Racism 101: White Privilege

Tess Martin
Feb 2 · 6 min read
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I post a lot about race, and not just because I’m a glutton for punishment, although I’m sure that plays a significant role. I’m a black woman in a country that was built with the unpaid blood, sweat, and tears of people that looked like me. Those same people were ‘liberated’ after the Civil War, only to be crushed beneath the bootheel of Jim Crow for the next hundred years, a campaign of abject oppression and terror, the echoes of which we can still feel reverberating to the present day.

When you’re black in America, you can’t forget it. It’s transcendental — the condition upon which all other experiences are made possible. Your color informs your every waking movement. The moment you draw your first breath, it sets boundaries you might never overcome. It creates an alternate set of expectations and limitations, all unwritten but strictly enforced, and you disregard them at your peril. Thinking, talking, and posting about race isn’t so much an option for me as it is a requirement.

Like clockwork, in response to one of my many posts about race, a white individual will respond with a lightly admonishing comment that goes a little something like this: Why all of this divisiveness? We need to focus on one race, the HUMAN RACE.

Quaint, right?

What I feel upon reading dismissive, somewhat Pollyanna responses like this to my lived experience as a black individual in this country isn’t so much annoyance (or shock, because this is a pretty standard response, if I’m being honest), as it is bone weariness. The kind of weariness you feel after working a long day only to find your car won’t start and your phone is dead, meaning you’ll need to walk a few miles home in pouring rain and lashing wind. This mental and emotional exhaustion can be all consuming, because it feels like no matter how many times you explain slavery’s enduring legacy, how systems of oppression work (and how this is distinct from individual racists), why it’s damaging to say you don’t see color, there will always be responses like this aimed at making you feel ashamed for always dwelling on race.

White folks, let me tell you, living your life without needing to take race into constant consideration is the very definition of privilege. It’s a magical realm of existence that’s completely closed off to black folks, to Hispanic folks, to Asian folks, to indigenous folks. We have to think about race all the time. Our lives depend on it. Our freedom, our livelihoods, our very opportunity for happiness. We exist in this country at all times as nonwhite. There have been whole systems of oppression constructed to penalize us for being nonwhite. These systems have worked so well for so long, white folks no longer even see them. What they see is that nonwhite people struggle because they don’t work hard enough. They don’t value education. They are just more likely to commit crimes. They don’t speak English well. They are lazy. They waste the limitless opportunities doled out equally to every American at birth. It’s sad, really, how those nonwhites are.

White privilege is the ability to exist as a person while the rest of us exist as nonwhite people, together with all the negative stereotypes that, thanks to our deeply racist institutions, too often become self-fulfilling prophecies.

I can already hear the grumbled complaints from aggrieved white people:

That’s not fair! I’ve faced real struggles in my life!

I had to work hard for everything I have! I wasn’t given anything on a silver platter!

I grew up poor too! How can I have privilege?

Let me tell you what white privilege doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean you haven’t struggled in your lives, white folks. It doesn’t mean you haven’t known poverty. It doesn’t mean you haven’t worked hard or faced difficult situations or gone to bed hungry or survived without healthcare, a place to live, or a job that pays a decent wage. It doesn’t mean you haven’t watched, heartbroken, as your kids go without. White people can struggle. They can live difficult lives and never get ahead. But the reason for that difficulty is never their race. There aren’t centuries’ old systems in place to make sure that they fail based solely on the color of their skin. There’s a real issue of economic inequality in this country that desperately needs to be addressed, but imagine that layered on top of racial inequality, which is systemic. It is purposeful. It was put in place by white folks that did their best to make sure black and brown folks never got ahead in this country. Can you see how that’s different?

So, no, we can’t pretend we live in some post racial utopia where we all receive the same opportunities as Americans. We can’t pretend we are all just one race, the human race. That’s how the world looks through the rose-colored glasses of privilege. Not considering race in every facet of your life, with every breath that you take, is a privilege. Not fearing for your child’s safety simply because of the color of his or her skin is a privilege. Have you ever sat your child down and discussed exactly how to interact with the police because you’re afraid there could be a shoot first, ask questions later scenario, all because your child happens to be black, and sometimes that’s enough of a reason for an officer to open fire? No? That’s privilege.

No one’s asking you to apologize for slavery. But the founders of this country that built prosperity on the backs of the enslaved looked like you. The architects of Jim Crow looked like you. The folks that carefully crafted the New Deal in a way that wouldn’t benefit black Americans looked like you. The folks that waged the War on Drugs and lay the groundwork for every iteration of getting tougher and tougher on (black) crime looked like you. These white folks made damned sure to put systems in place that barred people that looked like me from ever being able to achieve the fabled life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that they enshrined for themselves. We were meant to toil, to obey, to die when we were no longer useful. The very foundation of this nation was constructed upon that baseline inequality, and it has flourished in the centuries since those founding documents were created.

You didn’t ask for your privilege, but you have it. So, now what?

Step one: accept that this privilege is a real thing.

Step two: use the fuck out of it to challenge racism in all its forms.

Lean into your privilege like the shield of legitimacy it is and tear down the systemic inequality that still festers, relatively unhindered, in this country and all its institutions. No matter where you find yourself on the ladder of social status, you have power that black and brown folks don’t possess. Instead of pretending that power doesn’t exist, use it. Challenge other white folks. Be rabidly anti-racist. Don’t just share delusional platitudes about little black children playing with little white children and folks being judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin. We aren’t there yet. We’ve never been there. We aren’t even close.

Just by virtue of your skin color, you are endowed with the unique power to tear down systems that benefit you as white and oppress me as black. If black, brown, Asian, and indigenous folks could destroy these systems ourselves, trust and believe it would already be done. We need you to step in and step up. Your privilege is a battering ram that opens doors. Use it to knock down the status quo instead of buttressing it.

No one is asking you to apologize for being born white. But, goddamn it, open your eyes and see this country for what and how it is. Stop berating marginalized people for pointing out inequality because it makes you uncomfortable. Step into this fight in a meaningful way, because the fabled Promised Land isn’t guaranteed. Racism isn’t something that just fades away if we ignore it. It’s the kind of thing that metastasizes in dark spaces. It stretches out. It grows. Think of your privilege as a spotlight. Point at racism and shine the fuck away, white folks.

Age of Awareness

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Tess Martin

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I’m a writer who spends her day making things up for pay. Find me at www.theundercoverintrovert.com or on Facebook @ theundercoverintrovert.

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