This guest post is by Wesley Hall. It is a repost from last year because I think it bears repeating in light of current events.
There was an article making the rounds this week in which a Princeton freshman does a “take down” of white privilege. It has been widely circulated as some kind of gotcha moment for people to subscribe to the idea that racial inequity is a thing to be concerned with. And while I hesitate to connect issues of racial equality to a political party because I strongly believe that racial reconciliation should be a bi-partisan effort, I’ve been disappointed to see the glee with which certain conservative news outlets have highlighted Tal’s piece as a wrist-slap to the concept of white privilege. If I were a Republican, I might be asking myself why some of the mouthpieces in my own political party seem to be so bent on disproving the experience of racism. And I might ask myself what I could do to change that narrative within my politic party. But politics aside, 19-year-old Tal Fortgang wrote a compelling argument against having to “check his privilege”, outlining the hardships his own family faced in getting where they are today. It resonated with a lot of people, and you know what? I understand why. If I believed that “white privilege” was a term meant to diminish my personal achievements . . . if I thought “white privilege” meant that I had to apologize for things that happened before I was born . . . if I thought that “white privilege” meant that I need to be ashamed or embarrassed for being born white . . . if I thought that “white privilege” dismisses the very real hardships and challenges that I’ve had in my life . . . if that was my understanding of white privilege, I’d probably be a little resentful about it, too. But instead, I’ve taken the time to really understand the concept. I realize now, as I hope Tal can someday realize: white privilege isn’t about me individually. It’s not a personal attack. White privilege is a systemic cultural reality that I can either choose to ignore, or choose to acknowledge and attempt to change. It has nothing to do with my worth as a person or my own personal struggle. This is what I find so frustrating about Tal Fortgang’s piece. He didn’t take the time to learn what white privilege means, and instead railed against it in an essay that clearly shows his lack of grasp on the subject. And worse yet, Time magazine reprinted it. (No doubt they are basking in the glory of the pageviews on this one.) Here’s what our fresh-faced Princeton undergrad gets wrong as he spends several paragraphs outlining the struggle of his own family: the concept of white privilege does not deny individual hardships. Hardships can be circumstantial, they can be born into, they can be at our own doing, or they can be outside of our control. Some hardships, for some people, are related to race, and those who haven’t experienced those particular race-related hardships hold white privilege. That doesn’t negate the hardships others have faced because racial privilege refers only to issues of systemic racism. It doesn’t mean that people haven’t experienced difficulty. Nor do the hardships not related to race negate the very real discrimination some people have faced. (And ironically, as Tal outlines the discrimination his Jewish grandparents faced, he acknowledges the imbalance for them while glossing over it as a possibility for others.) There are many types of privilege: economic privilege, gender privilege, heterosexual privilege, and of course . . . racial privilege. “White privilege” is simply an interchangeable term for racial privilege, and refers only to race, not to other privileges a person may have been born into. This is what Tal Fortgang gets really wrong, because his essay assumes that white privilege refers to any kind of privilege. Not so. It’s possible for people of other races to hold other kinds of privilege. They don’t negate it either. . . we’re not playing oppression olympics. When we ignore one form of privilege because another exists, we’re being dismissive. Tal Fortgang is also incensed that he has been asked to “check his privilege” in conversations around these topics. And once again, he is railing against something he doesn’t understand. The phrase “check your privilege” is typically invoked when someone is being woefully ignorant or insensitively dismissive of the oppression of minority groups.It’s not because someone wants a white person to apologize for being white, or dismiss someone’s opinion based on race. It’s a way of reminding someone that they may not know or understand what they are talking about. It’s a gentler way of saying, “You are kind of being a self-absorbed asshole and you should maybe learn more about the minority experience before you continue talking.” And based on Tal’s essay . . . yeah. I can see where he might have heard this phrase before. But here’s how a privilege check usually works: If I suggested that black people were over-reacting about Trayvon Martin, I might be told to check my (racial) privilege. If I said that gay people should stop complaining about marriage rights because they are free to love each other and that’s all they need, I might be told to check my (hetero) privilege. If I suggested that my kid’s school should stop sending home paper assignments and just let the kids do their homework from their own ipads, I might be told to check my (economic) privilege. If I whine about the presence of handi-capped parking spaces at a concert venue, I might be told to check my (ability) privilege. Being told to check your privilege has nothing to do with apologizing for being white. It has to do with being insensitive to the life experiences of others. “Check your empathy skills” might be a better phrase, but nonetheless, it’s not an attempt to shame someone’s race, but rather to point out that someone is refusing to acknowledge privilege differentials. Fortgang goes on to imply that it is his families ethics and virtue that have gotten them where they are . . . which again, no one is denying. But it’s missing the point. Morgan Jerkins says it well:
When Fortgang speaks of altruism and self-sacrifice as values that are deemed as privilege, these are abstractions. We are talking about human beings. There are those who have these characteristics and still face a tougher time trying to secure the same opportunities.
