One of the driving forces behind the racial crisis that we are witnessing in this country is inequity, an imbalance in the distribution of resources to which different demographics have access. Any solutions-oriented dialogue, therefore, must seek to address this inequity. But a sticking point for many when these conversations happen is the concept of white privilege. To be clear, white privilege is a symptom of inequity – it would be great if it didn’t exist because that would reflect an equitable society, and we should work towards that reality, but the treatment must be systems-wide; it requires dealing with the symptoms while targeting the virus of inequity.
But before diving head first into the implications of white privilege and how to address it, I think a good place to start would be to define the phrase. In fact, it is my belief and my hope that once everyone can truly understand what white privilege is, the concept itself can become a starting point rather than a sticking point. I, as a white person, am not offended by it, and neither should anyone else who matches my description and understands what white privilege actually means. The concept I am discussing here is the widely agreed upon context that progressives refer to when talking about white privilege, so if what I say here seems radically different from how others have described this, then trust that this framing is what white privilege is really about.
At the very core, white privilege is the simple idea that the starting line for each of us is different, and for white people that starting line is in general ahead of the starting line for people of color. That’s all. It’s not an implication that white people don’t work hard or face hurdles that are challenging to overcome in their lives. It’s not an indictment of a person’s whiteness. It is the observably true notion that history is cumulative, and the history of people of color in this country, especially Black people whose ancestors came to this country almost entirely as enslaved humans, has given them a social disadvantage. Furthermore, while the history of people of color has disadvantaged them, the history of white people has largely elevated white folks. The fact that our country was founded by white men building robust and obstinate political structures that favored the preservation of their own wealth and status should make it clear why those same political structures continue to preserve white wealth and status today. To the credit of the Founding Fathers, they built enduring institutions; to their fault, they institutionalized enduring inequity.
Worth restating: White privilege is not saying that white people don’t work hard for their success or face challenges. Also worth stating: People of all backgrounds experience different levels of privilege – a person in poverty who has access to education has academic privilege relative to a person who cannot access education; any person who has a loving & supportive family has social privilege relative to people in abusive families; a person of any ethnic group who grows up in an affluent neighborhood has economic privilege relative to a person who grows up in lower-income areas. Acknowledging privilege does not mean admitting that you haven’t put forth great effort to maintain or improve your quality of life. It is just a matter of realizing that your quality of life reflects external factors that are out of your control in addition to the internal factors in your control.
One analogy that I really like goes like this: Imagine two teams playing soccer on a sloping field – it’s not impossible for the team playing uphill to win, but any success they achieve is harder won and any failure is easier to understand.
Here’s another great analogy: Imagine a group of people playing soccer on a regular, not sloping field and then someone comes and puts them all in chains, ships these humans as if they were cargo across an ocean, and then forces them and all of their family for generations to do hard physical labor without receiving access to fundamental (dare I say “inalienable”) human rights (you know: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) for two centuries. Then one day all those folks who for over two hundred years weren’t recognized with any human rights or access to social systems that could elevate them (education, health care, paying jobs, etc.) are no longer enslaved but are expected to just jump right into a society that has treated them as subhuman for all of their living memory and has giant legal barriers to their successful integration into society. And on the other side, a bunch of people who are just living their lives with all of its quotidian challenges and obstacles but also enjoy freedom, life, liberty, and the opportunity to pursue happiness through education, health care, and paying jobs. Assuming even that the two groups don’t interact but do coexist, then if you had to guess which group might experience more social success at any point in the timeline, which would you put your money on? Eventually, we will see individuals in both groups experience varying levels of success and failure. But that success or failure is predicated on where those individuals started and what advantages they had been afforded in life.
To take it out of the abstract, I’ll use myself as an example: I am currently employed with a full-time and part-time job, I rent a humble but comfortable townhouse, and I am studying in grad school. Here are some truths: I busted my ass to get into a good undergraduate university, I studied hard to graduate with honors, I worked through high school and college to pay for personal expenses like gas in my car and any money for social outings, I have worked more than 40 hours/week since graduating college seven years ago to pay my bills and advance my career, and I am now pushing myself harder than ever to get my Master’s (yes, still while maintaining both my full time and part time job). I’ve worked very hard in my young life and I don’t plan to stop any time soon. That part of my life is not what I’m referring to when I talk about having privilege.
But any time I have set my mind to something, there were no external barriers due to my skin color that prevented me from pursuing them. That’s privilege. I wanted to focus on my studies in high school, so my parents gave me a safe and quiet space to do that; I wanted a job, so I was given my first car (and insurance) so that I could drive to it; I wanted to go to a private out-of-state university, so the government trusted that I would pay back loans when I took them out; I wanted to spend a year of my life broadening my horizons in Ecuador as a volunteer without compensation, so I deferred my loans and went; I wanted to pursue a higher degree, so I got a job that pays for most of it and pay off the rest with my residual monthly income. Every door has been open. That’s privilege. Relative to my parents, I have had more privilege; relative to their parents, they have had more privilege. History is cumulative.
To be sure, there are an increasing number of people of color in this country who have as many or more of these doors open to them, but that wasn’t necessarily the case for their parents, grandparents, or great grandparents as it was for mine dating back at least to the early 20th century. And proportionally, people of color to this day have fewer opportunities to climb that social ladder than do white people due to the structures that have historically kept them down.
In the words of Dr. King, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
A few other notes that are important to address: If you are a white person and you feel that white privilege means that you are being blamed for slavery or any of its consequences, you’re still not understanding it. White privilege has nothing to do with assigning blame, it’s about acknowledging imbalance and seeking to resolve it. No one is being accused of anything. It might seem counterintuitive because it’s called “white privilege” but to be honest, it’s not really even about white people. It’s about the opportunities afforded to one group that haven’t been equitably available to other groups.
That’s why it’s paramount that we can agree – apolitically – that white privilege does exist so that we can work to dismantle the structures that have always given and continue to give white privilege a home. For a long time, many have held the notion that recognizing a difference in skin color is racist. That’s absurd. “I don’t see race” is not only a ridiculous thing to say (because unless you’re literally blind, of course you see race), but it is destructive to the solutions. Seeing race is not racist, it’s imperative. It’s recognizing that there are differences and those differences have created different outcomes. The first step in the Scientific Method is identifying the problem. If we can’t identify the problem because it is more comfortable to choose to believe that it doesn’t exist, then how on earth can we work towards solutions?
Every morning in school, I pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all. I still pledge my allegiance to that indivisible Republic, but the act of allegiance is a pledge not to blind loyalty but to fierce accountability and action in the fight for Liberty and Justice for all.