Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What, exactly, do we mean by "White Privilege"

I read an interesting, short article in The Root. It takes on the always-sticky topic of "White Privilege." I like it, in part, because it takes a metaphor I've been bouncing around my in head, and then backs it up with data.

You see, I think that much of the resistance to the idea of White Privilege comes from people misunderstanding the term. White Privilege does not mean that all white people have it easier than all black people, or that all white people are racist, or that what a white person achieves wasn't earned. White Privilege simply means (as I understand it, anyway) that, in our society, it's easier to be white then to be non-white. And, that it's easier in important, identifiable ways.

The metaphor that I've been using, mostly my head, occasionally in conversations, has to do with a race — as in, a 50-yard-dash kind of race. Imagine that we were running such a race, but that all white people were allowed to creep up five or 10 yards before the starting gun went off. That would obviously be a huge (and undeniable) advantage. But, that doesn't mean that every white person would beat every non-white person in the race. It's absolutely possible that some of the non-white people, who didn't gain the advantage of a head start, could still cross the finish line before some of the white people did.

But, that doesn't mean that the race was fair, obviously. The non-white person had to be much faster than a white person just to be able to win by a little bit. 

If all the you can see are the results of the race, it might look pretty fair — the non-white people were mixed in with the white people, in terms of order of finishing. So, a person just looking at the results might not see any unfairness. And, if someone claimed the race was, in fact, unfair, that person might say, “How can you say it was unfair? A non-white person won!” That's pretty much what's happening when someone says that there can't be such a thing as White Privilege, because we've had a black president, or because they know some African-Americans who are successful, or some such. The fact that some African-Americans were able to "win" the race doesn't mean that the race was fair.

And, what the article brings to the conversation (besides a more concise description of this race-metaphor than I just gave you) is the data. The data which shows that African-Americans are more likely to attend poor schools, regardless of income levels. That African-Americans are at a disadvantage when it comes to finding a job, and to getting paid. That African-Americans pay a premium on their bank loans, and car insurance, and more, just because of the color of their skin.

No, it doesn't mean that life is fair to every white person, or unfair to every black person. It doesn't mean that every white person has it easier than every black person. It just means that, on whole, it's easier to be white than not.

That fact might make you uncomfortable, but it does seem to be a fact.

If you're interested in further conversation about this, consider joining us for a discussion of the book Waking Up White, this Saturday night at 7:00.