Tal Fortgang refuses to apologize for his white privilege. Fine. But I think he does need to apologize for writing about something that he hasn’t taken the time to understand. White people: no one wants you to apologize for being white. If that’s what you are hearing in conversations around privilege, it’s your own bias or unwillingness to examine yourself, and your attempt to instead create a straw-man situation to avoid seeing racial inequality. And that’s exactly what white privilege is.
White privilege is a difficult concept. It can cause a lot of confusion and defensiveness. In the diversity class I teach to graduate students, this topic is more heated than any other topic we touch on. Similarly, this week I’ve seen people pushing back against the idea of white privilege as if it’s an indictment that they are a racist (it’s not.) I even watched a blogger (who is white) criticize my friend Kelly (who is black) for her suggestion that people confront their white privilege. The blogger suggested that Kelly called white people “white supremacists” . . . as if “white privilege” and “white supremacists” were interchangeable terms (they’re not.) Confusion abounds when we talk about white privilege, and I think it’s confusion that often leads to offense at the term.
Simply put, privilege refers to an unearned advantage. It usually refers to something inherent . . . something you were born with rather than something you worked for. There are many types of privilege: economic privilege, gender privilege, heterosexual privilege, and of course . . . racial privilege. Racial privilege can take many forms, from minor things to life-threatening things. White privilege can look like being able to grab some shampoo at the grocery store and being confident they carry products for your hair type. White privilege can look like being able to find a band-aid that matches your skin tone. White privilege can look like waling through an upscale residential neighborhood without anyone wondering what you are doing there. White privilege can look like wearing a baseball cap and baggy pants and no one assuming you are a criminal.
At it’s essence, it’s a simple concept:white privilege refers to the both minor and significant advantages that white people hold in American society. But still, people seem to struggle with both believing it exists and figuring out what to do with it. Here are some of the questions I often hear asked about white privilege:
I had a hard time growing up, too. We’ve all had hardships.
Of course we have. The concept of white privilege does not deny individual hardships. Hardships can be circumstantial, they can be born into, they can be at our own doing, or they can be outside of our control. Some hardships, for some people, are related to race, and those who haven’t experienced those particular race-related hardships hold white privilege. That doesn’t negate the hardships others have faced because racial privilege refers only to race.. It doesn’t mean that people haven’t experienced difficulty. Nor do the hardships not related to race negate the very real discrimination some people have faced.
I have a black friend who was raised with way more privilege so how can I be the privileged one?
Again, white privilege only reflects racial privilege. It’s possible for people of other races to hold other kinds of privilege. They don’t negate it either. . . we’re not playing oppression olympics. When we ignore one form of privilege because another exists, we’re being dismissive. The fact that I’m white does not mean that I don’t sometimes experience sexism. That fact that a black person was born to a well-off family doesn’t mean they never experience racism. Imagine going to your boss to complain about sexual harassment, and being told that it shouldn’t bother you because you have a nice corner office. When we deny white privilege exists because there are other forms of privilege, we are deflecting a very real issue for some people.
What do they want me to do?
I think that the biggest reason people refuse to acknowledge that there may be some privilege inherent in being white is the fear that it means they owe someone something. I’ve seen a lot of people this week push back against the idea that white privilege exists for political reasons . . . but this isn’t a political or legal concept. I can’t speak for all minorities but for most people I know, the biggest thing they want from me is for me to LISTEN. To hear what their experience is like. To believe them when they describe their own experience.
There is nothing threatening about acknowledging your privilege. Being more empathetic to the experiences of others is not a sacrifice to anyone’s politics.
Am I supposed to feel guilt for stuff I didn’t do?
White privilege is not a value judgment. It’s not meant to be hurled as an insult or use as something to invoke guilt. On the contrary, I think it’s guilt that often compels people to deny that discrimination exists. I’ve seen a few folks make comments about white privilege that infer that it’s a made-up concept by liberals to add more white guilt on ourselves. But self-loathing is not the goal. It’s possible to have a healthy self-concept and racial identity while acknowledging the imbalance of racial privilege. A part of self-worth is acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses. In my experience, bullying and abuse is usually perpetrated by people with a low sense of self. So I think it’s valuable for white Americans to identify what it means to be white: what they like about their own culture and values, and what they want to change.
