Friday, January 10, 2014

White, Thus Privileged?

I have read that because I am white, I am privileged. This idea was just beginning to percolate in higher education when I was doing my Masters in Critical Theory, but it wasn’t yet clearly articulated and thus I didn’t get brainwashed into believing that being white was a privilege I was born with.

I loved the work I did in my Masters program. We focused on the “Other” and how the other was, and is, marginalized in various cultures, particularly in relation to conquest. We studied the power structures of ideology, and narrative control. By the end though, I was frustrated. I felt like all we did was read and deconstruct stories and ideas, but nothing we talked about changed anything in the world outside the university walls. Finally I asked one of my professors how any of this elitist work would effect change. She basically answered that it rolls down eventually.

Now more than twenty years later I see that she was right. All those philosophers, whose works are impenetrable to those with average vocabularies, have been crafted into narratives that can be spoon-fed to the masses. A lot of good has come from that; Fair Trade products, GBLT freedoms and rights, the end of Apartheid, and an overall understanding that human rights matter, just to name a few.

But with this explosion of important ideas has come a progressive message that includes the narrative that whites (in the USA at least) are privileged. In the past year or so I have been inundated with this idea in FB comment threads, blog posts, and cable news. Friends of mine throw it around apologetically, treating it like an ugly family secret that is finally out. And honestly, I just can’t buy into it.

Cue the eye rolls, disgusted sighs, and angry huffing... but I have never experienced privilege for being white. I may have gotten a few perks (or out of a few tickets) for being young, female, and beautiful (and part time rich —explained below) but that is about it. I grew up with a working poor mom and was treated like white trash all through school. I got into college on my grades, awards, and scholarships. I failed out for not trying hard enough, then went back and got good grades based on my work, not my skin color. I took a third-shift, entry level job at a bank just to get health insurance. I worked my way up on skills and effort, not skin color. When I moved to my first really good job, my hiring manager was African American. I don’t think she hired me because I am white. I worked hard for her and she threw opportunities my way. I married an average white boy who wasn’t very privileged either. Together we built a life with enough kids to force me into the role of SAHM thus cementing our place as part of the Working Poor.

What I learned throughout my life about privilege is that it comes with lots of money, fame or position, no matter what your skin color is. Ask Jay-Z & BeyoncĂ©, or Oprah, or President Obama’s kids. Or ask me when I was visiting my Dad’s house as a teenager. My dad came from immigrants, struggled through college, worked his butt off, and built a company. Compared to the neighbors in his town, he was the rich guy and so I was the rich kid. And all the people there treated the pretty little rich girl like she was privileged. Imagine that: white trash in one world, rich girl in another... same white skin.

I am not saying that there are no situations where a person who was white was treated better or different than a person who was not, and our justice system is a good reflection of that. But I do maintain that I don’t owe anything to being white, and I am not going to accept some sort of shame or debt for it either. As a human, my moral and civic duty is to treat all people (regardless of skin color) with respect and an initial assumption of individuality & inherent goodness, and to raise my children to do likewise.


Extranjera said...

TUC said...

Though there is nothing in that post that changes my stance on this, I did enjoy reading her perspective. In many ways, I am privileged (being born a US citizen, able-bodied, kinda smart) but having white skin has done nothing for me. I can't think of one thing I have that a non-white-skinned person would have to work harder than I did to get... except of course maybe white babies. Can I read a newspaper and see a bunch of people who look like me? Yeah, and half of them are being reported on for doing stupid crap. My husband just got pulled over the other day... with his long hair and scruffy face... driving our black car with the tinted windows... they kept him for a couple hours, made him perform numerous "tests", called for back up, went through every inch of our car... before finally letting him go because they had nothing to ticket him for. Perhaps he has the "privilege" of knowing he was not stopped for his skin color but rather different profiling reasons... which to me is no privilege at all.

Thank you for sharing the link. Her thoughts definitely make for good discussion points.

Extranjera said...

Try following the #WhiteProverbs (on racial microaggressions) hashtag on Twitter. While "I can't think of one thing I have that a non-white-skinned person would have to work harder than I did to get." isn't there verbatim, I did see this: "If you work hard, you can achieve anything in this country," and this "Everyone can have what we have if they just work hard enough for it."

