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 When talking about a somewhat outdated “white” definition — meaning pale, only around 500 to 700 million out of 7.8 billion people in the world are white, just 8 percent of humanity.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.