The Ironic Power of White Privilege
Hello white people (and others) but mainly my fellow white people. Let’s get this out of the way from the start…you’re feeling some kinda way right about now. You may feel uncomfortable because I’ve acknowledged your societal racial definition within the title before even diving into my thoughts/points. You may be angry because of the same reason. You may be confused because you feel that you’ve lived a very unprivileged life. You may be offended because of that same reason. Whatever you’re feeling right now, I just want you to know that I’ve felt all of it too. I understand why you’re feeling the way you do and I’m not judging you. I want to make that clear from the start.
Now that we’ve addressed these feelings let’s discuss what will be the major focus of this article: white privilege. It’s a phrase that makes many people’s defense mechanisms switch on. It’s a phrase that many impoverished white Americans resent. But the reality is that it is real and it is a dynamic part of American culture. The irony is that the very existence of it is what makes the conversation about it so hard for white people to engage in. Ask any person of color “Do you think white privilege is real?” and they’ll probably break something from thrashing around on the floor because they’re laughing hysterically. But our viewpoint, as white people in America, is curated through the lens of white privilege.
“My best friends are black! Literally.”
Let me start by sharing my story because, after the past 2–3 years of coming to terms with my privilege as a white person and the reality that it affects the way I view life, I’ve come to realize that it’s a fascinating example of the power white privilege holds over white lives. I grew up as a pastor’s kid. My dad (*cough* white guy *cough*) started a church with an African-American man with the sole focus of cultivating a multi-racial congregation. As a result, from a very early age I was exposed to many different racial and ethnic groups. In fact, the other pastor, Ray, who my dad started the church with was like my other dad and his wife, Robyn, was like my other mom and their kids were like my brothers and sisters. This dynamic still rings true to this day between all of us. The church was very diverse and the community allowed for cross-racial interaction in a variety of ways.
On top of this, the neighborhood I grew up in south Kansas City was very diverse as well. It was a mix of blue collar white families, black families coming out of the “hood” but not quite making it to the “suburbs” and a decent amount of Muslim families since we were right down the street from one of the biggest mosques in Kansas City. I’ve always been obsessed with basketball and growing up that was all I did as a kid in my neighborhood. It just so happened that none of the other white kids in the neighborhood played basketball so it was usually just me and my black friends playing in Taj’s driveway until it was dark at night. I reveled in the idea that I was accepted (I mean, I was kinda pretty good) and that they called me “White Chocolate” which I thought was amazing and definitely felt (embarrassingly, in retrospect) too good about myself for eliciting such a name.
Fast forward to the summer after I graduated high school when I met my (now) wife who also happens to be black. We fell in love quickly and I knew from the very first day (and literally told her the first day) we hung out that I was going to marry her. The natural vibe we had together and the way we complemented each other as humans was so perfect and transcended the color of our skin. But it was still something that was different and stood out as unique to people, whether good or bad. At this point in my life my “brothers and sisters” from the church family I grew up with had moved away before high school started, I had gone to a rural/suburban private Christian school since 7th grade and I was beginning to enter adulthood as a white male.
So, to recap, a vast majority of general people in my life AND important people in my life were people of color growing up. I was able to legitimately say “but some of my best friends are black!” and it couldn’t be “technically” refuted. However, I still lived in a bubble of white privilege, especially in my most formative years (high school) leading up to when I got married at the age of 19 to my wife. You may be wondering “how do you know you lived in a bubble of white privilege?” Simply put, I lived my life as an individual, white American male. I interacted with people of color but I was first and foremost a white male. I was assumed to be respectable, professional, hard working, smart, presentable and trustworthy by my white peers because I was also white. To be fair, I was pretty much all of those things but the difference is that the color of my skin didn’t make other white people question that reality about me because of preconceived stereotypes and implicit prejudice.
American Individualism is a Privileged Idea
White privilege is a complicated thing for many of us white people to fully grasp when we’ve been trained to ignore anything race related, become colorblind and focus on our individual efforts to be decent humans. After all, the “American Dream” is all about pulling ourselves up by our own effort and hard work despite the logical fallacy of this heightened sense of individualism. And this same sense of individualism is one of the biggest problems we run into when discussing white privilege and systemic inequality. Even our worst experiences as white people are still labeled as individual problems and not systemic emergencies. One of the first responses when discussing these issues with white people is typically “well this hasn’t happened to me” or “I didn’t see it happen so I’m not sure if it’s true.” Individual experience as a white person can’t be applied to attempts at understanding racial issues because we, as white people in America, haven’t been systemically oppressed for the past 400 years. The same can’t be said for many people of color in this country.
I learned this lesson during the early years of my marriage to my wife, Brittany. I always considered myself “down with black people” because I had been so exposed to black people and culture throughout my life. The problem was it was usually in a controlled environment aka my comfortable (white) environment that shaped my worldview and perspective. So when my perspective collided with my wife’s perspective, as a black woman, things didn’t always match up. She’d come home and tell me how she was followed around in the store and I’d say “oh they were probably just working on things, don’t be paranoid.” She’d tell me stories of being pulled over by cops for literally no reason and I’d find a way to justify their reasoning by telling her “well they need to meet quotas, babe!” After 3 or 4 years of marriage, we began to experience the increasing number of black Americans killed by police and would clash on the reasoning as to why these things were happening. “Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were thugs, babe. It’s sad but they should have known that eventually that lifestyle would catch up with them.” My wife would challenge my reasoning with “So you’re saying unarmed people who interact with police or armed citizens deserve to die because they did some suspect things in their past?”
