I have seen a number of white friends post things like “If anyone calls me white privileged, I will delete that comment,” or “And then my friend called me white privileged; how dare she?” These are people who insist they are not racist, yet so far, they have resisted all attempts to explain this concept. But I’m a teacher at heart, so I’ll try again.
First, “white privilege” isn’t something you are if you’re white; it’s something you have, and you have it whether you want it or not. If someone says you are speaking or acting from privilege, they aren’t calling you a racist; they are asking you to check this thing you have. Don’t think you have it? I beg of you, keep reading.
The other argument I hear from white people to black people is “I never owned slaves, and you never were a slave, so nobody owes you anything.”
Let’s take these things apart in the context of today. I mean, it’s true, whites no longer legally enslave blacks, so how does privilege play out now? How does it pay out now?
You are an enthusiastic, hardworking white person, and you send your resumé in for a job that you just know you are perfect for. At the top of that resumé is your white-sounding name. You don’t even know that another resumé with nearly identical qualifications arrived in the same stack, but with the name Jamal Jefferson at the top. Your white potential employer looks at yours, likes what he sees, and puts you into the short stack of people to interview. It’s a big stack, and he’s skimming. He sees Jamal Jefferson at the top of one, skims it, and sets in the “not so much” stack. No specific reason, just not quite what he’s looking for.
Seriously, if you asked him, he’d say the person just didn’t look quite right. He’d explain that this is kind of a subjective process and he doesn’t have time to thoroughly examine every single one. If asked to review it, he’d find something he didn’t like. If you asked him to compare it to yours, he might very well feel the blood drain from his face as he realizes, “Oh, shit, I’m a racist,” because he’s a genuinely decent fellow who doesn’t want to be racist. The “implicit” part of the phrase “implicit bias” means he didn’t know he had that bias.
And unfortunately, no one is looking over his shoulder as he skims those resumés to make him check that bias. You get the job, and Jamal never gets an interview. That was your privilege, whether you wanted it or not, whether you even knew you had it or not.
Not only do you get the job, you get hired at 75 cents an hour above the standard entry-level wage in that company because he really wanted you to come work for him. Yay!
Two weeks later, your new teammate at work leaves and there’s another opening for the same job description as yours. Your boss goes back to the same stack of resumés, and this time, because you with your white-sounding name are no longer there, and your boss really isn’t an intentional racist, Jamal’s looks really good, so he interviews and hires Jamal. Now, here’s the next hiccup: Your boss went to a predominantly white school. He lives in a predominantly white neighborhood. His workplace is predominantly white. He recognized your enthusiasm and leadership potential right away, hence the slightly higher starting wage. He likes Jamal, but doesn’t see those same qualities shining through quite as strongly. Jamal has them, but your boss doesn’t see them. There’s something about Jamal that doesn’t look like most of the enthusiastic leaders he’s known. What is it? The color of his skin. Almost all of the other enthusiastic leaders your boss has known–at school, at work, at home–have been white, because most of the people he knows are white. It’s that sneaky implicit bias again. He doesn’t even realize that’s the difference.
This isn’t theoretical. Studies have shown that when identical resumés are sent out, ones with white-sounding names and ones with black-sounding names, the ones with white-sounding names are twice as likely to get called for interviews, and white people are often hired at a higher wage.
Okay, with that 75-cent difference, so far you have $1,560 a year worth of privilege, not counting the two weeks head start you have because you got first crack at a job there.
Now you both take your paychecks out apartment hunting. You and Jamal have very similar renting and credit histories. You are offered several choices. Jamal gets turned down by most of the ones who offer you a place, but finally gets one in the same building you choose. Studies show that white people frequently get accepted into apartment buildings while black people with the same credit histories are told there are no apartments available. The thing is Jamal is getting charged $25 per month more than you for the same style of unit. Why? The landlord is the guy I recently saw post this on FB (not a friend, just some guy): “The reason black people have so much trouble with cops is they’re way more likely to get mouthy and disrespectful.” Racism is real, people. Anyway, this guy is the landlord, and while he’ll take money from black people, he believes they are more likely to be trouble, so he charges them more. You are blissfully unaware of this. Jamal picked up on it as soon as he met this guy, but he’s already been turned down at all the other places, so he’s taking what he can get. You are happy. Jamal is justifiably pissed but sucking it up.
Between wages and rent, you now have $1,860 per year worth of privilege. Did you ask for it? No. Do you even know you have it? No. Just because you don’t know you have it doesn’t mean you don’t, though.
Time for you and Jamal to go car shopping. You both know what you want to buy, and you have both budgeted carefully and are shopping within your means. (Your means are greater than his because you’re white.) You get shown the car you want and a loan at a good rate. Jamal is first shown cheaper cars because the salesperson thinks Jamal is probably looking a bit out of his league. Why does he think this? “The dude doesn’t look like he makes much money,” the salesperson would probably say. Why? That salesperson is never going to say, “Because he’s black,” but that’s what’s going on.
Finally, Jamal gets the car he wants, but his loan rate is higher for three reasons: 1) He’s got a “black-sounding name,” which studies show results in a higher rate; 2) he makes less than you do, and 3) he pays more for an apartment than you do. These are all very real financial advantages that you have for one reason and one reason only: You’re white.
And this doesn’t even touch on all the other non-financial advantages you have, like not getting pulled over by cops as often, not being afraid for your life when you’re pulled over, not getting followed around in stores and yet getting better service–all the ways that a person’s inherent worth and dignity are validated or invalidated in society.
And you haven’t asked for any of this. I get that. But the only way this really changes is when we white folks call each other on it. It changes when we refuse privileges or insist that people of color be given the same benefits. It stops when these things we blithely consider, not privileges, but basic rights actually become, not privileges, but basic rights.
Step one: Recognize your privilege.