White privilege; does it or doesn’t it exist?
If you were to ask the average black American whether white privilege exists they would respond with a resounding “hell yes”. If you ask the average white American if white privilege exists they would look bewildered and loudly reply “hell no”.
The problem with how white privilege is perceived is twofold – one there is the perception of the word privilege and then white privilege is oftentimes so subtle that people, white and black, myself included, don’t always recognize it as such.
Firstly, there is the word privilege. For the average person, to state one has privilege means they are privileged or live a privileged lifestyle. The average American conjures up images of affluence – private school, chauffeurs, a Bentley in the garage, jewelry, McMansions, lavish vacations. To the average white American, schlepping back and forth to work on public transportation or in a beater car, struggling to make ends meet and pay for a week of soccer camp (never mind private schooling), the notion that they live a privileged life, a life comforted by white privilege is well ludicrous.
Privilege conjures up images of wealth and prosperity not a working class day-to-day struggle.
Privilege conjures up images of Tom Brady and Gisele, Bill and Melinda Gates, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Oprah Winfrey and Stedman Graham, the Kardashians, the partners of any given firm or corporation. To the average white American working to make ends meet from week to week, living a life of privilege is not how they would describe their lives.
Yet there are privileges to being white in our society, whether their existence makes one live a comfortable life or not. Perhaps a better word would be to say that there are advantages to being white in American society. And, that as a white American, my life has been impacted in some way large or small by white advantage.
Which brings me to the second problem I can identify with the average white American (sometimes including myself) recognizing the existence of white privilege at work in their lives. Sometimes white privilege is subtle and easily confused to be something other than white privilege.
I will use myself as an example. Since the shooting of nine members of Mother Emanuel’s church family in Charleston, South Carolina, I have been thinking a lot about how many times I’ve sat in similar groups – bible study or Sunday School class in the basement of the Baptist Church I attended in Roxbury when living in Boston. I remember one particular Sunday morning, a small group of women arrived early for Sunday School. While we were waiting for the Sunday School teacher to arrive one of the women asked me out of curiosity not meanness how I as a white woman could come to a historically black church in a tough black neighborhood. She wondered what made me comfortable in doing so. I explained how I fell in love with Southern Baptist Church almost from the moment I walked in the doors to attend the home going services for the cousin of my other half. The church itself was very welcoming, the people were all very friendly and I liked the pastor’s style during the home going service. Almost from the moment I walked in the door, I felt at home.
We also talked about my attitude that I belonged equally traversing the streets of Dudley heading to Southern Baptist to worship or the streets of the Financial District heading to my office to work. I told her that although there were certain areas of the city I felt less comfortable in I tried to never let that keep me away. We talked about how at my previous job I had a client in Mission Hill, one of if not the toughest neighborhood in Boston. A neighborhood made famous nationally when Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant wife blaming an unidentified black man from the Mission Hill neighborhood. I told her how that although it was intimidating walking into that neighborhood, I had a client to service and I couldn’t very well tell my boss I was scared by the neighborhood’s reputation. So I went to the client site, walking with intent and purpose as if to say I dare you to tell me I don’t belong here. I didn’t stop for anyone, but was polite and said hello while I kept walking.
The woman who asked the questions said she admired my courage. That if the situation was reversed, she wouldn’t feel comfortable walking into an all-white church in say South Boston. I shared with her that of all Boston’s neighborhoods, Southie was the one I was the least comfortable in. In spite of the fact that I am white and part Irish, I was an outsider and Southie was notorious at the time for not liking outsiders. We laughed because I just told her how I was comfortable walking in Dudley or Mission Hill, but Southie where I might at least blend in made me the most uncomfortable.
That morning, the women seemed to admire almost envy my confidence. No one said I could get away with it because I am white. I can’t say if anyone thought it. I didn’t think so then or now by the tone of our conversation.
Yet, the reality is that as a white woman my ability to maneuver the streets of traditionally tough black inner city neighborhoods is as much a matter of white privilege as it is my determined confident attitude. As a white woman I had grown to believe that the world is mine, as a black woman society would have taught me that there were certain places I didn’t belong. Even though the whites only signs have long been taken down, it is still far more comfortable and accepted for a white person to enter a traditionally black neighborhood than is the reverse. And, yes that is a form of white privilege. As a white woman I do not have to think about whether I belong … if I want to be somewhere, an event, a church, a store then by the act of my being there I belong there. It is a privilege granted me by the whiteness of my skin.
It is a matter of white privilege that I as a white American woman do not have to question whether I belong somewhere in our society. The reality is I like other white folks in America do not automatically think about the places or events we are comfortable going to as being white privilege. We don’t question whether our presence at particular venue is acceptable based on our skin color – that in itself is a form of white privilege. My black counterpart has to be acutely aware of whether she (or he) would be welcomed and how she (or he) would be treated at a venue that is overwhelmingly white. Meanwhile, as a white person I can remain blissfully oblivious to this type of white privilege at work in my life.
Another example of white privilege at work in my life occurred recently. One of my nephews who has failed to fully launch into adulthood called me in a panic. He had been pulled over by police and was being detained for a moving violation. A brilliant move on his part for sure. I was at a softball game accompanying my younger niece who was playing when he called me in a panic at the thought of facing jail time. “Someone is going to have to bail me out,” he pleaded. My niece’s softball game had just started and I couldn’t leave her alone. I stayed for another two hours watching her and at some point during the game as I pondered my nephew’s situation it occurred to me that not once had I any concern over my nephew’s safety. Instead of thinking about his safety I was thinking how cooling his heels in a jail cell might do him some good. The possibility of a routine traffic stop turning into injury or even worse death is not even a consideration for me as a white American. This is definitely white privilege.
If I was a black woman who received a similar phone call regarding my son or nephew I would have been alarmed and fearful of his safety. My reaction would not be so nonchalant and even though I would still be upset with him for being so irresponsible I would not have the luxury of feeling safe in letting him sit in a holding cell and contemplate the consequences of his irresponsibility.
The reality is that for my white nephew he will go to court be charged a fine and probably be made to take driver’s education classes. But if my nephew was black and was pulled over by police and was being detained for the same offense, that encounter with law enforcement could have turned into a death sentence. That is the reality. It is not a popular reality, and I know some white Americans deny this reality. They can deny it – their white sons will never be treated with the same hatred as a black parent’s son in the exact same situation. Their ability to deny this is a matter of their white privilege because the war on young black men in our society will never impact their lives.
Whether white privilege exists or not is definitely a matter of perspective and awareness. White America can remain unaware to its existence and continue on with their daily lives uninterrupted . That is a luxury that has historically and routinely been denied black Americans. That in itself is a matter of white privilege.