CC-BY Gabi Agu

My Complicated Relationship With
White Privilege

Our Facebook status will never be straightforward.

This is a topic I’ve only rarely, if ever, publicly discussed, and certainly not in any great detail. It’s not so much that I am private about it, more that I find it hard to adequately put into words that make a difference.

That said, there has been a significant rise in anger and anguish around race relations in most developed nations, but especially America, where it’s caused by the seemingly unending grave injustices against (primarily) black people. It is my hope that describing my own relationship with white privilege might help to explain and rationalize it for the white people who are struggling to come to terms with their own white privilege. If nothing else, it gives me some place to point people to if the topic comes up.

Before I go on, there are a few things I encourage you to keep in mind while reading this. First, being privileged is not an insult; it is not meant to make you feel guilty or ashamed of yourself. What matters is that you acknowledge the privileges you have and act accordingly, and then act compassionately and with (improved) understanding towards people who lack those privileges. Second, privileges offer you benefits even when other, more prominent things in your life make your life situation poor or undesirable. A white poor person still enjoys many privileges over a rich brown person, even when the rich brown person enjoys some other privileges over the poor white person. (This is known as Intersectionality.) Lastly:

I grew up in The Netherlands as a half-Dutch, half-Turkish person with a Turkish name. Being on the paler side of the Turkish spectrum, I’ve come across visually as a white person for most of my life. I say visually, because that distinction is fairly key: the experiences I had in phone calls with customers who only heard my name was noticeably different from the experiences I had with customers in person. That difference was racism.

As an example, I can walk around and, due to being perceived as essentially “just a white guy,” I will likely not experience any racial profiling, harassment or discrimination. People won’t ever call me a “thug” (or worse). I have what could be described as “passing privilege,” i.e. I pass for a white person, at face value, and benefit from the white privileges that work on a visual appearance-level.

This often stops being true the moment my name is introduced into the situation, however. For instance, I’ve very frequently gotten a “random” bag check the moment after my name shows up on the check-in attendant’s screen. (In one particular airport, I’ve got a 90% “random” check rate)

In fact, for most of my life the most common question that follows my introducing myself is “where are you from?” (Although in more progressive places, “where is your name from?” is more common.) That’s not a problem in and of itself, but sometimes the way that question is posed makes it clear that it is code for Why isn’t your name white?” — not so much out of any bigotry, in my personal experience, but more out of mere surprise. “Because you look white,” as the silent second half of that question usually would go.

When you look white, society holds invisible doors open for you all the time. When your name is clearly not white, however, some of those doors stay closed. Life is your adventure through a giant labyrinth riddled with these doors.

If you’re mixed race, like I am, it can be — but is not guaranteed of course — much easier to spot the patterns that underlie and propagate these different treatments to a person. In a strange way, I consider that mixed-race benefit a privilege, as it’s given me a better understanding of how people may treat me, thereby giving me an opportunity to pro-actively address certain things if I deem it necessary or opportune.

I’m not happy about the benefits I’ve received from white privileges where I did so, but I don’t feel guilty about them. Being told or knowing you have privilege is not an accusation of you having done something wrong, or bad, but of invisible benefits you received, and how they may be a blind spot in your experiences that you may want to examine. Blind spots, after all, are a risk to everyone and can cause unintended harm.

Being unaware of the privileges you have may contribute to a life of blissful ignorance, but it is a shallow, self-absorbed way to live. I know, because I’ve looked at life from both sides of white privilege.

So instead, I try to be cognizant of my privileges, so that I can be a more effective teammate or partner to the people around me. Being conscious of these things allows me to refrain from saying something unintentionally hurtful or offensive, and phrase my point in such a way that it isn’t. This may seem to some as self-censorship, but I see it as a good thing: being considerate with my words comes at no cost, and is immeasurably better than being unintentionally rude to people I care about.

It does put me on a difficult path to follow at times. I may say something out of my non-white (or less-white?) background, and others see me as white and think I am “just another” white guy. When those others are people of color themselves, that is all the more justifiable for them, but does not make it easier for me. Still, I consider that a small price to pay for the list of privileges I get for such perceptions.

White privilege and me? It’s complicated. But in the end, it’s the one half that makes it easier for me to deal with the challenges faced for the other half. That’s how I’ve found a balance for it. Your story may be different.

This article is part of A Little About Me, an essay-format About page by Faruk Ateş.