The only aspect of white privilege that should invoke guilt is if you decide that because you don’t experience racism, that you don’t have to listen or care when other people do.
Owning my white privilege means that I am more empathetic, but it also means I can use my privilege to talk about race without being accused of “playing the race card” for self-interest. A person’s political leanings should not effect the empathy and listening ear they extend to others. Similarly, a person’s race should not dictate whether or not they believe the experience of others . . . and allowing our seat at the Majority Table to cloud our empathy (or deny the experience of others) is the crux of what white privilege is about. What to do about it? Start with listening.
To learn more about white privilege, I really recommend reading this insightful checklist from Peggy McIntosh about “Unpacking the Invisible Backpack”.
What is your reaction to the term “white privilege”? Is it confusing . . . comforting . . . guilt-inducing? Do you think it’s politically loaded? Is so, why?
What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here. Today’s guest posts is by Wesley Hall. Man, I’m just glad I had a mom who gave me the realness from a young age. I can remember thinking she was so stuck in the past for telling me that I couldn’t do or say or wear certain things, that I could not stay out as late as my white friends could, that I could not “experiment” with any of the things my white friends did. I struggled so much with her for trying to impress upon me the fact that I was different. Because I’m not supposed to be. I lived in a nice house, spoke more than one language, was well educated and well socialized and I did not understand why I needed to constantly act in a manner designed to disarm another person’s suspicions about me. But wow, I get it now. Every black kid has that moment where he has to decide to accept the armor that his parents present to him to get through life as an American black male, or walk around naked. And the crazy part is, it’s probably something most people outside of the black community never see. I can remember my mom talking to me over and over and over again about what to do and who to call if I was ever picked up by a police officer. She made sure I knew that I needed to declare that I was exercising my Miranda rights rather simply evoke them without notice. If you were in JNJ your mom probably made you take a WHOLE FREAKING CLASS on how to deal with police officers and other people who were perceived to be threatening. And I say that to say that as scary as people think black males are, black males are conditioned to be ten times more afraid of everyone else. We’re conditioned to be afraid of going to certain parts of the country, afraid of people with certain political views, afraid of police officers, and sometimes even afraid of other black and Latino males. The most sickening thing about this whole trial has been the deliberate campaign to rob Trayvon of his right to be afraid. I know I would have been. I owe my mom the deepest of apologies for all of the times that I accused her of overacting or trying to force-feed me a vision of a society long since passed….. One so different from the one that exists today. What I didn’t get was this…. It doesn’t matter how well traveled you are or how many languages you speak or who where you went to school. It doesn’t matter how many friends you have or how much good you’ve done in the world. From afar we are all the same. It used to hurt when my mother would tell me I couldn’t put my hood up or that I couldn’t stay out as late as my white friends. She told me I was a young black male and I couldn’t afford these things, and I figured she never knew how much it hurt for be to know that she did not have faith that I could transcend the many stereotypes that swirl around me and be seen as an individual. But when I think about my own mother having to come down the police station, and identify my naked body and come home and go in my room that would feel strangely empty. She would have to walk past my favorite custom built aquarium and the framed boards my class in Japan made for me on my last day of study abroad, she would have to open my closet and go through all of the clothes I would never wear again and find my favorite suit and then walk out of a room where every object holds a memory. She would have to go on interviews and meet with lawyers and try to be strong in the face of unimaginable tragedy. While people picked apart my character and found every face book status where I cursed or every stupid picture I was ever captured in. She would have to sit in court and dignify people who sought to put me in the ground with not a shred of justice with her presence and her silence. And then on top of that, after a year of pain, to hear from 6 other mothers that my life meant nothing…….. And the thought that after 24 hours of labor, thousands of dollars on tuition and extra curricular and trips and summer activities, and millions of tiny sacrifices that she could be left only with the dust of my memory and the guilt of having not prepared me for this thing called America. I joke about it, but I know how much I mean to her. Before I go parasailing I think about her, and before I jump in the ocean I think about her, and when I had tigers crawling all over me and licking my face two months ago, I was thinking about her. But I did those things because I knew that even if I got poisoned by a cobra or mauled by a tiger, that although it would have been hard…… she would have derived comfort from knowing that I died pursuing happiness, adventure, and experiences that were worth their risks. But I know that she would never ever be able to recover from knowing that I died the way that Trayvon died. And so I understand so well why she taught me to think about the world in the way that I do. To remember how to love life, be open to others, but to always remember who I am and to be so secure in who I am, that I accept that I must constantly think and behave with consideration for that one person who might think they already know. I have fought with my mom, dad, and step dad about what it means to be a young black man in 2013. And I have at times been annoyed at all of them for presenting me with my constraints. But I am so lucky to have been armed with the truth at such and early age. The world can be so confusing for us. So much kindness, and so much cruelty. We’ve all accused our parents of over estimating the dangers out there. But they managed to teach us not to allow this country to fill us with fear, while simultaneously not allowing it to rob us of our vigilance. Shout-out to all of the parents out there, giving that extra course on how to keep your children from being victimized in a society that does not believe that they can be victims. You can keep up with Wesley on facebook and youtube.
