Tuesday, August 23, 2016

What Is White Privilege?

At another site someone posted a poll question: "Are you aware of your White privilege?" Someone posted in reply: "What is White privilege?" Well, duh. I mean, I'm glad if younger people really have not noticed White privilege...that is, provided that they weren't just failing to pay attention.

First, let's admit that sometimes there is such a thing as non-White privilege, too. Just being the one who sticks out in a crowd can become unpleasant. White Americans who've travelled have had that experience, as have those of us who've worked in certain neighborhoods, certain school districts...there can certainly be privileges based on being an insider, or a kind of non-insider that's more liked/trusted than another kind.

Then there are the times when it's hard to be sure. Did the distracted employee actually not see who was there first?

(Once I waited at a pharmacy counter where two geriatric patients, one with pink skin and one with sable-brown skin, were waiting for prescriptions, along with a younger patient; I was with the darker-colored patient, the one who was too ill to go in alone, and who was there first. However, the counter worker had been in a back room when the patients approached. She looked at the patients, "Who was here first? You, sir?" and the White man, who had walked in alone and probably driven to the store alone, did have more white hair and more wrinkles. To her that patient might have looked like the oldest, therefore sickest, person who needed to be waited on first. Well, appearances are deceptive. The young person might have been sicker than either of the geriatric cases for all I know.)

And sometimes it's not actually about race, even if it looks that way. Have you ever liked one music recording better than another, without seeing the faces of the performers? Is the snooty server kissing up, not to the White customer as such, but to the customer who looks as if s/he spent more money? Did the other student's paper get a better grade because it flattered the teacher more?

But then sometimes the only reason people don't notice their White privilege has to be that they've never looked at the other point of view.

Remember this sweet little children's story? It's a story of White (middle-class, well-connected) privilege:


Ghetto boys have gone to jail for the kind of stunt that got the fictional character Logan Bruno hardly even rapped on the knuckles.

Back in my AC days, I wrote about "National Return Shopping Carts Month" (February, when it's easiest to see and recapture shopping carts in much of North America). I shared an anecdote about living in Maryland. I was always baffled by seeing so many shopping carts lying in bodies of water, and used to pick them up on the way to the store and push them in with me. One day I found a stray cart while walking through a majority-minority neighborhood, and the person walking beside me panicked. "Don't touch that cart! Do you want to go to jail?" I couldn't believe that my Cuban immigrant friend had seen anyone arrested just for returning a shopping cart, but yes, indeed, some store managers and some police officers worked on the assumption that anyone seen pushing a stray cart was probably the one who'd stolen it. I'd lived in neighborhoods where the assumption was that you were returning a cart that had blown down the stream bank in a storm. Those are typically majority White neighborhoods. That's White privilege.

More recently, a paranoid storekeeper reportedly demanded that a Muslim shopper remove her veil. Would she have demanded that a White American shopper remove a skirt, or even an overcoat, that could have concealed a lot more stolen merchandise than a face veil would cover? I frequently haul knitting and knitted goods around in bags that have room for a whole load of stolen goods; nobody's ever demanded the right to inspect my bag, even in stores that display a warning that they claim that right. That's White privilege. Not so much the assumption that no White woman is ever a thief as, in many cases, the assumption that if White women have robbed the store the staff will henceforward be able to recognize them from individual photos displayed in the staff lounge.


Once in Arlington I walked out of the library carrying a big stack of books. With my astigmatism, I walked right up to the car at the end of the row in the parking lot where I'd left my husband, wondered why he'd turned the car around in the parking space, but didn't focus closely enough to notice that someone else had parked another car, the same type and color...at the end of the row, actually, just beside my husband's car. I opened the door and said, "What'd you do, pick up dinner?"--to a total stranger. Then I saw the stranger sitting in the driver's seat, whirled around, saw my husband waving from his car, and smiled and said, "Oh, sorry, wrong car!" The stranger laughed, "Yes, it's the same car!" Nobody's scared by a little teacherly-looking woman loading books into the wrong car. And as we drove off my husband said, "You know, if you'd been a young Black man he would have called the police--or shot you." That's White privilege.

Well...I do not, actually, mind having enjoyed this kind of White privilege. Nor do I plan to stop extending it to other White people, this "privilege" of assuming that people are honest and decent until they indicate otherwise. I have, however, made a conscious decision to extend it to other types of people too, on the grounds that they deserve it about as much as White people do.

(These stories, collected by a minister who also happens to be a movie star, go into more detail about how extending the "privilege" of good faith toward young people can help.)