable for someone with my skin – well, that’s no a reason to cry reverse racism or to protest every time a thing doesn’t go my way.
Sure, we could fight over the scraps of a society that not only favors whiteness, but which also favors one gender, one sexual orientation, and prefers a certain sort of upbringing and sense of decorum.
But, if anything, the knowledge that being white has made my life easier…just makes me more angry and more committed to real justice.
If my life were the definition of easy, I sure as hell don’t want to see the definition of hard.
It is bad enough that so many people in our country live in poverty, are treated as second class citizens, or are otherwise discriminated against and oppressed. That basic inequity is terrible enough –
But it is unthinkable, conscionable, that there is a systemic regularity behind that inequity. In 2012, 28% of African Americans were living in poverty, compared to about 16% across all races. Black men are less likely to graduate from high school, and are more likely then their white peers to go to prison or to die from homicide.
That systemic, deep, persistent, inequity is the real horror here.
And that is what white privilege is.