As many of us attempt to have difficult conversations with family, friends, and coworkers about race, it can be hard to find ways to talk about uncomfortable realities without triggering defensiveness. For example, when some people hear the words “white privilege,” they latch onto the second half of that phrase and stop listening to the conversation entirely. "Privilege" calls to mind silver spoons, gilded staircases, trust funds — things that don't describe how many of us grew up or the way we live now. But white privilege doesn’t imply that white people haven’t struggled, just that our challenges aren't related the color of our skin.
Many of us have been taught since kindergarten that American society is founded on liberty and justice for all — and a not-insignificant portion of our country holds tight to that idea. According to the Pew Research Center, only 46 percent of white people say that they benefit “a great deal” or “a fair amount” from advantages that society does not offer to Black people or other BIPOC. But everything from the color of adhesive bandages in the drugstore, to which hairstyles dress codes forbid, to a wealth gap that transcends education and savings, says otherwise.
What is white privilege, really?
“Think of white privilege as an unearned, almost randomly assigned head start,” explains Mikki Kendall, author of Hood Feminism. “It doesn't guarantee that you're going to win the race. It just means that you get to start a few feet further forward. White privilege doesn't mean you don't have any hurdles, it just means you have fewer of them.”
While some Americans living in poverty might bristle at the idea of innate privilege, white skin color does protect from many forms of discrimination. It’s not an impenetrable bubble, but it can be a hall pass. “You never had to worry that your skin color would impact where you went to school and how you were treated in school,” Kendall explains. “You were allowed to retain things like being seen as innocent and worthy of protection and worthy of safety, ways that Black children and many Latino and Asian children are not.”
Lori Lakin Hutcherson, Editor in Chief of Good Black News, wrote a powerful Facebook post-turned editorial that details the way white privilege impacts her everyday life. She wrote about her sister getting called the N-word at school, being the only Black person in classes and at work, people assuming she only got into Harvard because of affirmative action, and so much more.
“I was raised in the '70s and '80s, at a time when you just kept your mouth shut and moved on,” she explains. “White people didn’t know how we lived because we weren’t speaking out. But we are not staying silent any longer.”
White privilege impacts every aspect of society
In a thorough article, education researcher Jacob Bennett details the deep racial disparities that persist, many of which white people may have never noticed. That’s what Bennett calls “the power of normal.” If public spaces and goods, like “acceptable” hairstyles and relegating certain foods to “ethnic” aisles in the grocery store, cater to one race and segregate the rest into special sections, that’s indicative of an unequal society.
In her now-classic essay on the topic, Peggy McIntosh likens that power of normal to an invisible backpack full of the benefits of serving as the default, citing 50 examples of privilege that pervade every, single aspect of our lives. White people can live in just about any neighborhood they want (provided they can afford it) without fear of discrimination, or go for a walk in that neighborhood without looking over their shoulders. We can open any newspaper or magazine, watch any mainstream movie or TV show and see mostly white faces, or walk into a meeting at work knowing we’ll be in the majority there, too. White people aren’t expected to serve as models of our race, while BIPOC people frequently are. White people don’t have to teach our children that others will judge them based on the color of their skin, and white children don’t have to grow up under that fear. All of these things are white privilege.
For YWCA Minneapolis Vice President of Racial Justice and Public Policy Rubén Vázquez, the perception gap really revealed itself after George Floyd was murdered and protests against police brutality began sweeping his city. “When we talk about how lots of white people grew up poor and had to work for what they’ve got, we’re not talking about that,” he said. “We’re talking about the fact that, when a white person walks into Target, no one’s following them to see if they’re going to steal something. When they see a cop pull up behind them, they’re not thinking, 'Oh s***, where’s my U.S. passport so I can prove I’m a citizen?'"
But it goes even deeper than that. A 2014 report from the Pew Research Center revealed the median net worth of a white household was $141,900, compared to $11,000 for Black and $13,700 for Hispanic households, respectively. Research from Brandeis University found that a college education does little to narrow that gap; the median white person who went to college has 7.2 times more wealth than the median Black person who went to college, and 3.9 times more than the median Latino person who did. More than 80 percent of poor Black students attend a high-poverty school with higher suspension rates and fewer resources. White men with a criminal record are also more likely to get a job interview than Black men without one, the NAACP reports.
Many of us grew up blind to it
If those statistics surprise you, it’s not necessarily your fault. When Vázquez’s neighbor told him she couldn’t believe the protests were happening, he told her, “I’m surprised it’s taken this long to get to this point. I hear that it’s never touched your world. But now that it’s having a direct impact, you’re starting to notice. And that’s a good thing, because once you realize and understand that you have white privilege, you can start to use that privilege to benefit people of color.”
For Kendall, it’s important to understand the inherent biases that function in our society, and to keep listening when BIPOC point it out. “If you're offended that someone is saying you don't know something, you have to ask yourself why you're so offended,” she adds. Instead of wasting her time arguing with people who say white privilege doesn’t exist, she invites them to prove her wrong. “Trying to break down the defensiveness doesn’t work,” she adds. “It's a knee jerk thing and people need time to get past that knee jerk reaction. So instead of investing too much of my time trying to convince them, I invite them to do the research themselves.”
Hutcherson believes it’s understandable that a lot of people didn’t know how deep white privilege goes, and have strong reactions to learning about it for the first time. “I really want white people in particular to understand this has affected your entire life as well,” she says. “When the story that you've been told is that the Civil Rights movement happened, we got a Black president and now we’re good, I can understand there would be a lot of confusion and rage, frankly, because everybody has kept this secret from you.”
How to work on dismantling white privilege
The next step is finding ways to work on our inherent biases – regardless of our age, socioeconomic status, or individual hurdles. “Just because you play a role in a racist system doesn’t make you a bad person,” Vázquez points out. “But what you have to understand is, this is a journey. And there’s no finish line, only progress.”
He recommends that white people get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations, and not shying away from topics like race. Then figure out how you can make a difference. For some people, that may mean donating to bail funds, the NAACP or other organizations. For some, it’s going to protests, vigils, or joining a discussion group. And for others, it’s having those hard discussions. But because this isn’t a one-and-done conversation, sometimes you have to pick where to spend your energy.
“It's one thing to invest that kind of time in someone you really care about, like your spouse or the person you live with. But sometimes the best thing to do is to give people the location of the water and directions to access the water and then back off,” Kendall says. “Because you can't save everyone. You can't change everyone.”
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