Things You Need To Understand #4
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White Privilege exists whether you know it, acknowledge it, or understand it. Any attempts to convince me that you, a white person, don’t have White Privilege will result in laughter, mockery, and possibly a beat down.
It is a given that, whenever I engage in debate with a white person and mention privilege, the white person in question gets all upset. “I do NOT have privilege!” they say, and then begin to tell the story of their poor, rural upbringing or something. I think this reaction stems from two sources. Firstly, White Liberal Guilt, which I have written about before. Secondly, a misunderstanding of the word ‘Privilege’.
When most people hear Privilege or are referred to as Privileged their mind immediately thinks of economic privilege: people who are rich, or are born rich, who have a leg up in society or get by because their parents have a famous name or something. Paris Hilton is an example of that kind of privileged person. Most white people are not like Paris Hilton, nor would I suggest that they are. That would be cruel.
What they don’t realize is that economic privilege is only one kind of privilege. When I speak of White Privilege, I am not speaking of economics (though they may come into play based on the individual), I am speaking of unearned advantages one has because one is born White. That’s not the only kind of Privilege there is, of course. Another I’m very familiar with is Heterosexual Privilege.
Many people who are smarter and more erudite than I have explained White Privilege, so I will turn this post over to their words. Excerpted of course, so be sure to click on the links and read the full text. This post is required reading for anyone who wishes to engage me in any debate on White Privilege or who insists that it doesn’t exist (or it doesn’t exist for you).
If you blog about white privilege, you’re probably sick to death of people playing the “white trash” card in your comments. Their argument usually goes something like this:
- “Being white didn’t give me all these privileges you’re talking about.”
- “I know plenty of [minority] people who are better off than I am.”
- And the advanced version, which I’m guilty of using myself: “It’s really more about class than it’s about race.”
Yes, I have a legitimate grievance against the system. Yes, I’ve lost out on things because I didn’t have the $20 to invest or know the magic social password that would have marked me “normal” (read: “middle class, preferably white”). And yes, it hurts when you don’t fit in with your own race because of your class, and you don’t fit in with your class because of your race. It’s hard to see privilege around that stuff, but the examples are out there.
My approach has always been to look at all the types of privilege that affect an individual. Take me, for example. I have white privilege and heterosexual privilege and able-bodied privilege working for me; I have class privilege and male privilege working against me. In the case of poor whites, the class privilege often takes more from them than the white privilege gives them (i.e., the college admissions board prefer my skin color, but if I can’t somehow pay tuition, I’m not getting in). In my personal experience, white privilege may be a total bust, and I have the right to feel that way: I do not have the right to muddy a discussion of white privilege with all my anti-privileges. But before I learned to separate the types of privilege, I’m afraid I probably did that once or twice. Not in the “minorities have it so easy” tone that marks one type of troll; I just couldn’t figure out which part of this stuff I wasn’t getting.
The more privileged you are, the easier it is to envision human beings as pure individuals, unconnected to other individuals in any way that matters.
It sometimes puzzles conservatives that progressives are so concerned with what people think. What is racism, sexism, homophobia, etc, after all, other than a way some people think about some other people? And as long as I’m free to pursue my own self-interest, what does it matter what others think of me?
For someone with a lot of privilege, the rational answer is, “it doesn’t matter at all.” The more privileged you are, the less other people’s thoughts count. You go into a store, and you buy what you want, or you don’t buy. You don’t have to worry about what the store clerks think of you – what could matter less?
To someone with a lot of privilege, what strangers think is irrelevant. To someone in a less privileged position, what strangers think of you determines what kind of access you get to the complex network of relationships that make up our society and our economy. When strangers often think less of you because of your sex or race, you have less access to the material benefits of our society and economy.
Of course, everyone – regardless of race and sex – will hit occasional bumps on the road. And everyone, white men included, has put out some sort of effort to get where they got. But when the folks on the smoother road go faster and further, let’s not pretend it’s because they’re better drivers.
To truly understand a nation, a culture, or its people, it helps to know what they take for granted.
After all, sometimes the things that go unspoken are more powerful than the spoken word, if for no other reason than the tendency of unspoken assumptions to reinforce core ways of thinking, feeling and acting, without ever having to be verbalized (and thus subjected to challenge) at all.
What’s more, when people take certain things for granted, anything that goes against the grain of what they perceive as “normal” will tend to stand out like a sore thumb, and invite a hostility that seems reasonable, at least to those dispensing it, precisely because their unspoken assumptions have gone uninterrogated for so long.
Thus, every February I encounter people who are apoplectic at the thought of Black History Month, and who insist with no sense of irony or misgiving that there should be no such thing, since, after all, there is no White History Month–a position to which they can only adhere because they have taken for granted that “American history” as told to them previously was comprehensive and accurate, as opposed to being largely the particular history of the dominant group.
In other words, the normalcy of the white narrative, which has rendered every month since they popped out of their momma’s wombs White History Month, escapes them, and makes the efforts of multiculturalists seem to be the unique break with an otherwise neutral color-blindness.
Sometimes it can be difficult, having a conversation with those whose political views are so diametrically opposed to one’s own.
But even more challenging, is having a discussion with someone who simply refuses to accept even the most basic elements of your worldview. At that point, disagreement is less about the specifics of one or another policy option, and more about the nature of social reality itself.
This is what it can be like sometimes, when trying to discuss the issue of white privilege with white people. Despite being an obvious institutionalized phenomenon to people of color and even some whites, white privilege is typically denied, and strongly, by most of us.
Denying one’s privileges is, of course, nothing if not logical. To admit that you receive such things is to acknowledge that you are, at some level, implicated in the process by which others are oppressed or discriminated against. It makes fairly moot the oft-heard defense that “I wasn’t around back then, and I never owned slaves, or killed any Indians,” or whatever.
If one has reaped the benefits of those past injustices (to say nothing of ongoing discrimination in the present) by being elevated, politically, economically and socially above persons of color, for example — which whites as a group surely have been thanks to enslavement, Indian genocide and Jim Crow — then whether or not one did the deed becomes largely a matter of irrelevance.
Of course, what is ultimately overlooked is that denial of one’s privilege itself manifests a form of privilege: namely, the privilege of being able to deny another person’s reality (a reality to which they speak regularly) and suffer no social consequence as a result.
“I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”
I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are overprivileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to women’s statues, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials that amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages that men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened, or ended.
As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.
I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks.
I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life.
1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
As I said, these are only excerpts. You really should read all of these pieces. And you really need to understand that you do have White Privilege if you are White. The question before you is: What are you going to do about it?
Tags: White Privilege What is White Privilege? Privilege