The Advantage of Being “White” or White Privilege

In the wake of George Floyd’s death last May, millions of Americans from all backgrounds and races participated in demonstrations, marred in some cases by violence. After Floyd’s murder, there were massive demonstrations around the world, and they have continued across the United States more than three months later. The issues at stake are complex, but really quite simple: are humans really all created equal, as the Declaration of Independence asserts? Or do we admit and accept that we have long had an underclass or caste in America?

One way of looking at the problem is through the lens of white privilege — or advantage. Even though the subject is not quite as emotionally charged as racism or white supremacy, many “white” people, usually defined as those of European descent, cannot or refuse to see that they have any particular advantage even though whiteness is the standard by which all are judged. 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. As the Reverend Jacqui Lewis has observed, “If you’re afraid to think critically about race, it’s probably because you directly benefit from racism.”

It’s worth noting at the start that the concept of “whiteness” has evolved; originally only those of Anglo-Saxon stock were included. Germans, the Irish, Italians, Chinese and many others had to endure a time of trial before they were grudgingly accepted as “white.” Whites have always been in the majority since there has been a United States even though many refuse to or cannot recognize white privilege. One reason this might be so is that this involves skin color, which is fundamentally an illusion — most of us come in gradations of brown, beige or ivory – the world is not simply black or white.

Furthermore, Americans have a strong cultural bias; globally, whites are a minority of the human race. When talking about a somewhat outdated “white” definition — meaning pale, only around 500 to 700 million out of 7.8 billion people in the world are white, just 8 percent of humanity. If we expand the definition of “white” to include all light-skinned people among the European range of skin tones (Greeks, Turks, Romanians, etc.), the percentage grows significantly to as much as 1.4 billion, around 19 percent of humankind. Finally, if we use the broadest definition, including many who have lighter shades of brown skin, Latinos, and Middle Easterners, the number grows significantly, to around 2 – 2.2 billion — little more than one quarter of the world’s population.

It’s no surprise many Americans have a warped impression.Way back in the 1950s, the population of the United States was almost ninety percent white. As of the 2010 census, 63.7% of the United States is European (or white). What has made a lot of President Trump Trump’s supporters anxious is that the Census Bureau projects that “whites” will no longer be in the majority by 2045. Such anxiety is nothing new — the large-scale arrival of the Irish on our shores in the 1840s provoked the rise of the nativist Know Nothing Party. Waves of Chinese immigrants to our western shores in the late nineteenth century led to the passage of xenophobic immigration legislation, and now many are desperately attempting to stop the influx of Latinos.

Disputing the existence of “white privilege,” many point to successful African Americans, including billionaire businessmen, athletes, and music industry singers and moguls to “prove” that in our day nothing holds blacks back. They also note that there are millions of poor Americans in “blue” northern cities and even more living in poverty across the “red” South. White privilege does not relate to economic success, but rather societal standing. White privilege doesn’t imply that white people haven’t struggled, just that the challenges whites face aren’t related to their skin color. That’s what makes white privilege a tricky thing for many to acknowledge. White privilege is like a fish’s awareness of water, or our own awareness of oxygen. Both are essential, but invisible and taken for granted, even though neither fish nor humans could exist without each. First and foremost, white privilege means that whites are not judged based on skin color, but on their character. Blacks and other people of color are viewed through a prism that prejudges without reference to character.

Admittedly, this still does not make the essence of white privilege clear, so some examples are in order. Here’s one: in 1944, a sixteen-year-old black schoolgirl wrote an essay describing a suitable punishment for Adolph Hitler — force him to live the rest of his life with black skin! In the same vein, in November 1959 white journalist John Howard Griffin darkened his skin and traveled through the South as a black man. He noted that his change of skin tone immediately cast him on the “junk-heap of second-class citizenship.” The Saturday Review judged Griffin’s resulting best-seller, Black Like Me, a “scathing indictment of our society,” because his change of skin tone suddenly caused Griffin to experience life as a “tenth-class citizen.” Griffin attributed the Jim Crow existence to which he had voluntarily subjected himself as the result of “laws of cynicism barely believable in a civilized society.” Jim Crow laws may be gone, but a heavy residue that began with slavery remains.

Let’s move to more concrete examples: black poet and playwright Claudia Rankine, who holds an endowed professorship at Yale, toured the country promoting her 2014 bestseller Citizen: An American Lyric. Forgetting to turn off her alarm when she took their dog for a walk, she found her home surrounded by police upon her return. When she opened the door to turn the alarm off, police still questioned whether she lived there. Fortunately, her white husband, documentary filmmaker and photographer John Lucas, drove up. Process this: Rankine knew the code that turned off the alarm and had her dog with her. Pretty obviously she was not there to burglarize the place! Fortunately, her white husband rescued her, because the police would not take her word. Rankine maintains that whites have an innate level of anxiety they associate with blackness because of the violence and the history of degradation that came with slavery and its aftermath.

