(For those who don’t like to read, you can watch this brilliant lecture by author Tim Wise)
While in undergrad, I took this amazing class called Multi-Cultural Education (a.k.a. EDLF 5000). The class, headed by professor Robert Covert, operated under the premise that in order to create a better society, we first have to become aware of both institutional and our own individual prejudices, biases, etc. While most people are directly or indirectly educated about institutional “isms”, we are often unaware to the ways in which we benefit from these institutional isms if we are in the positions of power (white, male, rich, heterosexual, etc.), and even more so, we are admittedly oblivious of how we discriminate against others on an everyday-individual basis. Awareness makes these isms more tangible, and provides us with the ability to make a conscious decision to whether or not we want to change as a person.
In class, we touched one a multitude of isms: racism, colorism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, beauty-ism, etc. Throughout the semester, students had very engaged, healthy, open discussion on each issue of concern. However, the topics that sparked the most charged debates were heterosexism (in regards to LGTBQ-phobia) and racism.
Something interesting happened when we talked about racism. Racism was a hotbed for discussion in the class over the rest of the isms, because it affected the majority of the classroom.
When we talked about institutional racism (things more obvious like segregated water fountains, hate groups, slavery, etc.), the conversation had a collective synergy to it. Most statements were met with agreement, and there were no large disputes, if any. Racism, bad. Racial acceptance, good. We held hands, rainbows, unicorns, etc.
But when we started to talk about racism on an individual level, an underlying tension arose. The issue that got many of my white classmates on the defensive was the idea of “white privilege”.
White privilege is defined as an empirically identifiable imbalance of power, where whiteness (in actuality or in performance) gives an individual certain privileges that other races don’t get, and protects against certain prejudices that other races incur.
Some white students felt that white privilege did not exist, while others went further and deemed it to be reverse racism. In order to tangibly show that white privilege is real, Bob (Prof. Covert) had the class read Associate Director of the Wellesley College Center for Research for Women Peggy Macintosh’s list in her article on the subject. Her list gives practical, everyday instances of white (and male) privilege. He then had us do an exercise where we checked off instances on the list. The more items you checked off, the more privileges you had, and what we found was that on average, white students checked out many more items than their minority counterparts.
After the exercise, many of my white classmates who didn’t see how white privilege could be true recanted their initial defenses and acknowledged its presence. However, there were still quite a few who still believed that white privilege was not true.
With this article, I wanted to try to explain to those students and to the readers of my blog why white privilege is real. There are three common conceptual hurdles that I have seen in which people who deny white privilege will have to get pass before they realize that this idea is not some “reverse racism” abstraction:
1) “White privilege isn’t real because that is not my experience”
Many white people who feel that white privilege is a fallacy assert that, in their life experience, the fact that they are white did not help them in any shape or form). People do not treat them, nor do they treat others differently, based on race.
This, my friends, is almost the exact quintessence of what white privilege is.
Professor at Washington State University David Leonard stated “Talking about my experience is the ultimate privilege in reducing a conversation about race to a conversation about oneself”.
What he meant is the ability to reduce a conversation on race to personal experience (on the premise that his experience is normal or a matter of reality, while that of minorities is periphery or matter of perception), is disproportionately a privilege afforded to him as a white male (the two most powerful demographics in society).
Prof. Leonard said this to combat those who perpetuate the notion that minorities only “perceive” things to be racist, and racial discrimination or disparities only exist because minorities choose to see themselves as unequal, and then act accordingly. And like the professor, most people understand why that idea is reasonably untrue.
A great example that illustrates my point is my experience with the police. I remember a time in elementary school when I was hanging out with friends and police officer asked one of my friends if I (the only black person in the group) was bothering them or trying to sell them any drugs. Just a year ago, my Phrat brother and I were putting flyers promoting our chapter’s Winter Ball in the windows of cars. A police officer yelled what are you guys doing and for us to get our hands out of our pockets. Since we both were wearing black hoodies at the time (a signifier to him that we may be criminals), and I have heard enough stories about black males getting shot because an officer mistook objects pulled from their pockets (in this case, the flyers) to be a gun, I told the officer I was going to pull out my hands slowly. The officer immediately shined his flashlight in my eyes, pointed his gun squarely at my face while yelling “Take your hands out of your pocket now!”, only to mutter a relieved “…oh” when all I pulled out were flyers. And just a few weeks ago, two of my friends, a videographer, and I were coming back from filming a music video, when an officer pulled up as we walked to the sidewalk to “make sure we (my two friends and I, who are black) were not messing with him (the white videographer)”. She then told my friend Zach “don’t be a smart ass” when he asked her what was the problem.
Now, in any of these three situations, how would I have been treated differently (holding all other variables the equal) if I were white? Do these situations even happen if I was white? If I was white, would these occurrence likely to be parts of my experience? And lastly, could I have just perceived these things in a different way?
2) The “why do I have to apologize for being white?” narrative
This one is the one that makes me want to scream “THAT’S NOT THE POINT!”
