What is White Privilege and How Does it Work?

White privilege is a complicated thing to define without first looking at how minorities are perceived. Minorities face stereotypes that portray them as lazy, aggressive, primitive, useless, and other negative attributes. Because of these stereotypes, it is harder to assimilate, find a job (often times just because of an “ethnic name”), get an equal education, or be treated equally in the eyes of the law. Minorities are told to go back to their country if they speak in their native tongue, don their traditional garb, or complain about life being difficult in any way and attributing it to their race (this is specific to what I’ve seen in the U.S.) Some groups are also labeled terrorists or thugs because of what they choose to wear, leading to more stereotypes, premature judgment, and harsh treatment. Many are stopped by police who expect them to be criminals. Now, understanding this, I would define white privilege as the absence of these things. That is to say, white privilege is being able to appropriate cultures without facing the usual consequences, having an easier time finding a job, having an easier time in school, and it means that stereotypes about your race do not have real-life consequences, such as disproportionate stopping and frisking by police or inability to get a job because your name is Jose rather than Joseph.

I would definitely say that because white privilege is the lack of something, it’s either harder for people to recognize or easier for them to ignore. If nothing is really happening to you, you can’t really address it, and so when it happens to someone else, you almost instinctively believe they must have done something to deserve it. That, to me, has been the mindset of many people who ignore their privilege and see blatant racism. Their arguments tend to be that black people kill each other, and that police also kill white people, and that all lives matter, and that someone got into college unfairly just because they were black/Indian/Chinese/literally anything other than white. The people who truly take advantage of this ignore-it-if-it-doesn’t-negatively-affect-you-system have never been exposed to anything minorities are exposed to, and therefore they just don’t see it. They think that the safe-guards the government uses to try to even the playing field become an unfair advantage minorities have over white people. White people have a problem in this case where they believe, for whatever reason, that something given to a minority to even the playing field was stolen from them, even if was never theirs to begin with. This is why I also think one of the hardest things to do for white people when talking about privilege is to be objective. As there is a lack of discrimination towards us, we really have no valid experiences with racism, systemic or otherwise.

Going into specifics, in The Distress of the Privileged, Wayne Self is quoted as saying, “It is not illegal to be a Christian in any state. You can’t be fired for Christianity. Christians may feel bashed by criticism, but gays get literally bashed by hate crimes.” This rings true for race issues, as well. It is hard for white people, sometimes myself included, to see our privilege and acknowledge it in the same way that people who do not have it can. In reading an article last year about a Hispanic man who changed his name from Jose to Joe on job applications and started getting responses and offers, I realized that the issue of privilege is much deeper than skin color- it is also about what white people are perceived as being, even when they aren’t visible to you, much in the case of a digital job application. We are seen as more hardworking, less violent, more intelligent, more highly skilled, and more professional. White people may say that we didn’t ask to be perceived this way, and now it more of a burden to us, but in reality, I know that it’s something we would feel if we lost it. In a way, it’s easier to say the privilege doesn’t exist because if we do acknowledge it as something to be rectified, then we end up having to level a playing field that has benefited us. So while we act as if we don’t use the privilege, and we act as if it isn’t there, and even as if we don’t want it, I know people would fight to stick to the status quo, because it’s easy to acknowledge something once it’s been taken from you, and especially if you never had it at all. We call our privilege our burden and then stereotype those who are affected by it in the very same breath. We created a system in which we are superior and then cry in the face of being called out on it. We’ve stereotyped black men as aggressive, hypermasculine, and primitive, and then use these stereotypes to stop them in the streets because we’ve become afraid of the very things we’ve created. In Father Bryan Massingale’s article about racial profiling, he says, “(Trayvon Martin) is a sacrifice at the altar of white fear.” And maybe that is what it comes down to: white privilege is the ability to sacrifice the livelihoods of others for the “benefit” of the white race. And something that is extremely beneficial to us is staying out of movements until they might take some of our privilege away. That’s why we screamed ALL LIVES MATTER in response to the protests in Ferguson; we just can’t imagine something that doesn’t include us- except for racism, that is. But let’s talk about All Lives Matter as a counter-movement for a moment.

Rhetoric is extremely important in our society, and I suppose the oppressed groups, be they gay, black, or otherwise, have gotten way too used to people being against their causes or saying they are being too aggressive with them. As someone who is both genderqueer and non-heterosexual or hetero-romantic, I’ve had lots of people call me out on speaking about issues surrounding both sexuality and gender, and I’ve been told countless times that the communities facing oppression are just rubbing it in peoples’ faces. I find that in the case of Black Lives Matter, it just isn’t my personal fight, but I am an ally in a way where I stand completely with those fighting and still also understand my role as one in which I am a listener and a student, and not a teacher. I cannot express in the same way that someone who has experienced racism why it is wrong or hurtful. I can only know that it is because I’ve heard so. Much in the same way I feel about the LGBTQ rights battle. That is much more my platform and safe space in a way, and I can explain things from my own experience and actually educate people from things I genuinely know, and I am in many ways either hurt or insulted or both when someone who is cisgender and heterosexual comes into that space to speak out as if those experiences are their own. Any oppressed group deserves the right to name their own battles, and so it is my opinion that saying all lives matter as opposed to black lives matter might mean the same thing on the bottom line, but to those who need to fight for their rights in society, saying black lives matter isn’t necessarily a lesson but a reminder, and in many cases black individuals seem to be reminding themselves why they have to go and fight for rights that should have been theirs in the first place. Too many people are okay with brushing this off and saying, “Well, we can’t go back and change history. We can’t go back in time and make sure that they are equal.” Well, of course not, but what we can do is make sure that we reverse all of the effects of the old systems in society. It will most likely take a long time, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start now. But how do we teach ourselves and others to be better and do better?

I would rely on education before action. You can’t get people to mobilize for change if they don’t really understand what they’re changing. I think that the first thing to do is show people that equality doesn’t take anything away. Not having my privilege doesn’t take any opportunities from me, it just gives some more to others. I think that this really needs to be made a point, especially talking to white people about equality, because in reality, we’re the ones who really need to be educated, as sad as this may sound at times. For someone like myself who tries to be an ally to minorities, I try to use my privilege to educate other white people about the lack of equality, where it comes from, and how to approach situations that give them an unfair advantage. But they need to realize what the unfair advantage is before they address it. After education, I think the most important thing to do is make sure white people understand our place in the fight. We must use our privilege to strengthen the voice of minority groups, but we must not take over the fight. While white privilege exists, white people must create a platform in which they encourage people to speak up about their experiences with inequality. These are really important first steps in this fight and should not be overlooked so we can go straight to protesting things we don’t truly understand the implications of.

Cited:

Massingale, Father Bryan. “When Profiling Is.” USCatholic.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 July 2015.
Matthews, Cate. “He Dropped One Letter In His Name While Applying For Jobs, And The Responses Rolled In.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 14 July 2015.
Muder, Doug. “The Distress of the Privileged.” The Weekly Sift. N.p., 10 Sept. 2012. Web. 14 July 2015.

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