Five or six years ago, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. a well-known black professor at Harvard, was accosted by police while unlocking his front door. Gates has hosted Finding Your Roots on PBS since 2012, won a Peabody award for producing Many Rivers to Cross, and has produced a number of other programs for PBS, most recently on Reconstruction. His numerous books and television productions have made him a millionaire, but police could not believe that a black man could live in his prosperous neighborhood.

More recently, while Amy Cooper was walking her dog in New York’s Central Park this past May, she encountered a black bird-watcher, Christian Cooper. (No relation). Her dog was not on a leash, as required by New York City rules, so Christian reminded Amy of this requirement. Amy’s response was to call 911 and excitedly report that she was being accosted by a black man. All Christian did was to remind her politely to obey the park’s rules. Amy purposefully lied, knowing that her testimony would put Christian in danger. Fortunately, Christian recorded their interaction, which made it clear that he had been polite and non-threatening throughout the encounter. Amy was banking on her whiteness to get Christian in trouble.

A few days later, Minneapolis police arrested Omar Jimenez, a black Latino CNN reporter doing live reporting on the demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. A nearby white reporter doing the same thing was treated with “consummate politeness” by police. The contrast was so stark that journalists covering the event concluded that the only difference was race.

So what are some concrete examples of white privilege? White privilege means you don’t have to worry about being monitored in a store just because the hue of your skin is a bit darker than others’ and your hair is not the same. It means not being constantly affected by negative stereotypes perpetuated and ingrained so much into American society that people believe them to be fact before they actually encounter you.

White privilege means not having to worry about being stopped and frisked anytime, anywhere. It means you can walk just about anywhere unaware of your color. You blend in; others do not. You can wear any type of clothing and act however you’d like without being labeled a thug, low life, or gangster. You can wear a hoodie without arousing fear or suspicion. Because of white privilege, you’ll never have to inform your children of the harsh realities of systemic racism. Here’s a crucial one: you can openly carry assault weapons into state capitols with being accosted by police. Black men bearing arms, even with permits, are seen as a threat to society.

Professor Rankine has recently written a book, Just Us: An American Conversation,” which fearlessly addresses white privilege. Well aware that the very subject of race and privilege makes most whites squirm, she points out that the black population, a very large segment, some 13 percent, deals with the constant threat of death and debasement. This is reflected in the interminable string of police incidents involving the killing of unarmed blacks stopped for petty infractions. George Floyd, who died for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill, was hardly the first, nor sadly will he be the last. Blacks have a far higher likelihood of being stopped by police for minor infractions or simply “on suspicion.” Although drug use rates are identical for both races, the rate of incarceration of African Americans is six times higher than whites because police patrol black inner-city neighborhoods far more intensely than they do white suburbs — where there is just as much crime.

When renowned journalist Bob Woodward interviewed President Trump in June for his best-seller, Rage, he asked the president “Do you have any sense that privilege has isolated and put you in a cave to a certain extent, as it put me and I think lots of white privileged people and that we have to work our way out of it to understand the anger and the pain Black people feel in this country?” Trump responded, “No” You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.” For most Americans, the President’s response is typical – we just don’t see the oxygen we’re breathing.

Robin DiAngelo, best-selling author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism,” addressed white defensiveness and the range of issues experienced by African Americans in relation to white people. Whether we admit it or not, whites begin with a leg up in our society that we are happy to pocket as perfectly normal. Then we have a “perfect storm” of amnesia when it comes to Jim Crow and the decades-long persecution of blacks, ignoring the fact that for most of our history “all men are created equal” was at best a joke. At the least, this makes us hypocrites, although few of us think so because we chose to ignore the pain of our fellow citizens.

Debby Irving has written another penetrating study of the implications of white privilege – Waking up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race. She points out that growing up, she assumed that she and other whites didn’t belong to a “race” – that applied to others. Whites were simply the standard by which all others were measured.

No one gives us an explicit class on the benefits of whiteness and how it works in society because we don’t need it. It’s just something that we realize on some distant yet very real level in the recesses of our brain. At an early age, it dawns on most of us that no matter how bad things get, at least we aren’t black. If we’re honest with ourselves, though we rarely admit it, none of us would choose to be black. We realize, even without being explicitly told, that being white makes life easier. Even if you have to do a lot of hard work along the way, at least you don’t have to carry the burden of blackness as a hindrance and threat to one’s very existence. Being in the white majority gives one a level of confidence lacking in minority children, who are imbued with a certain amount of self-doubt and lack of self-esteem.