“I take for granted that I belong wherever I happen to be.” — Joan Haskins
photo via NerdyWonka Any plausible deniability about the negative bias that black men face in our country was pulled out from under me during our first adoption process. Americans love to see themselves as “colorblind” . . . to describe our country as a post-racial melting pot with a black president and a smug sense of satisfaction for not being as racist as the previous generation. But race preference in adoption tells another tale, and in my mind, perfectly exemplifies the disturbing social status of black males. Black males are the hardest children to place in adoptive homes. Of prospective adoptive families, only about 14% are open to an African American child, and of that 14%, even fewer are open to black males. When I asked social workers why, the answer: people are afraid they will grow up to be criminals. When we began the adoption process from the foster-care system in Los Angeles, we received calls for placements immediately, because we were open to any race. A few calls involved biracial children, and the social workers were always quick to highlight that the children were “half-white” and “light-skinned”, as if this was some kind of selling point. We were eventually matched with our oldest, who is black. I can vividly remember having a meeting with an elderly social worker in Compton. “Now I want you to realize . . . black boys turn in to black men. Are you prepared for that?” I remember feeling so disgusted by his question, as if he were speaking some kind of prophecy into the character and potential of my new son. My son who was six months old. Since that time, my eyes have been wide open to the discrimination, stereotypes, and suspicion that black men face in our society. But just as keenly, I’ve been aware of how these experiences of discrimination, stereotypes, and suspicion are dismissed by some white people. Black men who speak out about their experiences are deemed as paranoid or angry or “playing the race card”, despite ample evidence of the contrary. I have seen a shift in the last year, though, and I think the Trayvon Martin case served to rattle some people out of complacency in regards to bias against black men. Like many, I was deeply disappointed to hear the news that George Zimmerman was acquitted. While I suspected that he wouldn’t be charged with murder, I absolutely believed that he was guilty of manslaughter. Defined as“the crime of killing a human being without malice aforethought, or otherwise in circumstances not amounting to murder”, I think Zimmerman should have at least had some criminal responsibility for the death of this young man. I find it disturbing that someone can be 100% responsible for starting a confrontation, but then not at all responsible for what results. I felt sickened when I heard the verdict, for the message it sends to black men . . . that they can be followed on suspicion of being a thug for appearance alone, and then killed if they don’t defer. After I shed some angry tears and talked about it with Mark, I logged onto facebook, expecting things to look similar to the days following Trayvon’s murder. I expected to see people of color expressing outrage, and most white people staying silent. I was comforted to find that, at least in my feed, my white friends were just as outraged as my friends of color. And not just transracial parents, who have been ejected from the privilege seat because they have a stake in the game. I saw people of all races and generations, equally disturbed that a young black man was followed and killed with no consequence. Of course, I also saw people who denied that race had anything to do with it. And if you are one of those people, I hope you will keep reading. Because this isn’t just about Trayvon. His death is a catalyst for this conversation, but regardless of what happened there, the issue of bias and black men remains. It’s evident when people call the police on a black person attempting to break a bike lock but walk by (or offer assistance to) a white person doing the same thing. It’s evident when a group of children are asked about the photo of a white man and a black man and they assume the black man to be a criminal and the white man to be a teacher (despite the fact that the pictured men were Timothy McVeigh and a black Harvard professor). It’s evident when people assume a black man to be a criminal over a white man at first glance. It’s evident when children look at photos of two children on a playground and a majority of them assume ill intent on the part of the black child. It’s evident when we look at the shameful “stop and frisk” habit that profiles young black men as potential criminals. Trayvon just brought to light the oppressive stereotypes that all black men are living under. And the case illustrated that it can sometimes be a matter of life and death. I’m heartened to see that white people are acknowledging the race aspects of the case, but I’m also worried that after this story falls off the news cycle, the issue of race will again be ignored. And honestly, it’s likely that it will be, because for the majority of Americans this story does not have a personal impact. Parents of black children are burdened by concerns for their child’s safety as they navigate the world, but why should this injustice be left for black people to deal with? If you are looking for ways to channel your outrage