White privilege, it’s a phrase you will likely have heard a lot of the last few days and weeks as the worlds attention has once again been brought back to the racism problem in our society. As a white person, it is important for me to know what white privilege is, what it means, how it affects me and what I can do about it in my own life.
White privilege is a very real thing in both America and Britain and I am certain many other countries, but I’ve only lived in the two. Unfortunately, one of the first reactions when people first encounter the phrase is offense, that it does not apply to them and well, how very dare you suggest otherwise. As though it is akin to being accused of outright racism. This is to be expected as for the most part, most people’s experiences with it are passive and until you are aware of what it actually is, it is understandable to think that your life has certainly not been given any privilege.
So let us first look at what white privilege is NOT, let’s clear this up before you get anymore offended that you may already be. Saying that white privilege exists is not saying that your life has been easy. It is not saying that you didn’t work hard for everything you have achieved in life. It is not discounting your struggles, your past or existing poverty. It is not saying that you have not also fallen foul of a system of industry and society built by and for rich and powerful white people.
What it IS saying, is that the color of your skin has not negatively impacted your opportunities in life. That regardless of whatever struggles you may have had, your race has not been a tangible factor in that. What white privilege IS saying, is that you are much less likely to have been stopped and searched by the police for no good reason, or that you are not followed around when shopping at the grocery store, discreetly or not, by security, just for not being white.You are much less likely if you are white, to have been denied a loan for a house or a business due to the effects of things like redlining. You are much less likely to have had your capacity to effectively vote to have been affected by gerrymandering.
You may say “yeah but”, there’s always a yeah but or “what about”, it’s just the same as not all men when discussing sexual harassment. Yeah buts are one of the reasons these issues never get fully addressed in the general population, never mind at a governmental level. Yeah buts are always looking at a surface level situation without ever seeing the root cause. You may say you didn’t get that promotion at work because a lady of color was given it because of an affirmative action program. I understand your frustration, but the real question is why is there a need for an affirmative action program in the first place? Why are we so bad a hiring or promoting minorities that we have to put a program in place to even give them a shot?
There are generational prejudices in our society both overt and concealed, ingrained in the culture of our polities our corporations, our religious centers and our friend groups that unless directly confronted will continue to plague us. The United States was founded upon a Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and yet we have failed time and again to live up to the very ideals of the founding fathers. So we have had to create rules to bring opportunities to people that were being denied that for no reason other than ingrained prejudice.
Yeah but, I’m not racist, yeah but I had nothing to do with slavery or implementing segregationist policies, I’m not the problem here. Yet whether you know it or not, you do benefit from the fallout of these things. Our society so celebrates individualism, that we can fail to see that we are supposed to be one country. The American dream, that you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps and do all things if you just apply yourself. This very dream, this focus on the individual takes our focus away from the collective, it is the I over the we, it is me versus them. Maybe we say, society may have its issues, but I’ll be ok if I just work hard & pay my bills. What about everyone else? Well they just need to do the same, but that’s their problem, not mine. I won’t lie, I understand this mindset, I have lived this mindset. Life is not easy, it can take all we have to simply exist at times. Yet for some people the life of going to a well paying job to cover the bills and have some fun when we have chance it just not a reality.
We like to think (or pretend) that we live in a meritocracy, that we are all created and born equal, that if you just work hard and put in the effort that you can achieve anything. Sadly, this is just not accurate, you cannot “pull up yourself up by your bootstraps” if you don’t have any boots in the first place. It’s like saying we’re going to have a 100 meter race, but you have to start 1500 meters behind me. You might be Usain Bolt, but if I have a 1500 meter head start I could walk and I’m still going to win.
So how did we get here? I am not going to write a thesis on the history of racial failings in America or how the views here are directly correlated to those in England. I would encourage you to look deep into history, outside of what you may have been taught in school. Look at the dark side of colonialism and its effects.
African slaves brought to the US were treated awfully, considered less than human by their owners, this way of thinking making it much easier to justify the unspeakable horrors they inflicted upon them. It is the same tactic European slavers used to justify kidnapping people in Africa and selling them as livestock. That somehow this was justified as a means of civilizing the savages, mostly in the form of Christian evangelism authorized by the Pope, that’s right, the church not only condoned, but encouraged slavery just as they did genocidal colonization, because how else would people hear about Jesus? It had nothing to do with money and power, honest governor (insert eye roll).
The end of slavery came about in the US with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 & the 13th amendment in 1865 & 6 months after that when abolition finally reached Texas. Freedom may have been granted, but not a lot else was. The former slaves had now to figure out a new way of life. The plantation owners and their associates were unlikely to want to lend a hand, they felt that they had been ruined by the government. The communities around the plantations were likely confused and scared. There was certainly great influence in local policy decisions that were guided by the fear that if the newly freed people were to have any power over them, then they might treat them as poorly as they had treated the slaves. That compounded on generational prejudice born out of the teaching that these were less than humans & well, you can imagine why maybe things in the reconstruction era weren’t as rosy as we may have hoped.
For many former slaves, sharecropping became their new reality. The former slave holders still needed their fields to be worked & the former slaves, devoid of any assets desperately needed income. However in order to work the fields, the newly freed slaves needed to rent a part a piece of land, the tools, a place to stay usually on credit, because again they had no assets coming out of slavery. The former slave holders were only too happy to provide these, for a fee, usually high interest rates & they would also require the crops to be sold exclusively back to the, at a rate they decided. Usually the slightly less than the amount that the sharecroppers owed. Protections for the property owners were put in place so that the workers could be arrested and either returned or sent to jail if they tried to leave the plantation whilst still in debt (it’s starting to sound a lot like slavery again isn’t it?)