You can see from this chart that white Americans fill a disproportionate percentage of the highest positions across a wide segment of society. White people can live in just about any neighborhood (provided they can afford it) without fear of discrimination, or go for a walk in any neighborhood without fear of death. 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. White people aren’t expected to serve as models of our race, while people of color frequently are. White people don’t have to teach their children that others will judge them based on the color of their skin, and white children don’t have to grow up under fear of police or of hostile encounters with individuals in society at large. More than 80 percent of poor black students attend a sub-standard school in the inner city with higher suspension rates and fewer resources. First-rate teachers flock to suburban schools with higher pay. Here’s a shocker: white men with criminal records are more likely to get a job interview than black men with no record.

Rubén Vázquez, the Minneapolis YWCA Vice President for Racial Justice and Public Policy, observed that the perception gap dramatically revealed itself after George Floyd was murdered and protests against police brutality began. Then the multiplied impact of the Corona virus epidemic hit minority communities disproportionally. When Vázquez’s neighbor told him she couldn’t believe the protests kept happening, he replied, “I’m surprised it’s taken this long to get to this point…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.” Vázquez continued, “Just because you play a role in a racist system doesn’t make you a bad person. But what you have to understand is, this is a journey. And there’s no finish line, only progress.”

Vázquez recommends that white people begin to have uncomfortable conversations, not shying away from topics like race and white privilege. All of us have to keep trying to figure out how to make a difference. For some people, that may mean donating to bail bond funds, the NAACP legal defense fund or to other organizations. For some, it might mean protests, vigils, or joining a discussion group. For others, it is having hard discussions with family and friends. This will not be a one-and-done effort, so we have to choose where we spend our energy carefully. Sometimes the best thing to do is to tell people where the water is and how they can access it — and back off. Extra portions of humility are crucial here because you can’t change everyone, and most of us have some work to do on our own habits and thought patterns.

To recap: white privilege is not immediately obvious to most of us. It does not relate to economic success. Lack of white privilege leads To frequent incidents with police and white vigilantes. The caste system we tolerate belies the ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. But the big take-away is that solving this problem is not a “one-and-done” issue, but rather will involve literally millions of people in an evolving process leading to fundamental change, greater justice, and a more perfect union. It’s worth the fight, because in helping the country live up to its motto, “e pluribus unum,” we tap into what has always been our greatest strength, assimilating all who come to our shores. By helping others realize their full potential, we attain our country’s; then all Americans will be first-class Americans.

 

 

 

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Gene Betit

4 Comments

  1. Thomas McClung on October 26, 2020 at 12:25 pm

    I could address this point by point but don’t believe I will, mostly due to time constraints, as I would probably end up writing just as much as you did above. However, allow me to make a few comments.
    1. I am gratified to see that you acknowledge the progress we’ve made in terms of those of color who have become financially or economically successful. I have yet to see anyone else notice or emphasize this. As I see it, if they can do it, they all should be able to do so or, at the least, should take advantage of those opportunities available to them now in our society even if it means they won’t necessarily be making 6-8 figures/year as many of those do presently in the fields of law, medicine, business, journalism, music, entertainment, professional athletics, etc.
    2. I don’t think “white privilege” is necessarily a universal concept or issue in society as a whole these days, certainly it was earlier in our history. I can tell you from personal experience that I didn’t always get the job, much less the interview, every time I walked in the door, referencing, in particular, a job for which I applied which had exactly the same responsibilities and duties as those I had performed when I had run my own business some years before.
    3. Nor did white privilege prevent me from encountering or being accosted by law enforcement. If I had a nickel for every encounter with the police in the last 50 years, good, bad or somewhere in the middle, I wouldn’t need to hit the lottery. When it comes to people of color and the same situation, they are far too many times their own worst enemy in that they don’t want to be held accountable, act as if shouldn’t be held accountable, generally cop attitude or get squirrelly, loud and verbally abusive, and are less than cooperative, courteous, compliant, respectful and subordinate, as they should be. It shouldn’t be surprising to them that things can go south with the police when those last five items are ignored and they take actions such as resisting, assaulting, running or walking away. Please do NOT get the idea that I am condoning or justifying every action on the part of the police but I’m standing here today not because I’m white but precisely because I was cooperative, compliant, courteous, respectful and subordinate, mostly in an effort to avoid a citation (which didn’t always work, of course).
    BTW, I also didn’t scream racism for my part when I got a citation from a black police officer in 1982 for doing something in traffic which is not and never has been illegal. I simply went to court and beat it as the judge realized it was a bogus citation on the officer’s part. Furthermore, my brother is a former police officer and he told me one time in no uncertain terms that if he had to chase someone and caught them, was resisted or assaulted, etc. that the suspect in question was definitely going to jail, no matter who he/she was.
    4. Finally, if you want me to be respectful of, sympathetic and consider all citizens of color to be my equal, I suggest that they begin by being law-abiding (as everyone should be), productive, contributing members of society and treating all in the same manner in which they wish to be treated as I do, no matter their race, ethnicity, creed or national origin. Far too many are anti-social in obvious and varying ways and degrees, all too frequently revel in being anti-social, are not condemned by others of their community who essentially are condoning such behavior and don’t take advantage of those aforementioned opportunities available to them. This may sound sanctimonious, self-righteous and holier-than-thou, even racist, to you but, then, I’m a realist, a pragmatist and employ, as much and as often as possible, logic, reasoning, rational thinking and common sense, even historical based fact when possible, appropriate and necessary. Basically, I call them as I see them.
    5. I think I almost did write as much as you did. LOL

