From My White Skin to Yours: Why We Need to Talk About White Privilege


Have you ever been followed in a store because you are white?

Have you ever walked into a room full of people who don't look like you?

Have you ever worried that your kids will be seen as a threat to police because of their skin color?

Have you ever been concerned that your children might not be welcome somewhere?

Have your children ever been in a class or on a team where no one else looked like them?

Imagine walking into an expensive store and having security called to follow you around to make sure you were not going to steal anything, or having your kids questioned for playing in an affluent neighborhood with their friends. Or, having government policies that supported targeting people with freckles, or blue eyes, or red hair simply because those features have become synonymous with terrorism. These examples convey the invisible privilege that white skin offers. It is difficult for me to imagine feeling out of place or being scrutinized because of how I look, but these are daily occurrences for people of color.

White privilege is often confused with having a pampered life or being wealthy. But, racial privilege is different from economic privilege. In fact, there are many factors that shape our experiences and interaction with the world besides just race and class including gender, sexuality, and religion. This concept is known as intersectionality.

Most of us are privileged in different ways and to different degrees based on those factors. For example, people who are poor and white in the United States face many challenges, but they still benefit by being identified with the racial preference in our country. The combination of being poor and a person of color creates barriers and struggles in addition to economic woes. It also often comes with negative assumptions about effort and is less likely to garner support for policy changes or other structural changes to help.

White privilege does not mean that we did not work hard to get where we are, or that we are undeserving of our accomplishments. It simply means that our skin color alone provides an inherent level of acceptance and advantages that people of color are often not afforded in the world around us.

Consider a National Bureau of Economic Research study on racial discrimination in the job market. When the same resumes (adapted with stereotypical white and black-sounding names) were sent to employers, the white resumes were 50% more likely to receive a callback for the position. The only difference in those resumes was the sound of the name and implication of race, not any other qualification or education level but simply, the implication of a white vs. black applicant. In other studies, this same outcome held true for housing applications and the disparities in healthcare treatments for black patients with the identical presenting issues as their white counterparts. Three fundamental elements of our quality of life: employment, housing, and healthcare, often continue to be determined solely on the basis of skin color.

Take a few minutes to read Peggy McIntosh's Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. Many of the items on the list are things I take for granted every single day. For example, I can walk into a room and know that the majority of the people will look like me. I know I will not be followed in a store to make sure I don't steal merchandise. My Christian faith and traditional family structure are widely accepted as the norm in our country. I overwhelmingly see people that look like me in history books, movies, magazines, TV, and board rooms.

The default in this country is white, and everything else is the exception to the rule.

Several years ago, I took a summer internship in Miami Beach. Most of my coworkers were black or Hispanic and it was the first (and only time) I have been the minority in my entire life. From the beginning, I felt unwelcome and excluded. One day, I sat by myself next to a table of black women for lunch. No one invited me to join them and I did not have the courage to approach them. But I kept wondering, did they think I was rude for keeping my distance? Were they more comfortable eating with people who looked like them? Did they assume I didn’t want to eat with them? Were they making assumptions about me because I am white? Was I assigning false motives to them?

The whole situation left me feeling uncomfortable, lonely, and frustrated. But, ultimately it was a gift of perspective that profoundly impacted my level of awareness and empathy. People of color go through that situation multiple times every single day.

Privilege of any kind creates more access and opportunity, but can be hard to identify when they are a regular part of our reality. White privilege, in particular, is even more difficult because it is an invisible preference that creates entitlement and an automatic status of inclusion and belonging. It exists whether or not we are conscious of it, which in and of itself is another example. It is the privilege of being white that allows us to bury our heads in the sand and turn away from injustices that do not directly affect us.

While it may be uncomfortable to address, or difficult to accept, the inability or unwillingness to recognize the small advantages and the ease in which we navigate our national culture actively maintains the racial caste system of our society. In other words, until we acknowledge white privilege, we are indirectly supporting it. Once we open our eyes to it, it becomes impossible to ignore.

It will take personal commitment and courage to disrupt our comfort level, challenge the norms, and speak truth to power. It is only then that we can repair our painful history and rebuild a future that is just and fair for all.

"Being white means never having to think about it."

-James Baldwin

References:

"Are Emily And Greg More Employable Than Lakisha And Jamal? A Field Experiment On Labor Market Discrimination," American Economic Review, 2004, v94(4,Sep), 991-1013.

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