I am white. I grew up in an all-white New England town. I worked in largely all-white professions. I have white privilege. If you’re white, you have white privilege too. Whether you know it or not.
A friend recently argued that they grew up in humble beginnings, that their family line came from farmers and roofers, that they “worked 24 hours a day” to go to community college after their short stint in the military, and that they have struggled as a small business owner. From this they conclude that “the idea of white privilege is a myth for most of us who are white.”
They miss the point completely.
White privilege means that the way we are treated isn’t affected by the color of our skin.
We’re the “default.” We’re what happens when nothing is happening. We get to skate through life being treated as a person. We get to make or break our lives solely by how hard we work. We are given the benefit of the doubt in virtually all cases.
White privilege doesn’t mean we are all racist. It doesn’t mean we never have bad things happen to us. It doesn’t mean we have never struggled to pay our bills, get a job, or afford college. Those things happen to all of us.
But they don’t happen because of the color of our skin.
As white people we never expect to be challenged by the police for no reason. We’re not likely to be considered “suspicious” for walking our dog. We’re not likely to have the police called on us for barbecuing at a local park, or using the gym in our own office building, or trimming our own hedges in our own neighborhood. We’re not likely to be turned down for a loan because of redlining. We don’t have to worry about those things.
We most certainly aren’t likely to be killed for petty – or imagined – offenses.
Last month there were heavily armed white men angrily screaming in police officers faces, forcing themselves into capitol buildings, and threatening elected officials. All while not wearing masks during a pandemic that has killed nearly 110,000 Americans so far.
Nothing happened. No National Guard. No militarized police force. No chemical weapons.
This week we saw peacefully protesting, unarmed, black men and women (and some whites) tear-gassed and beaten by combat-geared federal police, just so an embarrassed Trump could get a photo op in front of a church he has never attended and hold up a Bible he has never read.
Heavily armed white men engaged in violent actions are given the benefit of the doubt. They are called “fine people.” Unarmed black men protesting continued societal discrimination have the armed forces called out on them. They are called “thugs.”
A white supremacist kills nine black men and women at a prayer meeting in Charleston; he is arrested without brutality and given a bulletproof vest and a Big Mac. African Americans (and other minorities) are routinely killed for no reason.
That is white privilege. And the lack of it.
You get the idea. So let’s look inside ourselves, we white men and women. Let’s get a few things clear and then make an attempt to learn how to better our nation for ourselves and all Americans.
First, white privilege is a thing. It doesn’t guarantee us riches or an easy life. It just means we are not being targeted because of the color of our skin. We might not be aware of it, but we benefit from it every single day.
Second, “all men are created equal” means ALL men and women. That doesn’t mean we’ll all achieve the same thing, just that we should all have the same chances for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That isn’t the case. Our society starts people of color at a massive disadvantage at birth, and it keeps them there through unequal treatment.
Third, no one is saying people of color don’t have to work to get ahead. They do. Just like everyone. All they want is a fair chance. They don’t get one.
Fourth, equal rights for all doesn’t mean we lose any of our rights. We still have our rights, and all of us white people will still have our white privilege until the country somehow reaches an approximation of a more perfect union. We’re not likely to see that in my lifetime, but we can try. The beauty of it is that even when or if that happens, we white people still have all our rights. The only difference is that those constitutional rights are enjoyed by all Americans, not just us white Americans. We don’t lose a thing. In fact, we gain a better nation.
Fifth, we have white privilege whether we actively seek it or not. It’s automatic in our society. That’s not because we deserve it; it’s simply because going back to the first enslaved person brought into the original thirteen colonies, we’ve perpetuated discriminatory practices in our policies and societal norms. We need to stop doing that for the good of the country.
Finally, we can all learn. It really isn’t that hard. We whites should be open to learning. Be open to listening. And I mean really listening, not the “listening” we do when we’re just waiting for a chance to give our point of view.
There are many books that help explain what people of color go through. We should read them. Below is a stack of books you can choose from. Some of them can give us insights into ourselves; some give insights into the non-white point of view. I’ve read several over the last few years and am trying to learn more. We all need to do that.
Here are some other suggested readings.
We can also make an attempt to learn more directly from interactions with others that don’t look like us. We’re a nation of diversity. That’s a good thing. We whites need to get out of our bubbles to see that.
Oh, and we really don’t need to offer retorts like “this is a two-way street.” That’s both obvious and blind to the point. Think of the phrase “All Lives Matter” in retort to “Black Lives Matter.” Now think of saying “All Houses Matter” when one house is on fire. Do we fix the problem by ignoring the burning house because all houses matter? Or do we try to put out the flames on the house affected? The phrase Black Lives Matter is to highlight the fact that society often treats black lives as if they didn’t matter. It doesn’t mean that white lives don’t matter. It doesn’t mean police lives don’t matter. In fact, think of the phrase “Blue Lives Matter.” If that makes sense to you then the problem is not singling out a group, it’s the fact that the group is black.
Also, the black population of this country knows they have internal problems. They are dealing with those problems. We don’t need to lecture them on how to clean their own house; we need to focus on cleaning ours. If we do that honestly we’ll find that most of the problem that African Americans (and Latinx and Asians and Native Americans) have in this country is caused by how they are treated by white people and the society we have created. They will work on their issues; we need to work on our own. And we need to work together.
I’m still white. I still live and work in a mostly white profession. But I’ve come to realize that us whites have a responsibility to work toward “a more perfect union.” Abraham Lincoln once said about emancipation:
In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.Abraham Lincoln, Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862
We can do this. We won’t lose a thing, yet we’ll gain so much.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.