The Problem With Privilege

I can’t possibly have anything unique to say about pretty much anything relating to over-reactive police, racial tension, media, or  anything else that factors into the trouble in Ferguson, Missouri over the last week.  But in the constructs of American life, there is a certain element that we just can’t seem to see our way through.

I’ve read a lot of reports and opinions from professionals and amateurs; one of the great ironies of the Internet is that it gives everyone the same volume at which to speak, which means people who should probably just sit down and shut up get a megaphone that amplifies their voices just as loudly as those who know far more than anyone else about whatever topic is discussed. The result, often, is the wider dissemination of what is inflammatory rather than what is rational and measured, because inflammation is more visceral and therefore more instinctive. I believe that’s why demonstrations that begin with one goal end up a melange of goals and opinions, and things that start off peacefully end up sporadically disruptive.

In everything we’ve read and seen, it seems there is a lot of visceral reaction, natural and instinctive, that leads to accusation and defense—or defensiveness. Sometimes these are overt. Other times, less so. It’s when the accusations and defenses are less obvious that I think the most trouble arises, because it’s harder to know what just happened.

To me, one of the most interesting forms of inferred accusation and applied defensiveness centers on the concept of white privilege.

For the record: I’m white. So I can’t pretend to fully grasp the perspective a person of color would bring to this situation. But I also live in a dense urban area, in a city whose majority population is black. (And I use the term “black” deliberately; not all “black” people trace their heritage to Africa, which means they are not all African-American.) In my environment, to not acknowledge white privilege is to basically stay in my house and never look out the window or turn on the news. Which isn’t to say there aren’t people in my environment who don’t understand the construct.

I used to rebel a little against the idea of white privilege, because I didn’t understand that I wasn’t being blamed for something and I wasn’t being defined as better-off, necessarily. I’m not sure when I realized what it really was, but I think it was some time around when the stalker thing happened, because it had a lot to do with what motivated me to take activist action; I realized I could use my privilege to benefit other people, not as some great, benevolent white lady, but as someone the system automatically took more seriously and cared more about because I was white. (I also speak what people would categorize as proper English, with no discernable accent.) In all of my reading this week, I have come across a few essays and op-eds from white people who are upset about being assigned a kind of privilege, saying things like, “I refuse to apologize.” The content of their writing reveals that they just don’t know the definition of white privilege.

White privilege is simply about the fact that white people do not have to deal with the possibility of being underrepresented, mistreated, suspected or demeaned, as persons of color.

For example: If I walk down the street in the dark, no one is going to look at me sideways, unless he or she is concerned for my safety. But if a person of color – a black or latino person, in my community – walks down the street in the dark, someone is going to wonder, “What’s he up to? Where did he come from? Does he live here? Where is he going?”

If I get pulled over by a police officer, I will have no reason to wonder if it’s because of my race. (The only time I got pulled over and didn’t deserve it was when an officer thought I was talking on my cell phone, and all I had to say was, “Oh! No, I wasn’t.” That is literally all I had to say. He believed me even before I offered to let him see my phone’s call and text message logs, and he let me go without checking them. If I were a man of color, the odds would be much higher that he wouldn’t believe me, or that he would take me up on my offer to see my phone’s logs.)

In fact, getting pulled over after having done nothing in violation of the law is much less likely to happen to me than it is to a person of color, and my story is more likely to be believed.

When I go through airport security, no one thinks they should look in my bag; if it’s searched, it’s purely because of a randomized approach. But when my friend Adhira goes through airport security, there’s a greater chance that someone will think that because she is Pakistani (they might not know she’s Pakistani; they’ll just know she’s brown and looks Middle Eastern), they should search her bag.

And the chances of me, a white woman with no criminal record, being shot by a police officer are essentially zero. Whereas the chances of a person of color with no criminal record being shot by a police officer are higher. Statistically speaking, even if I was armed, even if I was threatening, the chances of me being shot by a police officer are still lower than if I were an unarmed person of color. Thirty-seven of 45 people shot by police in Oakland, California between 2004 and 2008 were black. None of them were white. In 40 percent of the cases, the person who was shot was unarmed. (No officers were charged. Other shows of force were not categorized in the data set.)

