A brief primer on what white privilege is — and isn’t
When I first saw the term “white privilege” being used commonly in discussions on race, I assumed it meant I had it easier than people of color simply because I am white. I assumed it was a broad condemnation of whiteness or even an accusation of white people taking something that doesn’t belong to them.
I was wrong.
If you get mad every time someone mentions white privilege, read on. You just might see white privilege through new eyes.
White privilege has an actual definition and it’s not what many people think. If you know me or if you read my regular columns or essays, you might be familiar with how I came to understand one of the most divisive terms in the current vernacular.
I am going to repeat a number of incidents I have personally witnessed. I am going to contrast them with what people of color experience — people of color close to me. The final example is a deeply personal one. At the end of this column, I will give the actual definition of white privilege.
White privilege starts very small. As I cross a crosswalk in front of an older white woman in a Lexus, I get six-or-so paces beyond her car when I hear her hit her loud electric door locks. Turning, I see a Black man crossing a dozen paces behind me. That is white privilege.
I can shop at Nordstrom, free to wander without scrutiny. But the store security staff closely watches the Black man who came in right after me. That is white privilege.
White privilege is another department store offering a wide variety of makeup colors for white women but few for women of color. White privilege is a white woman entering a boutique with a large shoulder bag and being allowed to browse at her leisure while the Black woman behind her is asked to surrender her bag at the counter before she can shop.
I can enjoy excellent service at my favorite bistro while the Black couple two tables over experience mediocre service because the waiter incorrectly assumes they’re lousy tippers. That is white privilege.
White privilege is when a fellow resident of my secure apartment building holds the lobby door open for me even though he doesn’t know me but then quickly pulls the door shut behind me because a Black man is heading in next.
White privilege is me relaxing poolside at a resort, unmolested by hotel staff while the Black family two rooms down is repeatedly asked for their pool pass, their parking permit or to show their room key to prove they are legitimate guests.
White privilege is me ordering breakfast at a diner, then settling the bill when I’m finished while the Black party seated across the dining room is asked to pay in advance because the white manager thinks they look “suspicious.”
White privilege is me applying for a loan to buy a house and getting approved, even without stellar credit when a Black family of similar means is denied repeatedly. White privilege is a Black home appraised well below its market value but increased by a full third when the bank orders a second appraisal before which the homeowners “whitewash” or remove all objects indicating the occupants are Black.
White privilege is me able to win a seat in our state legislature and freely canvass neighborhoods in my constituency while the Black woman elected in the next district has the police called on her repeatedly as she hands out reelection campaign leaflets in her district neighborhoods.
White privilege is me carelessly fumbling with my documents when a police officer stops me for a minor traffic violation while the Black man the cop stopped earlier had to very carefully maintain awareness of where he slowly moved his hands, asking permission each time he did so, trying not to appear to be reaching for a weapon. White privilege is the same cop allowing me to remain in my car while he writes me up when the Black motorist would have a much higher chance of being handcuffed — emasculated, humiliated — detained and left to sit on the curb before being released and handed his ticket.
Remember when I said I had a deeply personal example?
White privilege is me getting busted on federal cocaine charges in the early 1990s and enjoying a complicated adjudication that included six months in a cushy federal halfway house instead of prison time when a Black man would likely still be serving his prison sentence for the same crime, even as I type these words.
That, my friends, is white privilege.
White privilege is generally defined as societal privilege benefiting white people over non-white people in some societies, particularly when they are otherwise subject to the same social, political or economic circumstances.
White privilege has nothing to do with how difficult a white kid’s childhood was or the difficulties a white adult is experiencing. White privilege is not related to abuse, poverty, sickness or persecution.
White privilege manifests itself in those little details you never thought about because you didn’t have to — details Black people face constantly. The term itself is unfortunate because, to many white ears, white privilege sounds pejorative if we don’t understand its true meaning.
We shouldn’t be arguing over white privilege.
White privilege isn’t anything to be ashamed of — we didn’t ask for it. White privilege isn’t something we can give up. But to understand our friends of color, we must be aware of it. White privilege makes our lives easier in ways we very often do not consider.
Next time someone brings up white privilege, don’t react defensively. Try to see everyday, ordinary life through the eyes of a person of color — they are reminded of their skin color many times, every day.
We are not. That is white privilege.