TUC said...

You've got me all wrong. I would never say that. I worked hard for my education and my career, my husband works even harder, and we will never achieve all that I had hoped for as a young girl, not even close. And really, aside from my education and specific children, most anybody can have what I have, because we ain't got much.

Ginger Stickney said...

I really hesitate to even get into this debate as I'm pretty sure you're clear on my feelings about white privilege. As someone else who has spent a great deal of time studying theory, I am surprised that this frame of reference never came up. Understanding privilege of all kinds was very much part of the theory I read. That said, it was very clear in theory that what was being examined was structural instances of abuse, systems, etc. While you may not have experience such things I have to ask can you beyond your experience to see this has systematic? Statistics bare out that men of color are far more likely to be stopped by the police than white men. They are shot by the police more than white men. People of color are the poorest in our nation and around the world. They are not as likely to be accepted into colleges. They receive substandard education. I could go on but I think you get the picture. Are you trying to suggest these things only happen to these people because they as individuals just don't work hard enough? Don't try hard enough?

Pam Plummer said...

I am in total awe of you w/Soooooooooo much respect that words cannot even define & I just felt the need to share that you are totally totally rocking it UB :-) :-) !!!!!

Jisun said...

I think you misunderstand the way that white privilege is meant (sometimes, as I obviously can't speak to how every person out there means it). Your examples about moving up in life sort of prove that privilege, to me anyways. The fact that you got rewarded for good choices and hard work shows that you've enjoyed some privilege and I would find it impossible to believe that being white wasn't part of that privilege. Many people work hard and make good choices and do not get rewarded justly because of an unfair societal system. When I use the term white privilege, it isn't synonymous with "a leg up" but rather the privilege to choose more of one's circumstances. What I do understand from what you wrote is that not every person experiences privilege to the same degree, and I agree with that. I think white privilege gets thrown around somewhat inaccurately, when really what people are talking about is other types of privilege.

What you said about most everyone being able to have what you have? I'd disagree with that. That's what I see as the bootstraps fallacy. Hard work doesn't pay out equally for all people, and skin color is one very big factor.

TUC said...

Jisun, there are so many things that I need to address in your comment and Ginger's that I probably will just write another post. But for now, I have to tell you I am totally SMH at this: "The fact that you got rewarded for good choices and hard work shows that you've enjoyed some privilege and I would find it impossible to believe that being white wasn't part of that privilege."

jisun said...

Okay, so "SMH" really sounds condescending. Maybe you didn't mean it that way (or maybe you did?), but I'd never take that kind of tone with you on purpose.

I hope I was being clear that in no way do I think you are undeserving of what you have. You SHOULD be rewarded for hard work and good choices, and to the extent that you have been, I think it is as it should be. My point is that part of that privilege that people discuss is that people enjoy the privilege of normalcy, rational rewards, justice, all sorts of things that are often taken for granted by those who enjoy them. I don't believe because someone is white they run around on some cloud in lala land filled with privilege; most have privilege in different ways, most are marginalized in different ways. But to say that you've never ever benefited from being white, I find that very difficult to swallow. My point is that your examples illustrated a life in which you worked hard, made good choices, and were rewarded accordingly. That very basic thing is something denied to others based on the color of their skin every day. Benefiting from that privilege doesn't mean someone gives you a hand out, or passes someone over for you simply because you're white. It means in subtle ways, you live a life in which the "rules" work.

Again, though, I don't know your entire life and I'm not trying to say you've lived some sort of unfairly cush life. I doubt that, because very few have.

(Why can't I subscribe to the comments, btw? Sorry in advance if I miss any responses...)

Lisa said...

Well, I'll just add that I don't think the "privilege" in "white privilege" has much - if anything - to do with money or fame or position. It has to do with being able to take certain things for granted that people who are not white cannot take for granted - mainly the way others see you and judge you based solely on your skin color. Generally speaking, people make snap judgments about other people at a glance. We DO judge books by their covers, at least initially. And skin color has very much to do with that. I grew up white trash, too - but I know that I still had certain "privileges" just by virtue of being white that non-white people in my neighborhood, my school, didn't have, and it had very much to do with the way we were viewed by others based on our skin colors. Of course, I wasn't aware of it at the time, but I can look back now and see it.

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