What is “White Privilege?”

privilege

There is a video going viral of a 14 year old boy making an apology tour for “white privilege.”  The video shows a young middle school aged kid reciting a poem at school in which he derides white privilege (thus bringing attention to it) while also refusing to abscond his privilege.

Yes it’s a problem, but no, he’s not voluntarily giving it up. Rather he hopes for the day when no privilege exists.

The video is weird to watch because the kid is 14.  What 14 year old could possibly have been walking around in his own skin self-reflexive enough to understand that his interaction in society is markedly different than people of color?  How has he lived long enough to explore the experiences he recites in his poem?  The parents say they have not “coached” him but it is really hard to imagine all of that came out of his head.

It’s almost like watching a Republican try to speak on behalf of a refugee; it’s just odd and conceptually anachronistic.

After a few minutes of internet trolling this kids poem, it became clear there is a huge disagreement about the topic of the poem: privilege.  Besides all the negative comments about the kid, his parents, and the puppetry that seems to be taking place, privilege is a central issue of disagreement.

Everyone is using the same word but many people are using it differently.

I do not wish to debate the merits of the young man’s poem.  I do, however,  want to look briefly at the concept of privilege because when white people and people of color use this term it is clear we are not sharing in the same Wittgensteinian language game.

First, when people say “white privilege exists” they do not mean that life isn’t hard for white people.  I have heard radio hosts and read many comments wherein this is the interpretation.  This is what has been outraging white people, that the black community, minority communities or the media, seem to be implying that “white privilege” is synonymous with “white ease of life.”

This is simply not the case.

I know many many white people who have hard lives.  I have friends with college degrees who work their butts off and make personal sacrifices to make ends meet for their families and themselves.  I have white friends who are veterans and whom do not have a place of their own to sleep at night. I have family that lives in the Tennessee Appalachia and I see that clearly white privilege doesn’t mean all white people have an easy life, get everything handed to them or that they do not experience discomfort because they are white.

No one is arguing that white people do  life do not suffer.

Life is hard.  It is complex and it can be a tribulation regardless of your skin color.  The term “white privilege” doesn’t negate that your life may be very hard, even if you are white.   All people can have a hard or difficult life; it seems to be an innate part of creation post Adam and Eve.   No one is saying you have an easy life because you are white; you can keep your scars.  No one is taking them from you.

Arriving at that acknowledgment, however, does not now render term “white privilege” meaningless.

Second, the term “white privilege” does not mean you are given first dibs on all the good stuff.  It does not mean that you can skip all societal loops of accomplishment.  It doesn’t mean that you automatically get the best pay, the best job, the best spouse or the best neighborhood.  It doesn’t mean that you automatically get promotions or that you by default are given good grades.

If you have worked hard and accomplished a lot in life…that is great!  You most likely sacrificed time with family/friends for those accomplishments.  I too, am white, and I have spent many hours in study or at work doing what others wouldn’t in order to achieve what others won’t.  I get it.

No one is trying to say you didn’t work hard when they use the term “white privilege.”

President Obama’s comments  “you didn’t build that” made me bristle as much as it did you.   I know what it is like to have employees that want the reward without the work, that want the status without the effort and the notoriety without the sacrifice.  It’s just the country we live in now.  I understand why people of any race react when someone says they have a privileged status yet they have worked hard for everything they have.

I grant you that.  Privilege has not meant you have never had a hard life or that you haven’t worked hard to climb from that life.

These concessions aside, the term “white privilege” is still not meaningless.  It just doesn’t mean what white people think its means.

By “white privilege” one usually means that a person who is white is under less suspicion and given the benefit of doubt in many circumstances.  That’s it. 

It means that you have never felt disadvantaged or been looked at with circumspection in routine daily activities because you are white.  Your whiteness, and mine, have given us different life experiences because we have been looked at differently due to the color of our skin.  The worst is never assumed because I am white and driving at midnight; such is most likely not the case for the typical black male.

Simply put, it means there are no societal obstacles to understanding who I am as a white male.  Society allows me the privilege to show who I am by how I act, what I do and the character with which I live my life.  Nothing about me is assumed because I am white. 

