Race Matters: A look at white privilege through a non-white lens
In the past few years, the discussion of healing racism has taken an interesting turn. Instead of focusing on the “oneness of humanity” or “institutional racism”, the primary topic switched to “white privilege”.
White privilege is nothing new. Since Americans started being identified by race, whites have had the privilege that brings power, influence, wealth and all the other benefits of being the “haves” and non-whites, primarily African-Americans, have been the “have-nots”.
This is why, as many ethnic groups which were not considered “white” in the past, such as Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans, pressed for being identified with that all-important label. Being white put them in the “have” category, and ensured they were able to partake of the privileges of that caste.
In the antebellum South, free people of color who were up to one-eighth or one-quarter African-American (this varied by state) were identified legally as being “white”. They even had special terms for them. A “quadroon” was someone who was one-quarter black, and an “octoroon” was one-eighth black.
This changed after the Civil War, when the powers of white privilege were used to enact “one drop” laws, which stated that if a person had only a single drop of “black blood”, they were legally black. These laws were intended to protect white supremacy and prohibit race mixing. In 1924, Walter Plecker, the Registrar of Statistics for the State of Virginia wrote, “Two races as materially divergent as the White and Negro, in morals, mental powers, and cultural fitness, cannot live in close contact without injury to the higher.” Whites used their privilege to decide who got access to that privilege or not.
The one-drop rule was declared unconstitutional in 1967. However, regardless of what it states on a person’s birth certificate, people of mixed race are identified as black or white based on individual perceptions. Although I do not identify as a particular race, even though I have three to pick from, I have been assumed by other people to be middle eastern, Italian, Portuguese and Cape Verdean, until I moved back to Battle Creek, where I was promptly identified as “black”. For the first time in years, I found myself in a situation where my past job experiences and my skillset were not believed.
And that’s where we come to a little-known activity known as “passing”. Passing as in “passing for white”. This is a measurement of the black community’s understanding of white privilege. Fair-skinned mixed-race individuals have been passing for white for centuries in order to escape being part of the underprivileged race and partake of privilege. It is not talked about that much, because for those who do it, it is a secret. It isn’t dangerous to do so now, but passing for white has been quite risky at times in our country’s history.
And that brings us back to the people on their racial healing journeys who have the epiphany on the road to Damascus, that they have inherited white privilege, the by-product of white supremacy. And suddenly, that’s all they want to talk about. White privilege has so impacted the narrative of racial healing that the latest euphemism for “racist” is to say that someone is speaking with the voice of white privilege.
People newly conscious of their white privilege tend to be pretty guilt-ridden and angsty, especially those who are not only white, but male. They express worries about raising their children with the terrible burden of white privilege, again worse if their children are male. Their white son will be burdened with privilege. It’s terrible to contemplate.
Wait a minute. There is not one word about taking that privilege and using it to balance the scales, level the playing thing, or dismantle the systemic racism in this country. No, they want people to feel their pain because they have white privilege that they inherited from their parents and will pass on to their children, and they feel bad about it.
A friend of mine in England who I shared this with noted that, “guilt is something we all go through when we’re “awakened” to the experiences of the people we have been part of the oppression of.” However, she also said, “wallowing in guilt is entirely self-centred and doesn’t do anything to actually further the systemic healing that needs to take place.”
I don’t feel their pain. They have completely changed the narrative of the discussion of race in this country. Whites have figured out how to make this whole discussion about them, by using their privilege to make themselves the victims of white privilege. And then they call themselves “allies”?
So, to all my white friends, I say: White privilege is nothing new. Black people have known about it since the first Africans made the middle passage to the U.S. This is not about you. Own your white privilege and move on. Use it to make things better for all of us. There are plenty of people who would happily trade places with you and relieve you of that burden, and even oppress you for a few centuries if it would make you feel better, but live with it, just as those of us with just one drop have had to live with it.