about the Trayvon case, I’ve got some ideas. But even if you felt the verdict was just, I think (and hope) we can all rally to make sure that the dynamics at play in the links above are eradicated for the next generation. (And if you aren’t buying that there is racial bias against black males, go watch the links again. Watch until it sinks in.) As the media fury dies down, let’s remember our frustration, and move it into action: Push back against racism when you encounter it. To fight against racial bias, it’s vital that we create a society in which racism is not tolerated. This will only happen when enough people become vocal that the perpetrators of racism are motivated to change.Racism is more covert, but many of us still encounter it. It’s time to speak up and ask questions. Stop being so touchy about our own racial bias. All of us will hold racist thoughts from time to time. And there is not a one of us who is immune to racial bias . . . we are swimming in it. Social conditioning means that we all hold it. Let’s stop pretending we have to be a card-carrying KKK member to hold racial bias. It’s implicit. It’s possible that George Zimmerman wasn’t a day-to-day racist and it’s also possible that he racially profiled Trayvon. It’s messy. Racism is not so polarized anymore. We need to deal with the nuance and be willing to confront the ways we’ve all been shaped by media and stereotypes. Talk about racism. Race is one of those topics nobody wants to touch. Like religion or politics, people seem to want to stay out of it. The problem, though, is that in not talking about race, we are letting it fester. We are putting our heads in the sand and pretending not to see the bias that people have to endure every day. Talking about racism does not perpetuate racism. Let me repeat that: talking about racism does not perpetuate racism. We won’t solve anything if we are too scared to speak about it. One of the comments that annoys me the most, when I blog about race, is when someone says, “Well, you are just passionate because your kids are black.” Shouldn’t we all be passionate? Are we content ignoring a problem just because it doesn’t effect us? Should we ignore bullying unless our kid is actually being bullied? It’s time for everyone to care. Educate yourself on racial injustice. If the idea of the black man’s burden is a new concept for you, or if you believe that we are living in a post-racial society, I would really encourage you to educate yourself. Websites like Racialicious The Root, Tim Wise’s blog, and NPR’s Codeswitch are great resources for learning more about issues of race, and have been hugely helpful for me. Listen. I have noticed that many white people feel an innate need to either defend or deny that racism still occurs. I think white people sincerely wish that the world was colorblind, so we pretend that it is . . . even when that involves dismissing the experience of others. But we’ve got to start listening . . . without dismissing, without derailing, without defending. We’ve got to listen to our friends of color and their experiences. Rapper Lecrae said it so well
“I pray my non-black people grasp that there is a cultural identification blacks have with Trayvon and our own experiences that cause deep emotional connectivity and sympathy. He represents our cousin, our son, ourselves, our past present and future. We are very culturally connected and this affects us in incommunicable ways. Blacks are NOT just emotionally blind to the facts and evidence and trying to pull the race card.”
Focus on what you can do. Too often, I see white people respond to issues of racism by citing that black people are racist, too. It’s predictable that when I post on facebook about an instance of racism, someone will trot out examples where a black person has been racist. Do black people hold some racial bias? Sure! Of course they do. We can find examples of prejudice in every racial group. But just like I tell my children when they try to deflect: “Focus on yourself. Do the right thing. Don’t worry about what others are doing.” Diversify your world. Racial bias festers when we fail to develop friendships with people of other races. It’s vital that we diversify our relationships, not just for ourselves but for our children. Too many kids are being raised in homogenous communities by well-meaning parents. They are taught to accept others, but they have limited experience with people outside their own race. We need to make sure that the media is not our kids’ first encounter with people of other races. We need to make sure that Lil Wayne and Snoop Dogg are not the cultural ambassadors to the black community for our children. If we are not intentional, our kids will develop views about other races from stereotypes instead of from relationships. Black Male, Re-Imagined II: Performance by Daniel Beaty from Open Society Foundations and The American Values Institute on FORA.tv The nation is paying attention to the burden and risk of being a black man. Let’s move to action. I was heartened to see the protests tonight, and to observe that the crowds were very diverse. I felt that the verdict yesterday sent a horrible message to black men, and I hope the protest sends a message that many people care. But we can’t leave it at a protest. We’ve got to tell young black men that we’ve got their back today, and every day. That is what community looks like. That’s how we will find justice.