I’d be willing to bet that even the poor Appalachian white person would also be given the benefit of the doubt when they are in public.  They may not feel privileged but in that regard they are.  They are poor, but they are white, and in our society that is usually better than being poor and black.  It’s the difference between assuming the white person may have a WIC voucher in their pocket to buy milk while the black person may be watched for theft.

“White privilege” doesn’t mean that black people can’t find work, get equal pay, apply for the same opportunities or even have the same success.   Black people can do everything white people can do in our society and they often do.   It simply means that because of the color of our skin, consciously or unconsciously, the worst is not usually assumed just by looking at us.

“White privilege” also means not having the pressure of being representative of my entire race.   Black men especially don’t have this luxury.

As a white male, if I commit a crime, am rude in public or commit domestic abuse that act stays with me, and me alone.  I bear the responsibility.  My neighbors, fellow church folk and colleagues at work won’t cast my behavior over all white men everywhere.

This simply won’t be said, “Well, Nathan acted like a complete jerk in public and the cops came out to his house to settle a domestic issue…see, just another example of what’s wrong with white people.”

Most people will understand that my actions do not speak for the majority of white males.  Any white male friends of mine will go to work and the grocery store the next day and most likely not experience any suspicion or staring faces because of what I have done. 

 I’m the crazy white dude, not them.

Black men don’t have this luxury.

How many of you have been in class with lots of white people and maybe two black people?  Has there not been a time when the teacher, or a classmate, looks at one of the black people and asks for “the black perspective?”  This happens all the time in campuses across this country.  We all listen intently, many of us gleaning insight into the feelings of someone with a different perspective.  It is an enriching experience, one from which I have benefited.

The problem with this, however, is that it is assumed that the opinion given by one black person is constitutive of ALL black people.  We have a multiplicity of white views but ONE black view.   This is the working assumption.  White people understand that lots of white people think differently, but far too many white people assume all black people (or LGBTQ people for that matter) think the same.  When one black person speaks it is the absolute on the “black experience.”

How can any person be responsible for something so weighty?  I have no idea what it is like to be a black male and know that when I open my mouth people assume I am speaking for, and representing, an entire race of people.  For black men that do this well, kudos, because I cannot imagine how difficult this is socially.

This is what is meant by “white privilege”: it is the privilege to be seen as you are without any assumptions simply based on the color of your skin.  This is it, nothing more, nothing less.

The trouble is white people don’t see this as “white privilege” because they are not aware it is happening (for a fuller expose on whiteness see my other post here).  We just assume all people are looked at the same, treated the same and experience things like us…we don’t know we are privileged in these ways…and honestly, it is hard for white people to even get outside themselves enough to concede this.  Ironically, this is exactly what it means to be privileged.

This does not mean that “white privilege” exists everywhere, all times and with equal proportion but it does mean that as a culture we have presumed ideas that enter our minds when we encounter certain people.  It means that there are nascent assumptions at work in all of us, the production of literally hundreds of years, that silently creep upon us whether we will it or not.

The terminology isn’t about taking anything away from the hard work of white people or their hardships.   Obversely, it doesn’t take away from the fact that just because you are not “privileged” doesn’t mean you can’t work hard and be successful.  Many can and do.

It simply means that when you walk out the door to enter the world, the world will judge you totally and fully by the content of your character and not the color of your skin.  No assumptions.  No stereotypes.  No universals.  You are free to impact the world through your action and the world will only respond to you in kind.

It’s really not a question of whether or not it exists; it’s a question of whether when you sense in yourself this hint at privileging some over others (without any reason or purpose), that you pause and make a choice to change how you will act toward people of difference.  This is the only way the world will change, when people who can act, know to act and then act differently.

It would  be fantastic to limit the labels black, white, etc., to cultural discussions, but until our rhetoric matches our action (and thoughts) we are only deceiving ourselves.  It easy to say you believe “x” until something other than “x” pops in your mind when that different person enters your space, walks near your car, or is seen in your church/neighborhood.

As a Wise man once said, “Do unto others as you would them do to you” (Luke 6.31)

 

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