My whiteness means not only that I am presumed innocent more often, but also that I am presumed more innocent than a person of color. I am presumed to be a better person. Even when I have done something wrong, and even when a person of color has not.

That’s white privilege. It’s not my fault. It’s just a side effect of my having been born white. For persons of color, suspicion is a side effect of having been born something else.

You’d be irritated about it, too, after a while.

But here’s what dawned on me while reading an essay today written by a Princeton University student some months ago: white people tend to look at privilege differently. We think of it as socioeconomic. Of course we do; we’ve never faced discrimination—or incrimination—because of anything else. So we reflexively resent when someone seems to accuse us of having an advantage, because, if we’re socioeconomically comfortable and not trust fund babies, we probably did have to work to get where we are in life. Because we have never had to struggle to be considered equal in any other respect, our only understanding of privilege comes from the idea of money. But for people of color, the struggle to be seen as equal goes way beyond lines of credit and sizes of homes. It’s rather telling, isn’t it? We define everything by our own perspective…including our own privilege. Maybe if white people were better able to understand how other people define privilege, we’d be collectively more able to understand why so many people don’t have it.

Maybe then a lot of things would get better.


9 thoughts on “The Problem With Privilege

  1. I like that you spoke about this topic. Being African American, I never really thought how my counterparts would feel about ‘white privilige’. Maybe there are some that truly do not understand or see it. But I think it’s an obvious unspoken thing.. a known unknown. I was followed today in a store. Do you know how that feels? Felt my body heat up like I was Goku. Hate the vibe, tension, and overall negativity emanating from the other party.. it’s sad. When it comes to blacks we are everywhere, but no matter what our ‘hertitage’ is at the end of the day it all traces back to Africa. Regardless if they’re a black Houndran, a black Sicilian, a black from St. Lucia. We all come from the Motherland me & you & the collective. We’re all black when the lights go out 😉 lol
    Thanks for this post!

  2. Very thoughtful SC. You have made a point that I never seen mentioned before. I think you are right on target. Thank you for the post – most enlightening.

  3. So, so true.

    Seceral years ago I had a black boyfriend who happened to have a BMW. We were out one night and we got stopped by the police who asked to see his driver’s license and ownership papers. He was not speeding. He had not gone through a red light or failed to stop at a stop sign. In fact we were just slowly leaving a gas station after filling up.

    He simply got stopped because he is black and he was behind the wheel of an expensive car and the police assumed he’d stolen it.

    Even after they saw all the paperwork they wanted to know where we were going and where we lived and where we’d come from.

    Would that have happened if I’d been driving?


    Sadly he was resigned to it because it wasn’t anything he hadn’t gone through before. I was embarrassed, disappointed, insulted on his behalf and very, very angry. And ashamed such a thing could and would happen — especially in Canada the good.

    You’ve expressed it so beautifully in your post. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  4. It probably won’t surprise you that I’ve got something to say but I need to find a time to say it thoughtfully. Beautifully written, thought-provoking post which I agree with … except that I never saw white privilege as socio-economic. My college days in an interracial fraternity during the sixties saw to that. But I think there is a counterpoint that needs to be said … delicately.

  5. Good one, Single Cell. I think you hit it right on the head! Very few white people understand what white privilege is, just as few men realize what male privilege. It’s like fish don’t know what water is unless they’re tossed up on shore and don’t have it anymore.

  6. So, after due consideration, I’m not going to write a treatise on your post. Again, let me say I do agree with everything you say. I believe that bigotry is much more alive than is generally acknowledged, and not just racism. My counterpoint was that there does exist a black presumption that in any violent confrontation between a white person and a black one, the white paeron is at fault and a racist. I cite the OJ trial as evidence of the extremes this can go to. I also acknowledge that it is often true and that makes it undertandable that black presumption exists. But that doesn’t make it right. Reading an article on Micheal Sam not making an NFL team today, I’m inclined to say there is also a straight privilege. Bias against gays runs MUCH deeper than publically acknowledged, a combination of media not wanting that to be true and political correctness. Just read the comment on any Micheal Sam story on line.

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