An interesting note in the 13th amendment is that slavery was still permissible for prisoners. In the south, former slave patrols commonly became official police departments & incarcerated black people were then again used as slave labor.
This was not that long ago, this was the late 19th and early 20th century. The biggest cause of financial disparity between black and white people is homeownership. Think about it, if your great grandparents owned a home and there was equity associated with that & they left that to your grandparents they to your parents, then your family will likely be in a stronger financial position than someone who has never had someone in their family own their own home. That is not to say your are rich or that it’s not a struggle to pay the bills. Yet maybe you grew up in a place that you knew was your home. This doesn’t apply to you? It’s ok, we are generalizing here for the sake of conversation, I’m sure you understand the point. In the context of white privilege it is that this is certainly a feasible scenario for most white people in America, whereas it is a much less likely scenario for black Americans.
This glance over history is without even beginning to scratch the surface into the actions of the KKK and similar groups throughout the country. Just being around this all the time, this way of thinking, this way of viewing people it would affect your world view. You may be the best of people, have a great heart, but if your entire life you have been given the narrative through the actions of your society the black people are less than, that they are dangerous, that they lazy, whatever lie you have been told, it will affect your thinking.
In the US, Black americas were not considered citizens until the 14th amendment in 1868. Whilst constitutionally black men had the right to vote granted in the 15th amendment in 1870, there was such violent opposition to them exercising this right that it was more common for them not to vote. I think it is important to vote, but if there’s a good chance of me getting lynched for trying I would probably pass too (ok not probably). The famous civil rights act was passed into law in 1964, some 94 years later, finally outlawing discrimination based on race color, religion or sex. Many of us learned that this was the beginning of the end of systemic racism in America, even though Martin Luther King jr was murdered 4 years after the act was signed. Yet the legacy of systemic racism in America continues to pervade our society, pervading into policies and decisions like the old code from an obsolete computer operating system that was never removed.
Now we are back to the question, so what do we do? I am no expert on this subject, but as there are few, if any, things in life that make me angrier than racism, I am working to learn more. I am working to be aware.
What does that mean? For me it means reading books, listening to podcasts, watching documentaries that are focused from a minority prospective. Whether they be black American, native American, latino etc. People call it doing the work, what I am not doing is asking my black friends to explain it to me, that is not their job. There are many people out there gracefully allowing us to learn from their knowledge, use those resources.
You don’t know what you don’t know, you can’t change until you see what needs to be changed. Do the work & try to make changes in your own life to identify and adjust your own prejudices. You don’t know what redlining is (I didn’t) google it. if you missed it I put links all throughout this pieces with extra info to read.
Remember these are generational problems will require generational solutions. They will require patience and grace on all sides. They will require the willingness to ask uncomfortable questions and also a willingness to look beyond the current manifestation of these generational problems and find the root cause.
That doesn’t mean saying everything is ok, there is a difference between understanding the frustration that could lead to riots and condoning riots. There is a difference between disagreeing on policing methods, policies and practices and saying that all police are bad. Of course not all cops are bad, I am certain that the most police officers in this country genuinely want to serve and protect. What we need to do as a nation and as local jurisdictions, is find a way to do that, that doesn’t unfairly target minority groups and isn’t enforced with overt violence.
Always remember that systems are built by and maintained by those in power. Once you get past the shock of hear white privilege for the first time you will realize that many of the systems that oppress black people also press lower income white people. They just have the “privilege” of not having their race be added to their struggles. Education funding that strongly favors wealthy towns over lower income towns may have racists toots, but they certainly affect all races.
Those in power don’t want you to focus on that, they would rather you focus on racism, they want you concerned about the bad neighborhoods or the bad schools, asking why are “those people” that way? Yet the focus should not be that some neighborhoods have crime issues and underperforming schools, the focus should be on the all important question, why? And then what can we do about it?
It is classic divide and conquer, colonization techniques being used on our own populations. Let’s not pretend that racism is the only systemic issue in our society. The powerful are quite comfortable using it to distract attention and divide. There is nothing they won’t stoop to in order to cling to power. People will always go along with it, because there is comfort in structure and rules, even if they are not beneficial to them. People like to know the playing field, we understand hierarchy, our entire society is built around it.
So we listen when people say things like; we need strong borders. Even though it is such a lazy solution, it serves the system. The correct question is not how do we stop all these people coming into our country, the correct question is why are so many of them leaving their homes, their families, everything they know? What can we do to help with the problems in their country that would make them not want to go on a life threatening horror journey just to get stuck at our border Ploughing millions of tax dollars into border security however feeds the system, it completes the circle, the metrics look better. The show of strength plays perfectly to the fears of people seeking the strength of a king that can protect them.
Woah, I went on a tangent, so I will leave you here.
Remember whilst we need to listen to many voices, we also have to be careful as to the voices we are listening to, check your sources and check their sources. If someone says something that is new to you, maybe not at the time, but later look up what they said, verify things. The beauty or the information age is that it is much more difficult for those in power to control the information and curate / censor the news. Conversely it is also much easier to disseminate misinformation that is was previously, so be careful.
Most importantly meaningful change in our society will require us to steadfastly stay the course, if we are ever going to see the wording from the Declaration of Independence actually come into our everyday reality.
This is how we will change the world my friends, it starts with you individually and then us collectively, it takes individual effort and collective movement towards a truly equal world.
Remember, without justice there can be no peace. Until Black Lives Matter in our society, all lives don’t matter