The point is not whether we choose to acknowledge or ignore the impact of race, but how white privilege defines all aspects of American life.
Photo by Jonas Foyn Therkelsen via Flickr
It started as so many great ideas do: on a Saturday morning, lying in bed watching SportsCenter, and talking to strangers on Twitter. I don't think any of this would've happened if Twitter hadn't been invented. So I'm on Twitter and some white person asked something like, "Why do black people always make it about race?" These are the kinds of moments that threaten to ruin my day, enraging me with a sentiment that is as grossly inaccurate as it is clueless: Black people don't make situations about race—most situations are racialized whether or not someone points it out. And the real point is not whether we choose to acknowledge or ignore the impact of race, but how white privilege defines all aspects of American life.
So I tweeted back: "The problem is not that blacks make everything about race. The problem is that white privilege shapes America." That, of course, led to people demanding that I define white privilege, which is also infuriating because it basically means I'm being asked to prove it exists.
I could have just told them to read Peggy McIntosh's famous 1988 essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," which remains one of the clearest texts on the subject. In it, McIntosh, a white women's studies professor, lists 50 daily instances in which white privilege impacts her life, including: "I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color;" "I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group," and "If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn't a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have." But I didn't want to send a link only to get back the dreaded tl:dr.
Plus, I felt like being more confrontational. I kept thinking, Shouldn't these people be explaining this to me? For me to tell white tweeters about their white privilege would be the equivalent of blacksplaining their racial experience. Surely white people must be aware of the ways in which their whiteness helps them, ways that I couldn't possibly understand unless I painted my face white like Eddie Murphy in that old SNL skit.
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Now, I know that part of having privilege is not having to question, or even be aware of that privilege—in that sense, asking a white person to define white privilege is like asking a fish to tell you about water. But I wanted to do it. I wanted to make things awkward, to talk about a subject you're not supposed to talk about in public forums. I wanted to make people uncomfortable because I wanted them to be real with me, and real with themselves.
So, knowing that I was about to start a shitstorm, I tweeted: "If you're a white person who's aware of how white privilege has helped you, can you tweet me about that? Tell us how it's helped you."
The first several responses I got were positive, and pretty constructive.
That second one really made me feel like we were living in two completely different worlds. It made me feel like where whiteness conveys so much credibility that even tattoo sleeves and red dreads weren't enough to stop the power of white privilege when he showed up to work at a venerable blue chip company. Then someone pointed out the difficulty of actually seeing white privilege, admitting that sometimes people aren't aware they have it.
People tweeted stories about police leniency, about how their whiteness had helped them out when they needed a business loan. Some said they noticed that their whiteness makes their opinions seem more valuable, that it means no one assumes they are incompetent, that no one questions the legitimacy of their college scholarships. And as the conversation developed, the feed got even more candid.
One of the most interesting responses came from a user calling himself @Muscogulus, who mentioned that white people speak to each other about their whiteness in code. Yes, someone was actually admitting that white people sometimes speak to each other in a private language meant to perpetuate difference.
Eventually, the feed took a darker, less productive tone.Tons of people were responding, but most were attacking me, and denying the existence of white privilege. People accused me of suggesting that white people don't work hard, which isn't true. I don't think that white people just get handed random stacks of money like they did to "white" Eddie Murphy. I believe that successful white people work hard, but that they are also aided by whiteness—and that these two ideas aren't mutually exclusive.
This last argument was common, with people attacking the concept by fixating on examples of unsuccessful white people and/or successful black people. But this is silly: Just because someone isn't able to capitalize on their advantage, doesn't mean they don't have it. If you lose after starting the game with a two-touchdown lead on your home field, it doesn't erase the fact that you started out ahead. Louis CK put it well when he said, "I'm not saying that white people are better. I'm saying that being white is clearly better."
Still not sure that being white is clearly better? Let's talk about Tom Brady.
After a while, the conversation devolved into racist smears, so I moved on. But I wanted to go deeper on the subject, beyond Twitter and the weird ways it dictates and messes with our social interactions. Because I loved learning how white people saw white privilege helping them. It was like learning about the hidden rituals of a secret society.
So I cold-emailed and texted my white friends, out-of-the blue. Like, we haven't talked in a week or six months or whatever, and then, boom, there's a text from Toure: "Hi. Can you tell me how white privilege has helped your life?" But I had faith my friends could roll with it. Some politely declined to respond, but most of them went deep. Many of them asked to not be named or to be identified by just their first name. And many of them said things that surprised me.
One of my oldest friends, Eddie, whom I've known since first grade, spoke of the impact on his self-esteem—a lifetime of watching movies and TV shows in which the hero was white had conditioned him to see himself at the center of the world, to feel efficacious and empowered. "When you go to a movie and there's a beautiful woman and the person who wins her looks like you—that's big," he wrote. "You feel like you fit within the dominant paradigm of what's desirable and normal. These films are made about your experience. You're the white guy. They're made from your perspective. That's big. That makes you feel central."
If you lose after starting the game with a two-touchdown lead on your home field, it doesn't erase the fact that you started out ahead.
Another friend spoke of how whiteness helped him professionally. "I feel like so much of my career has been about people taking chances on me, putting faith in me, etc.," he told me. "I have had basically four different careers—all really interesting and challenging—and I've gotten the chance to transition to each and show what I can do, based on people giving me those opportunities. I'm not blind to the fact that for many non-white people, getting a big break 'on faith'...is essentially unheard of."
Linda Tirado, author of Hand To Mouth: Living In Bootstrap America, a book about her life in poverty, said white privilege gives her greater latitude to express herself. "Anger is one of those things we're culturally more comfortable with if it's coming from white people," she said. "I wouldn't have a career at all if I weren't white—I'm too angry. I'm allowed to cross more lines."
The comments made it clear that whiteness conveyed a greater sense of freedom than I had even imagined. The rules are different if you're white, the boundaries are wider. You can get second and third chances; you can be anti-social, dreadlocked, tattooed, and still get the job. And the results aren't just limited to opportunity, they also affect the way people feel about themselves.
Other people I spoke to pointed to the accumulative advantages of whiteness, not simply in their interpersonal interactions, but the effect that white privilege had over time, allowing families to accumulate wealth over generations and create the types of safety nets that can make life a little easier, letting them start a business, pay for college, buy a home.
"All my success can be attributed to my white privilege," a lawyer named Kailey told me. "I grew up in an economically unstable household, yet I still attended above-average public schools alongside middle and upper-middle class students. A black family with the same socioeconomic background as my family would be much more likely to live in a community of concentrated poverty, with under-resourced schools and fewer opportunities for social or economic mobility."
Jeff Smith, a friend and former politician who now teaches policy and advocacy at the New School, expanded on that idea. "I wouldn't call my family rich, but we are definitely comfortable," he said, "and that is largely due to the real estate my parents own—a house and an apartment building in affluent sections of town."
Smith, who served the better part of a year in federal prison and recently published the book Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, added that while his white privilege didn't stop him from being incarcerated, it helped immensely after his release.
"White privilege was never more important to me than when I came home from prison," he told me. "I now had a big strike against me in the labor market, one that most don't recover from. And frankly, it wasn't easy for me. It's hard to put a finger on exact moments where this was the case, but I'm quite sure that being white and highly-educated helped make my mistake and prison term less damaging in the eyes of many."
"It's like the reverse of the old saw, 'What do you call a black man with a Harvard MD? 'N----r.'" Smith added. "This was more like, 'What do you call a white ex-con who happens to have a PhD?' Dr. Smith."
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