White privilege, and what we’re supposed to do about it

The case of Trayvon Martin’s death has sparked a national conversation around race. People seem to be polarized in their reactions to the recent verdict, and as such I’d love to avoid more conjecture on that in this post. Rather, I really want to explore some questions about white privilege, since that is a term that has been widely used in the past week, and hopefully shed some light on what it means and what, exactly, we white folk are supposed to do about it.

White privilege is a difficult concept. It can cause a lot of confusion and defensiveness. In the diversity class I teach to graduate students, this topic is more heated than any other topic we touch on. Similarly, this week I’ve seen people pushing back against the idea of white privilege as if it’s an indictment that they are a racist (it’s not.) I even watched a blogger (who is white) criticize my friend Kelly (who is black) for her suggestion that people confront their white privilege. The blogger suggested that Kelly called white people “white supremacists” . . . as if “white privilege” and “white supremacists” were interchangeable terms (they’re not.) Confusion abounds when we talk about white privilege, and I think it’s confusion that often leads to offense at the term.

Simply put, privilege refers to an unearned advantage. It usually refers to something inherent . . . something you were born with rather than something you worked for. There are many types of privilege: economic privilege, gender privilege, heterosexual privilege, and of course . . . racial privilege. Racial privilege can take many forms, from minor things to life-threatening things. White privilege can look like being able to grab some shampoo at the grocery store and being confident they carry products for your hair type. White privilege can look like being able to find a band-aid that matches your skin tone. White privilege can look like waling through an upscale residential neighborhood without anyone wondering what you are doing there. White privilege can look like wearing a baseball cap and baggy pants and no one assuming you are a criminal.

At it’s essence, it’s a simple concept:white privilege refers to the both minor and significant advantages that white people hold in American society. But still, people seem to struggle with both believing it exists and figuring out what to do with it. Here are some of the questions I often hear asked about white privilege:

I had a hard time growing up, too. We’ve all had hardships.
Of course we have. The concept of white privilege does not deny individual hardships. Hardships can be circumstantial, they can be born into, they can be at our own doing, or they can be outside of our control. Some hardships, for some people, are related to race, and those who haven’t experienced those particular race-related hardships hold white privilege. That doesn’t negate the hardships others have faced because racial privilege refers only to race.. It doesn’t mean that people haven’t experienced difficulty. Nor do the hardships not related to race negate the very real discrimination some people have faced.

I have a black friend who was raised with way more privilege so how can I be the privileged one?
Again, white privilege only reflects racial privilege. It’s possible for people of other races to hold other kinds of privilege. They don’t negate it either. . .  we’re not playing oppression olympics. When we ignore one form of privilege because another exists, we’re being dismissive. The fact that I’m white does not mean that I don’t sometimes experience sexism. That fact that a black person was born to a well-off family doesn't mean they never experience racism. Imagine going to your boss to complain about sexual harassment, and being told that it shouldn't bother you because you have a nice corner office.  When we deny white privilege exists because there are other forms of privilege, we are deflecting a very real issue for some people.

What do they want me to do?
I think that the biggest reason people refuse to acknowledge that there may be some privilege inherent in being white is the fear that it means they owe someone something. I've seen a lot of people this week push back against the idea that white privilege exists for political reasons . . . but this isn't a political or legal concept. I can’t speak for all minorities but for most people I know, the biggest thing they want from me is for me to LISTEN. To hear what their experience is like. To believe them when they describe their own experience. 

There is nothing threatening about acknowledging your privilege. Being more empathetic to the experiences of others is not a sacrifice to anyone's politics.

Am I supposed to feel guilt for stuff I didn’t do?
White privilege is not a value judgment. It’s not meant to be hurled as an insult or use as something to invoke guilt. On the contrary, I think it’s guilt that often compels people to deny that discrimination exists. I’ve seen a few folks make comments about white privilege that infer that it’s a made-up concept by liberals to add more white guilt on ourselves. But self-loathing is not the goal. It’s possible to have a healthy self-concept and racial identity while acknowledging the imbalance of racial privilege. A part of self-worth is acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses. In my experience, bullying and abuse is usually perpetrated by people with a low sense of self. So I think it’s valuable for white Americans to identify what it means to be white: what they like about their own culture and values, and what they want to change.

The only aspect of white privilege that should invoke guilt is if you decide that because you don’t experience racism, that you don’t have to listen or care when other people do.

Owning my white privilege means that I am more empathetic, but it also means I can use my privilege to talk about race without being accused of “playing the race card” for self-interest. A person’s political leanings should not effect the empathy and listening ear they extend to others. Similarly, a person’s race should not dictate whether or not they believe the experience of others . . . and allowing our seat at the Majority Table to cloud our empathy (or deny the experience of others) is the crux of what white privilege is about. What to do about it? Start with listening.

To learn more about white privilege, I really recommend reading this insightful checklist from Peggy McIntosh about “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack”.
What is your reaction to the term “white privilege”? Is it confusing . . . comforting . . . guilt-inducing? Do you think it’s politically loaded? Is so, why?

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