    • Gene Betit on January 28, 2021 at 4:37 pm

      Thomas, it has taken me a while to respond to your lengthy epistle, mostly because you made it mostly personal. White privilege refers to society as a whole, and there are a plethora of individual exceptions. It’s hard to deny that white privilege exists considering incidents like Henry Louis Gates. Jr. being accosted opening his own door in Cambridge because the cop thought a black had no business living in a community like that (Gates is a millionaire; Google him). Or the case on Amy Cooper who called the cops because she was annoyed that a black bird watcher, Christian Cooper, reminded her that her dog had to be on a leash. She called 911 expecting to get Christian in trouble, but he videoed the entire encounter.

      I don’t like long essays, so I will leave you with this fact: At $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016.” (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/02/27/examining-the-black-white-wealth-gap/ This is due mainly to the federal government’s practice of “redlining” black neighborhoods, and not making GI Bill benefits available to the million black vets who served in WW II. The major cause, of course, is home equity, and the direct cause is white privilege.

  2. Kyle Duff on December 31, 2020 at 12:34 pm

    Hello Gene (or Dr. Betit!),
    This is Kyle Duff, the seminary student from Bethel Lutheran Church!
    It’s a shame I didn’t know much about your background and interests while we were in Winchester, but so excited to hear about your work at this point.
    Thank you SO much for this post about white privilege. I think this is a fantastic article with a lot of points for white folks like us to think deeply and hard about. I particularly love your summary and recommendations for what white folks should think about and do moving forward.
    One question/critique I had- you emphasize twice that White Privilege is not related to economic success, and I understand why you make this point- to address the concerns of white people who have in fact worked very hard to be where they are today, or those that continue to struggle in poverty and other difficult socio-economic conditions, even while seeing the apparent success/status of some African American people. However, I would want to push you to say that though white privilege does not necessarily dictate economic success for white people- the converse is very true- that racism/white privilege has often and still does lead to economic disparity for people of color, and that in fact because of this disparity if you are to observe mass statistics of white families vs. Black families in the USA. A quick google search brings me to a site by Brookings that states in their first line: “At $171,000, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly ten times greater than that of a Black family ($17,150) in 2016.” (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/02/27/examining-the-black-white-wealth-gap/). I think one of the easiest examples of this has been how redlining and housing discrimination has led to the ability for many white families to pass down generational health, primarily through housing equity, while these same privileges were denied to black people for generations. That issue is particularly scandalous in Chicago. In this way I would say that White Privilege DOES very clearly relate to economic success (or lack thereof) for many African Americans still today. Maybe that is splitting hairs, but I do think it is very important to realize and clearly state that the history of racism in the USA continues to have economic consequences for our African American siblings. Thoughts?
    Thanks so much once again.

    • Gene Betit on January 23, 2021 at 10:17 am

      Kyle,

      You had it right first: my name is Gene. I too am sorry that we haven’t met, but my wife Sheila only moved from Lake Holiday to Orchard Ridge.

      The point you make about economic disparity is absolutely valid, and one I make in my book. No doubt I should have included it in my blog post, but the neat thing about blogs is that you can return to any given issue again. I will certainly do that with white privilege because it is a major stumbling block for most whites. Since we are still the majority and continue to monopolize positions of power and influence, one can not explain this issue too much or over-emphasize the corrosive action it has had on our body politic for our entire existence.

      I hope you have purchased a copy of Collective Amnesia: American Apartheid, African Americans’ 400 Years in North America, 1619-2019. Lamentably, few Americans read serious history anymore, but I am certain you will enjoy the book. Go to genebetit.com and you will see that I am selling the hardcopy for only $10. That’s less than my cost, but I want as many people as possible to read it.

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