What is White Privilege? How best does one define it? Is it something you can see? Something we can quantify? Can you get rid of it? Once you understand what it is, should you be ashamed because you “have” it? Over the past few months I’ve been asked these questions and many others on this topic. It’s something I’ve thought long and hard about because I want to get this right. Meaning I want to shine a crystal clear, easy to understand narrative about white privilege and how it permeates almost every crevice of modern American society. In watching the American Tragedy that is the modern day Republican Party, its nominee, and his coverage by the media, I found the perfect representation of what this term actually means. So to quote the great Morpheus: “take the red pill and I’ll show you just how far the rabbit hole goes……….”
So let’s define white privilege. No, wait, before I do that, let’s clarify what it isn’t. One of the first smart ass answers that I’m always given is “well let me just sit back and take advantage of all the things I’ve received from my privilege!!” It doesn’t work that way. Indeed, there are “advantages” that white people receive in this country as a result of their race. But those advantages are the result of discrimination and racism. Racism that is expressed through inequality. But that ISN’T white privilege. White privilege has very little to do with with “things” or benefits. You don’t actually “get” anything because of white privilege. Instead, think of it as a sort of intellectual and societal “kevlar”, the material used to create bullet proof vests. It allows you to navigate through society in a sort of stupor. No, stupor is the wrong word. Think of white privilege as an unconsciousness that facilitates obliviousness to the ills of Black people in this country. Tim Wise once described it this way: “Think of White Privilege compared to a physical impairment. That is, assuming that you and your family are all able bodied individuals with no physical impediments. Certainly on the most basic level, you can be conscious of handicap people. Heck, you might even know one or two and witness firsthand how hard it is for them to get out of their car or up onto the curb to a restaurant that isn’t properly equipped for the physically impaired. So you have a vague, working knowledge of the handicap, while never truly understanding their past, present, and future struggle. You may even become indignant if you ever hear anyone use the term “cripple”. But the subtle discrimination they face, the vicious undercurrent of ridicule, and even hatred that these individuals confront every day is something that most able bodied individuals never face and can’t relate to. Indeed it’s not only a foreign concept to most people, but because these challenges have never entered into the thoughts of the everyday person, they may even go so far as to deny the existence of deep seeded discrimination against the handicapped. White privilege acts it the same way. It allows certain sects of society to operate in total oblivion to implicit bias and systemic racism that people of color face everyday. Not only does white privilege give obliviousness to its owners, as it relates to the struggle of African Americans, but it also affords them the luxury of total denial and disregard as it relates to discrimination and systemic racism, two dynamics that are just as prevalent as overt racism, but far more harmful. Using this basic explanation, let’s look at a textbook case study of white privilege in operation. Morning Joe, the political morning show on MSNBC, and it’s treatment of the Republican Candidate for President, Donald Trump. Listen as Rob Reiner bravely tells the Morning Joe cast the reason for Trump’s popularity, and observe their subsequent responses.
Here you have a case of Mr. Reiner clearly and fearlessly speaking to the reason why Mr. Trump’s candidacy has gained so much popularity among certain groups. His answer is something that most of us intuitively knew early on in the campaign cycle. When we heard the catchphrases, the fearmongering, the subtle “us against them” suggestions in his rhetoric, it was clear why his popularity soared among certain groups. It was clear why violence broke out against people of color at his rallies. It was clear why he began to receive endorsements and volunteer campaign assistance from white supremacist groups. Indeed it was clear to everyone except the group seated around the Morning Joe table. What were their responses? Mika sat there with her hands on her face as she stared at Reiner, in a sort of pitying way that said “you poor, pathetic, misinformed, old man”. Joe Scarbarough, host of the show, almost fell out of his chair in laughter at the notion of racism driving Trump’s campaign. Co-host Willie Geist stared at Reiner with a sort of dismissive expression on his face, and guest contributor Mark Halpern pivoted away from the issue of racism by asking Reiner
some totally irrelevant and asinine question about Secretary Clinton’s minimum wage position. It was shameful. Then, a few months later, came Judge Curiel.
“He’s a Mexican!! I’m building a wall…” -Donald Trump
Why would people who overlooked all of the xenophobic, bigoted rhetoric of Donald Trump up to this point, suddenly begin lambasting him after the comments about the Judge? Because systemic racism is more difficult to recognize that is overt racism. Call someone a nigger (or unqualified as a judge because their Mexican)? Well, that’s easy to disavow, get up in arms about, and vociferously condemn. Recognize, call out, and work to dismantle systemic racism, which perpetuates an environment of disenfranchisement and inferiority? Well that’s a totally different animal. One that white privilege oftentimes prevents many from recognizing.
