White privilege isn’t what you think

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.


Photograph © Octagon via Wiki, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported, GNU Free Documentation License

4 Replies to “White privilege isn’t what you think”

  1. You have shown excellent examples of experiences as seen through the eyes of those who still endure these injustices. Of course, it was far worse in the recent past, this would be in my lifetime. I am 86. What I do dislike is the efforts of the neo-Marxists to inject racism into any situation of disagreement with their policies. They have successfully made the transition from workers being oppressed by greedy Capitalists to people of brown and black-skinned people being oppressed by white people. That is probably the real root of the term white privilege not the rational explanation described in your essay.

  2. I reached an understanding of “white privilege” when I thought about my visit to Israel in 1972. It hit me that just about everyone I saw was Jewish. It’s important to also state that I knew I did not fit in: I did not have fluency in Hebrew, nor did I truly understand the lifestyle completely. The return trip in 1982 made that even more abundantly clear. But still, I was in the majority for the first (and second) time in my life. Contrast that to my 15 years living in the Bible Belt where more people than I care to remember wanted to “save” me, while not demonstrating any kind of positive life that I would want to emulate (bigotry, anti-everything that is not what they were, trash thrown out the window, drinking beer on the way home so the spouse would not know). White privilege exists. Those who refuse to recognize it are not even trying.

  3. Matt, your post is helpful and clear but it still sounds like a white man rather than a person of color writing it. I’m not sure if that is good or bad but it what I kept thinking about as I read it. I would hope that some POC would read it and comment themselves.

    1. Believe it or not, that’s the intent, that a white guy is writing it — a white person addressing a white audience. I put a disclaimer on most posts that, among other things, states that I am not speaking FOR any person of color but I am also (and perhaps more importantly) not speaking TO any person of color. People of color are quite tired of being lectured on race by clueless whitefolk.

      When I was first figuring this thing out (read: whether or not a white guy can address matters of race) with rather a lot of consultation with multiple people of color, one question I had to answer was: “Does my voice contribute to the discussion without diminishing or marginalizing voices of color?” What we (emphasis on “we” — this was not a unilateral decision) eventually decided after a lot of heartfelt conversation was that I have a place addressing white people, maybe white people who will listen simply because I am white when they might have a more dismissive attitude to a voice of color. Obviously, that this occurs is not ideal. But if I can help someone see the light —that white privilege is not only real but also not anything to fight over — then there is purpose to this voice.

      Does that make sense?

      Oh, and everything I write on race is vetted by a person of color.

      This essay was posted elsewhere and one reader, who I believe is Black, responded with a remark I really liked. It read: “I wasn’t expecting to like an article about white privilege written by a white man, but I did. Very thoughtful. Especially like how you preempted the inevitable ‘How am I privileged when I grew up hard and had to fight for everything I have?’ comments. Thanks. Keep walking toward the light.”

      That comment really made my day. 🙂

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