It’s at this point that our white privilege becomes increasingly evident. My response could be “Well, they just shouldn’t have done those suspect things and then maybe they’d be alive today.” The problem with that is 1) It dehumanizes the person by saying any fault they’ve ever had is worthy of death (a technique that is unfortunately used by so many white people I see commenting on the litany of police killings of black Americans) and 2) my wife is black and by dehumanizing the death of an unarmed black person I’ve, by default, dehumanized her.
That was pretty much the turning point for me. I had the, ironic, privilege of being married to a person of color and couldn’t escape the reality of confronting my privilege of never knowing what it feels like to be specifically identified, negatively, for something. We hear about bad things happening but “those are ‘isolated incidents’ so people need to stop making a big deal about everything!” The only reason we’re able to say that is because we’re white. Because those “isolated incidents” aren’t things that our parents had to warn us about from the time we could walk and talk. The insane thing is that after years of exposure to black people, important relationships with black people and even marriage to a black woman I was STILL living in a bubble of white privilege that shaped my worldview and, more importantly, blinded my ability to empathize and understand experiences outside of my own.
Understanding and Embracing White Privilege
I think of my experience as a white person in America and when I see how my privilege kept me from embracing and empathizing with people of color on a deeper level, despite my vast exposure to people of color, I realize that if it was hard for me to understand then it’s definitely hard for the average, segregated white American to understand. Why is it so hard? What are some ways we, as white people, can seek to identify our privilege and actually use it to push for equality? I’d like to list out some steps that I had to take and that I think are important for every white person to consider.
- Seek out different perspectives that challenge your worldview: This is something that is a good practice for pretty much any area in life but especially in regards to race. If all we do is listen to white commentators give their perspective on the racial problems of other groups of people then we’re hearing an inauthentic summary, at best, or an ignorant and irresponsible, at worst, breakdown of the issues. Other than discussing our own white privilege in regards to race, we should remember that we don’t have the right to make sweeping statements about the black community, the latino community, the non-white immigrant community, etc. because we are not them. We don’t know the day-to-day experiences they face. So seek out articles, books, documentaries, etc. that are made by those people to understand the authenticity of their experiences.
- Remember that systemic racism is the issue, not individual racism: This is one of the hardest things for us white people to grasp. Because the only way we can experience racism (more technically “prejudice”) is through individual experiences. Yes, someone could call us a “cracker” and be very pejorative in their tone but is that going to immediately affect our socioeconomic status, likelihood of being in prison, ability to get a good paying job or possibility of being shot by police? No. Systemic racism is the reality that black people are DISPROPORTIONATELY affected by institutional inequality. This is not to say that white people aren’t ever poor or affected negatively by American institutions. It’s to acknowledge that black people, who have a history of being discriminated against in this country, are constantly fighting to be on equal footing with their white counterparts but the statistical inequality is staggering and real.
- Approach every aspect of life with humility and empathy: If we’ve been talking about white privilege and you’ve begun to see the many effects it has on white lives then you’ll see that lack of humility and lack of empathy are two very natural side effects of white privilege. If we’ve escaped having to deal with so many negative things, either statistically or simply literally, then we’re all good and it sucks to be not white! This, of course, isn’t something that the majority of white people are saying but it develops in our subconscious state and is made evident when these negative things happen to other people and we’re asked to speak up about it. “Well, I would never react the way they did to being discriminated against.” That’s because we haven’t been systemically discriminated against. Having humility and, more importantly, empathy when talking about racial issues is so important. Especially when talking to people of color who may be sharing their experience. Empathy is a form of love and love is one of the best ways to address injustice. Practice it.
I’m Tired of Talking about White Privilege
If you’ve read all the way to this point and you feel emotionally drained, that’s a good sign. It means that you’re attempting to reconcile with feelings that make you uncomfortable. You’ve also completed your first step towards empathy because the way you feel now is how people of color feel ALL THE TIME, EVERY DAY, 24/7. The difference is that you can stop reading this article and go back to a white privilege bubble but they can’t stop being a person of color.
The undeinable (and, for those with a conscience, uncomfortable) status white people have in America’s racial hierarchy is something that needs to be acknowledged by white people if we ever hope to make steps towards racial equality. It has been one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to deal with and understand. (Side note: to all the “woke” white people reading this, being woke isn’t a one time process. We need to continually seek growth and better understanding each and every day) I would love to have discussions about this topic with those of you who may still be confused or hesitant to get on board with this idea. Because constant discussion, even though it may be uncomfortable, is the best way to attack and break down the walls of our “fortress of privilege” we live in day to day.
[Editor’s Note: Please read the hyperlinked articles within the text of this article if you’re questioning the reality of white privilege. I wanted to tell personal stories and experiences relating to the idea but didn’t choose to make the focus of this particular article about specific examples of this reality. Also, for more info on systemic racism read HERE. Thanks!]