Anyone who asks another person to apologize for being the race they are is probably a bigot. But that’s not the issue. The issue and basis for the idea of white privilege is that white people have privileges that are given to them (whether they are aware or not) based on their race (an attribute they did not to choose or work to obtain).
Example of this type of white privilege is Eminem. Eminem is arguably the greatest rapper ever (at least in terms of technical ability). No one within the hip hop community can deny Eminem’s immense lyrical genius and dexterity.
But doesn’t he owe a major part of his success (to whatever degree) to the fact that he is white?
Of course. Does that take away from the fact that Eminem is incredibly talented? No. Without trying to give an overly nuanced, intellectual reasoning of why this is so, the simple explanation is: Eminem is white. Most of the people who buy rap albums are white, therefore Eminem has a wider audience than someone who is not white. It really is that simple.
I’m sure his audiences don’t have racist motives when they buy his albums or go to his shows. Eminem is simply demographically part of the majority, so the majority is more likely to identify with him (Dr. Dre even admitted that though he was initially drawn to Eminem because of his skills as an emcee, he was also drawn to Em’s marketability as a great white rapper). No one is asking Em to apologize for being white, and likewise, the admittance of white privilege is not contingent on an apology.
3). “White privilege makes it sound like I’m a racist, but I’m not a racist!”
While justified to an extent (some people throw the racist card too quickly at white people), this logic crumbles under the fact that even in light of not being a racist, as a white person, you can still benefit from by racism.
One example would be segregation. In the 1950s, drinking at the “whites only” fountain wouldn’t automatically make a white person a racist. But nonetheless in this instance, they benefitted from racism. Another example, is minorities used to not be able to go to college. That means that some of my white counterparts may have a lineage of well over a century of college educated family members. You can see how their family has a head-start in comparison. That doesn’t make my white friends racist, but it does show how they benefitted from racism. Living in an all white neighborhood doesn’t automatically make you racist, but your property value benefits from racism.
In all these cases, you as a person didn’t do anything racist. And yet, you still benefitted from it.
Now I do want to note that benefits aren’t always direct. Just because you are white doesn’t mean you will be showered with the good life. To construe privilege as being only about material luxury would be misleading. Sometimes it is more indirect, in the sense that being white helps you because it doesn’t hurt you in the same way being a minority can.
Let me give you an example: look at media depictions about criminality along racial lines. If I say the words drug dealer, most people will assume I’m talking about a black man. This makes sense, since in news media, black criminality (especially on a local level) is portrayed at higher levels than white criminality. Also, in the entertainment industry, a drug dealer is more likely to be casted by a black actor in a show, movie, etc. And black rappers rhyme about selling drugs all the time.
But despite these depictions, statistics show that white males are many times more likely to both sell, and use drugs harder than marijuana than black males. So why is there this disconnect between perception and reality?
In both cases for each example, the crime is the same, but the representation is different. Racism is a factor in why these representations are different. And we all know representation is a big factor in how communities are policed. Police are more likely to patrol a minority neighborhood than a majority white one, on the premise that minorities commit more crime (even though aside from crimes like gang-related gun violence, most crimes are not location specific). One 2004 Department of Justice study showed that black and latino males are three times more likely to be pulled over in search for drugs, even though white males are four and a half times more likely to actually have drugs in the rare instances they are stopped.
This is just one of many examples that shows how someone (in this case, media outlets) can do racist things without explicitly ascribing to being racist, and how as a white person, you can benefit (even when doing bad things) from the discrimination of other racial groups.
The take away points is that white privilege is real, despite the “the minority who cried racist” connotation dissenters add to it.
But the key is this:
No one is asking you to apologize for being white. But simply being aware of the privileges that you have from being apart of Americas top power demographic will help you put the lives of others unlike you in a better context. It gives you a brief insight into something that minorities in America go through every day of their lives.
Also, there are many types of privileges: male privilege, heterosexual privilege, American privilege, Christian privilege, etc. White privilege is just one of many on the list.
Lastly, I understand you do not want to be called a racist, especially if you are not one. It’s unfair and problematic. But the reason some people will call you one is because they assume that you aren’t actually oblivious or naive to white privilege, you just frankly don’t care about the plight of minorities. Just because you, as a white person, are not a racist personally doesn’t mean you do not or cannot benefit from institutionalized racism, discrimination, bigotry, bias, etc. So now that you know it is true (or at least know that others assert that it is true), don’t be too surprised when someone lays the racist card on the table if you claim it to be false.
So that’s white privilege. Hopefully this exposition can help foster healthier conversation about race. I don’t think these talks should be forced, but I do think they should happen, and when they do happen, the productive ones are the ones in which both parties come into with a shared background of context and transparency.
We Out Here,
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Joshua Adams is a journalist, writer, and music producer from Chicago, IL. He studied English and African American Studies at the University of Virginia, and is currently attending the University of Southern California, working towards a masters in Journalism.