White privilege is real.
It doesn’t feel like I should have to explain this, but here we go.
Earlier this month an article I wrote on the role of privilege in my life got a little media attention. There were only a handful of negative reactions to the article, but they were all from White people. I guess I should have expected that. There is a current of guilt that many feel when contemplating privilege. It makes them uncomfortable and they’d rather lash out or argue it away than deal with it.
I felt it was important to address these voices of dissent. Given the current political climate and widening cultural divide, it is more important than ever to have honest and reasonable conversations with people who don’t agree with our view of the world. So I started responding on Twitter and in the comments on Medium.
A number of people thought I was trying to make them feel shame or guilt for being White:
Others felt like privilege didn’t exist simply because not all White people are successful:
Others were willing to accept that generational wealth plays a factor in success, but were unwilling to make the connection to racial inequality:
My responses focused on trying to get people to agree to a handful of foundational principles:
- Privilege is real. There are people in the world with more undeserved blessings than others.
- Almost everyone can point to people with more privilege than them and others with less.
- Thankfulness and a desire to share and help others is a better response to privilege than guilt.
And this approach worked for the most part. I was able to have some very reasonable conversations about the role of privilege and the value of a posture of thankfulness vs. one of narcissism. But while this line of reasoning lays the foundation for polite discussion, it doesn’t go quite far enough.
Race is absolutely a factor in my privilege and in that of most Americans. White privilege is real. But before you make assumptions about what I mean by that, let me clarify a few things:
- I’m not saying you should be ashamed to be White. No one should be ashamed of their skin color.
- I’m not saying you are personally responsible for the actions of your ancestors. You do not own slaves, and I’ll even give you the benefit of the doubt that you are not a racist.
- I’m not saying all White people have it easy just because of their skin color. There are plenty of people born into really terrible circumstances that have the same white skin as me.
- I’m not saying that White people who have accomplished a lot did not work hard for their success.
With those assumptions out of the way, here’s what I am saying:
America has been hostile toward Black people from day one.
The founding of our country was marred by the institution of slavery from the very beginning. Our founding fathers and the government they established declared some people to be less than human. They were property, subject to some of the cruelest and most evil acts humans are capable of with no legal recourse.
Just as democracy and capitalism imprinted themselves on the DNA of our new nation, so too did racism and White supremacy. And while we’ve made significant strides to eradicate this blemish from our DNA, we may never be able to fully extricate ourselves from the effects of the critical role racism played in the founding of our nation.
Generational wealth favors those with more generations of opportunity.
Due to the time value of money, it’s better to have started with money a long time ago than to just now receive it today. You want the college fund for your kids to have been set up 20 years ago rather than just 2 years ago. This is because interest-bearing accounts increase in value exponentially. The wealth aspect of privilege can be thought of like a multi-generational interest-bearing account.
White Americans that can trace their family tree back to early America have had their accounts active the longest. Even just a few dollars deposited when the account was first opened could be worth a fortune today. That said, not all White families were able to make deposits, and tragedy or a single bad decision can wipe out accumulating balances. So not all White people benefit from having had their accounts open this long. But it is clear that zero Black people descended from slaves have the benefit of more than a handful of generations of opportunity.
And even today the accounts of Black families don’t work quite as well as those of White families. Lending discrimination is still prevalent in many places, and there is a huge wage gap between White and Black employees working the same jobs with the same education and experience. Things are better today than they have ever been, and they are still not all that close to equal.
Hard work is not the only factor for success.
There is a common myth that all it takes to be successful is hard work. Don’t get me wrong: hard work absolutely matters. It is a critically important factor of success. But so is privilege. In fact, it’s the product of these two things that determines the level of success most people achieve:
success = hard work × privilege
This explains why people with similar intelligence, drive, hard work, and willingness to make sacrifices can achieve radically different success outcomes. We multiply everything we bring to the table by the privilege we inherit. Some of us get a 10x or 100x multiplier. Others get 1x or closer to zero.
And you absolutely can not blame laziness or a lack of effort for the correlation between wealth/incomes and race in America. Instead, the higher privilege multipliers are the most likely culprit. And to review, those privilege multipliers are higher for White Americans—on average—due to these factors:
- Most White families can trace their generational wealth “accounts” back much farther in time than other Americans, which means the White community inherits significantly more generational wealth as a whole.
- Discrimination still in place today causes some wealth accounts to grow at different rates with the same input of intelligence and hard work.
The compounding effect of wealth.
Privilege and wealth tend to grow exponentially. And the corrupt history and policies of our nation have ensured that a much higher percentage of White people today inherit financial privilege than people of color. Which means the gap in privilege along racial lines is only likely to widen.
It has taken generations of abuse and exploitation by individuals and our public institutions to get us to the level of inequality we have today. And because wealth compounds, it’s not like we can reverse this situation over a similar number of generations by simply removing the factors that got us here.
Even if we were living in a perfectly fair and just world today (we’re not), we won’t return to a balance of privilege and opportunity naturally. Instead, the exponential growth of interest and investment returns will continue to widen the gap over time.
Acknowledgement is the first step.
I’m not advocating that all White people should not feel guilty for their privilege, but the imbalance in the world we live in should be troubling to everyone. I don’t know what the solution is, but I’m choosing to start by challenging the perception that the world is a level playing field and that race has nothing to do with opportunity.
If we can at least agree that the problem is real, we might be able to work together to come up with equally real solutions. Here’s hoping.