White privilege does not exist.
That’s what several people on the internet have declared. White people do not have an advantage over other people because of their race. At all. Even after 100+ years of slavery, another 100 years of Jim Crow, separate but equal, immigration quotas, lynchings, murders, arsons, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and segregation, America is a magical place where all of that history and its effects were erased in a couple marches in the 60's and an emotional speech by MLK.
Unfortunately that’s not true. Many people of color are at a disadvantage compared to whites, both because of statistically higher rates of poverty and because of negative stereotypes that have been drilled into the minds of many of our citizens by the media.
“A lot of white folk are poor too! We don’t have it easy at all! How dare you suggest that!”
You’re right. White folk don’t have it easy, and that was never a claim that I made, nor did anyone else make. White people experience very real, very dangerous, very distressing issues just like everyone else: mental illness, poverty, crime, abusive relationships, neglectful parents, police brutality, crippling student debt, among a wide variety of other problems, problems that are extremely difficult and devastating, and require a lot of work and sometimes luck to get out of.
But one thing that the large majority of whites will never have to deal with is racism. This is what is at the heart of this theory of white privilege: white people go through many difficult problems, but people of color must go through those same obstacles, only those obstacles are intensified by an added layer of systemic discrimination.
“What are you talking about? When I was in school, this one guy bullied the crap out of me! He was black and he would taunt me, call me cracker, beat me up, I experienced racism too!”
And that’s terrible. What you experienced should not be done to anyone ever, and I’m sorry that it happened to you. But that was prejudice from one individual. Imagine prejudice from an entire society. Now, imagine that if that same bully decided to assault you one day, everyone blamed you for provoking him. What if, when you reported that assault, the police were highly skeptical of you because people of your race ‘start more trouble’? What if, when the media did a story about it, they first mentioned every instance they could find of you doing something wrong: parking tickets, suspensions, even that time you were given detention because you pulled Mary Anne’s ponytail in Algebra class. What if, instead of siding with you, people asked you why you were resisting so much? Why were you in the area that you were, or why were you out there at that time of day? You were probably participating in crimes weren’t you?
What if your sister had a negative view of her body, because the media told her that girls with her complexion were fat, loud, ratchet and ghetto?
The thing is, black people in America face obstacles that most whites don’t have to deal with.
One example is New York City where a ‘Stop and Frisk’ law basically allows police to stop and search any pedestrian they want. According to information compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union, blacks were five times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than whites, despite only comprising 25.5% of the population in that city.
In another example, ProPublica did a study and found blacks were twenty-one times more likely to die in the hands of police than whites were.
According to information released by the US Census Bureau, the poverty rate for African Americans was twice that of white Americans.
Perhaps it is the usage of the word privilege that leads many to believe that white privilege means that white people get bonus points in life for just being white. This can be considered true, but instead of viewing privilege as something that is possessed, it could be viewed as something that isn’t possessed: systemic racism and prejudice. People of all races undergo struggles of loss, heartbreak, death, failure, disease, and pain, but white people do not have to deal with additional problems caused by institutionalized discrimination and negative stereotypes that have been ingrained into our society by years of slavery and segregation. And it’s not just blacks. In a study done from 2007–2013, it was found that Native Americans had the highest rates of poverty, standing at 27%, nearly twice that of the national average, which was 14.5%. The poverty rate for whites was 11%. For Latinos, they also face a high poverty rate: 23%. On top of that, they are racially profiled by immigration services and law enforcement, with laws such as SB-1070, which requires that law enforcement try to determine the immigration status of people they stop if there is ‘reasonable suspicion’ that they are illegal immigrants. Which basically means if they look Hispanic. Citizens of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent and/or those who identify as Muslim are seen as foreigners, extremists, and terrorists and have been victims of various hate crimes, ranging from vandalism to mass murder.
Privilege isn’t limited to whites. For example, I’m an upper-middle class, young, healthy, East Asian-American, straight and cis male. Because of ‘positive’ stereotypes attached to my race, police are less likely to suspect me of crime and employers are more likely to hire me, because I’m assumed to be a studious, smart, law-abiding workaholic (I’ll go into the harmful effects of this model minority stereotype in another article). I don’t go through the same struggles blacks do, because they’re automatically labeled as dangerous and ghetto gangsters by society. I’m straight. I don’t face the threat of being fired in 23 states for my sexual orientation or gender identity. I have male privilege. I don’t fear walking out alone at night. I don’t make 23% less than the other gender because of what is or isn’t between my legs. I don’t get catcalled and harassed on the street.
Having privilege does not make you evil. Privilege is a card that is given to you. You had no say in what you got, whether you were a winner or a loser. Nobody blames you for having or using your privilege.
But what you do control is how you use your privilege. You can use it for yourself, for your own gain, or you could use the connections, resources, and opportunities you have that others don’t to advocate for those less fortunate than you, those who are oppressed, those who are being discriminated against. We don’t want anyone balling up in the corner and crying about their white privilege. No one wants you to feel guilty and sorry for yourself. That does nothing but makes people feel bad.
Those of us who have privilege need to utilize it to help our fellow citizens who have been historically and systemically disenfranchised and put at a disadvantage. A common saying I hear among those who dismiss white privilege is that, “We’re not African-American or Mexican-American or White-American. We’re all just American.”
Great. Act like it. If you believe we truly are ‘One People’, then you should be walking alongside them in marches and assisting in any way you can. Because when you notice that large segments of your People are discriminated against, are poor, are being profiled, lack the opportunities that you had for reasons outside their control, when you hear them tell stories about the slurs yelled at them, the scars inflicted on them, the pain suffered by them, you should listen. You should be utterly disturbed by them. You should be enraged and heartbroken about them.
Then you should go out and fight with them.