To illustrate this dynamic further let’s take a look at the curious case of Donald Sterling. Up until a year or so ago, he was the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, a basketball team in the NBA. He was forced to sell the team after tapes were released to the public in which he was heard making vile, racist statements. In those tapes, Sterling can be heard telling his girlfriend that he doesn’t want her associating with, or being photographed at basketball games with Black men. He specifically points out Magic Johnson as one of those men, but makes it clear that associating with any African American men is disrespectful to him and unacceptable. Following the release of these tapes, there was massive backlash which included a protest by basketball players on his team. This backlash culminated in Mr. Sterling being forced by the NBA to sell the team to Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, for 2 billion dollars. Making comments about his girlfriend staying away from black men is offensive, but in the context of what we’re discussing here, were his words an example of overt or systemic racism? Clearly, the recordings were in the same category as someone saying “nigger” or some other offensive word(s). It was a blatant example of overt racism. And just like any other case of overt racism (ie: “he’s a Mexican, I’m building a wall”) that is discovered, there was an immediate outcry and demand for consequences. Because after all, we don’t allow racism in this country to go unchecked!!
Or do we? You see, Donald Sterling made his billions in part from real estate. But for decades he has had lawsuit after lawsuit filed against him due to discrimination and violation of housing laws. He has a history of racist practices that treat people of color unfairly simply because they aren’t white. It got so bad that in 2006 the Justice department filed charges against Sterling for his refusal to rent housing to African Americans. He eventually settled the case for almost 3 million dollars. Yet oddly, neither the NBA, nor the media said or did anything about this. There was no outcry. There was no demand for justice or punishment. He didn’t have to sell his team or face public ridicule. Was the housing discrimination, which undoubtedly affected hundreds if not thousands of African American in California, an example of overt or systemic racism? Tell your girl to stay away from those darkies? ABSOLUTELY NOT!! WE WON’T HAVE THAT!! THAT IS HURTFUL AND OFFENSIVE!! PUNISH HIM!!! Systemically disenfranchise people trying to find decent housing, and base that disenfranchisement solely on the fact that they are Black? Eh… nothing to see here folks…..keep it moving!!!
This tale of two manifestations of racism by the same man, is the same thing that we are currently witnessing with Donald Trump. The white privilege that our Caucasian brothers and sisters enjoy creates this “sociological bubble” that makes it almost impossible for them to see, and then RECOGNIZE systemic racism, even when it is staring them in the face. The laughter of Joe Scarbarough when Rob Reiner talked about systemic racism at the heart of the Trump phenomenon is no different than the blind eye turned to Donald Sterling’s systemic racism in his housing practices. Every adult in this country knows that it’s wrong to belittle a judge because he is Mexican or suggest that he is incapable of fairly conducting a trial because the defendant has talked about undocumented immigration from Mexico. Just as every adult also knows it’s wrong to say “stay away from black men, or I find it offensive that there was a photograph of you with this black dude”. Those things are easy to condemn. Not even white privilege will shield a person from recognizing that. But when Donald Trump says things like “take our country back” and “make America great again” and then buttresses those slogans with policies that demonize all Muslims and call for the deportation of 11 million Mexican brothas and sistas. When those slogans are buttressed by retweets from White Supremacist groups and incidents of violence at his rallies, then we are talking about systemic racism. And that is far more difficult for those who have on the blinders of white privilege to recognize.
Below are two clips involving Trump. They are textbook cases of White Privilege. They are only a minute long. Please take a quick listen, and in the context of our discussion up to this point see if you can catch privilege being manifested before your very eyes:
In each clip the person talking wants us to “set aside” the racism. Let’s focus on his lack of leadership skills, or his inability to put together a coherent foreign policy. Those are the important things to consider when analyzing Trump. The Racism? Put that aside for a second. Um, No!! We cannot put that aside. That is the essence of who he is. Everything that springs forth from Donald Trump is rooted in his racism. Think of this man as a “racist tree”. Racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and hatred are his roots. Everything else is just branches that grow from this racist tree and you cannot separate or “set aside” that racism if you want to truly understand what this man represents. Indeed no person of color would ever even suggest that we “set aside” the racism. Only someone who enjoys white privilege would make such an outrageous statement and then, not even realize how offensive that is to people of color.
In closing it is important to reiterate that white privilege IS NOT RACISM. If you are white and in America then you have white privilege, but that DOES NOT mean you’re a bad person, or anything close to being a racist. Being white isn’t something one should feel guilty about, ashamed about, or apologetic for. As noted educator and anti-racism activist Jane Elliot once said regarding her own whiteness and white privilege when asked should she be ashamed of who she is: “of course not! I didn’t ask for it and I can’t get rid of it!” The important point is to become conscious of white privilege. To understand how it works in America. To work to make things level for everyone by unplugging oneself from the constraints of privilege. Don’t wait for the easy softball pitches to act. Anyone can get mad at the word nigger, the claim that a Mexican can’t be a judge, or the order to stay away from Black men. That’s the easy stuff. What about systemic bias in law enforcement? What about the school to prison pipeline that systemically condemns black and brown bodies to incarceration? What about the systemic racism that makes little black children think that the standard for beauty looks nothing like them? That’s the real dirt. That’s the area where the real work needs to be done. Are you up for it? If you stuck around for all 2,148 words, you can no longer say you weren’t aware!!