A Brief History of Black Privilege
Anyone hoping to understand the difference between revenge and justice need look no further than this scene from the 2003 Tarantino classic, Kill Bill.
For those who haven’t seen this masterpiece, Kill Bill tells the story of an assassin named Beatrix Kiddo, who tries to start a new life after falling in love and getting pregnant. Unfortunately, Bill (her former boss) and the rest of her old crew track her down on her wedding day, murder her fiancé, the priest, and the rest of the congregation, and shoot her in the head.
Beatrix wakes up four years later to discover that she’s lost a sizeable chunk of her skull, the man she loves, and her unborn child. Not only that, but the hospital orderly has been pimping her comatose body to the local rednecks.
She is, understandably, displeased.
The rest of the movie follows Beatrix on a murderous rampage which begins at the home of one of her former colleagues, Vernita Green. The fighting starts before either of them has a chance to say a word. But when they’re interrupted by Vernita’s four-year-old daughter, Nikki, coming home from school, Vernita takes the opportunity to plead for her life:
Vernita: Look, I know I f***ed you over. I f***ed you over bad. I wish to God I hadn’t but I did. You have every right to want to get even.
Beatrix: No, no, no Vernita. To get even, even Steven, I would have to kill you. Go up to Nikki’s room, kill her. Then wait for your husband, the good Dr Bell to come home and kill him. That would be even Vernita. That’d be about square.
The decision not to murder an innocent man and child isn’t often portrayed as merciful. But when you remember what Beatrix has had taken from her, it’s easier to understand. Her daughter would be around the same age as Nikki if not for Vernita and the rest of the gang. Her fiancé would still be alive.
If Beatrix wanted revenge, she’d put Vernita through all the pain that she’s been through. Plus, she’d dream up some way to make up for the four years she spent in a coma. Vernita’s daughter and husband will lose a mother and a wife, even though they did nothing wrong. But their loss isn’t about revenge. It’s about justice.
A few days ago, I came across this video of a young woman “debunking” white privilege. In her defence, white privilege is such a loosely defined term, it’s no wonder she’s skeptical about it. Depending on who you ask, white privilege is anything from the ability to get a taxi during rush hour to a magical shield that protects you from all of life’s ills. Even Peggy Mcintosh’s highly regarded essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack”, defines it in terms that are outdated at best and insulting at worst.
So when this woman suggests that white privilege is a myth because there’s a black entertainment category on Netflix, and a black-owned restaurant section on Uber Eats, not to mention the diversity programmes in schools and corporations which favour people of colour, it’s not hard to see why she’s confused.
Many people are uncomfortable admitting that if you’re black in 2021 (particularly if you’re young and black), there are opportunities available to you purely because of the colour of your skin. This doesn’t mean that racism is over or that white people are now an oppressed class, but it’s fair to say that the privileges of black skin are no longer limited to age resistance and the freedom to sing along unselfconsciously to rap.
There’s more. Last November, a few days after the 2020 presidential election, Dave Chappelle unveiled an even more audacious plan to make life better for black people. He called it The Kindness Conspiracy:
“Do something nice for a black person, just because they’re black, and you gotta make sure they don’t deserve it. That’s a very important part of it. They can’t deserve it. […] If you’re driving through the hood one day, and you see a black dude standing on the corner selling crack, destroying his community, buy him an ice cream. Just buy him some ice cream. He’ll be suspicious, but he’ll take it.”
If this strikes you as unreasonable, it should. After all, opportunities should be distributed fairly. Rewards should be earned. Ice cream should only be enjoyed by those who have proven themselves worthy. Nobody should be given something they don’t deserve just because of the colour of their skin. The problem is, nobody should have anything taken away because of the colour of their skin either.
Nobody should be stolen from their homeland and sold into slavery because of the colour of their skin. Nobody should be denied the right to buy a home or set up a business, or sit at the front of a bus because of the colour of their skin. Nobody should have to watch the prosperity they managed to build despite these obstacles burned to the ground because of the colour of their skin. Yet all of these things happened to black people just because they were black. And just like that ice cream, they didn’t deserve it.
Privilege isn’t about microaggressions or minor social perks. It’s the cumulative effect of opportunities that your ancestors enjoyed long before you were born. It’s the ability to pursue happiness without society doing everything it can to block your path. It’s having parents and grandparents who passed the fruits of their opportunities down through the generations. None of this guaranteed that white people would succeed, of course. Many didn’t. But they were given a fair chance not to fail.
I titled this piece “A Brief History of Black Privilege” because the history of black privilege has been, well, brief.
Even if we were to assume that black people benefit from affirmative action and diversity programmes in all of the ways that white people benefitted for hundreds of years (spoiler: we don’t), the effects of privilege, both the black kind and the white kind, need time before they’re felt.
Even though Netflix has a “Black Entertainment” category, 80% of Hollywood’s leading roles are still for white actors. Even though there’s a black-owned restaurant category on Uber Eats, black-owned businesses are still twice as likely to have loan applications rejected. Even though black people are being hired by corporations to fill diversity quotas, black people still only make up 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs.
There’s an important conversation to be had about when black people will be “even Steven”. In fact, I think that one of our biggest priorities should be figuring out what a racially equal world looks like and how we’ll know when we’ve reached it. But it’s been 156 years since the end of slavery (which lasted 246 years), 57 years since the end of segregation and Jim Crow (which lasted for over 100 years), and the effects of both are still very much felt today. It’s fair to say we’re not there yet.
So yes, today, some percentage of black people get hired or accepted to university just because they’re black. I have no doubt that some of them don’t deserve it. But to everybody stung by the unfairness of that fact, know that black people have felt that same sting a hundred times over for generations. Know that every descendant of slavery today, even though none of us experienced it directly, is worse off because our ancestors were denied a fair chance to succeed. Know that black privilege isn’t about revenge, not at all. It’s about justice.