• Sean

Privilege, not Privileged

(originally posted 6/12/20)


“White privilege” is a common bone of contention in our country, and I’ll admit I didn’t understand it immediately. Where I grew up, “privileged” was a word that was used to indicate someone had a life of ease and most commonly referred to being wealthy. When I first heard the term “white privilege”, I thought, “I don’t know, I have had a pretty good life in terms of economic standing compared to many but I wouldn’t say I’ve been privileged.” As I continued to listen to and be involved in these discussions, it struck me that I might actually want to look up the word, “privilege.” The dictionary defines it as “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” That’s when I started to understand it. The way we used it growing up referred strictly to financial or economic privilege, particularly in relation to the middle class environment where we were, but it turns out it is just any advantage afforded to a specified group of people. “Privilege” doesn’t mean ease, necessarily. It means advantage. “White privilege” doesn’t mean that because you are white-skinned you’ve had an easy life. It also doesn’t mean you don’t suffer from other societal injustices. It means that, all things being equal, you have an advantage over a similar person of color. There are two big areas where this shines through in particular: interactions with law enforcement and hiring/school admission. It has become quite clear that people of color have a very different relationship with the police than their white counterparts. There are also elements of socioeconomic privilege in police interactions, to be sure - poor white people are generally treated worse than middle class white people and rich white people - but there is a suspicion and antagonism that all dark-skinned, especially black, people experience at the hand of law enforcement that we simply don’t. My family never had this talk with me and I’ve never met any white family who has, but I’ve recently learned it is very common in communities of color, especially black communities. That is a significant indictment.

The second place the white advantage comes through is in hiring and school admissions. Affirmative action was put in place for a reason and, unfortunately, it is still necessary. While some people consider it to be discriminatory against white-skinned people, the reasons they seem to give indicate a lack of understanding about how it works. It is effectively an outreach and marketing commitment. Hiring or admission quotas are illegal and so are quantifiable advantages given to minority students and employees. All hiring or admission is to be merit based, the goal is to broaden the pool of qualified applicants, then select equitably. You may be a white person who has struggled tremendously in your life. “White privilege” doesn’t insinuate that you haven’t and it isn’t meant to minimize your struggle. What it means is the unfortunate truth that a black person or other person of color in exactly your same position would almost certainly have struggled even more. That’s what “white privilege” is. It’s not a guarantee of ease, it’s an advantage over a person who is otherwise the same as you based strictly on skin color. Some people, even black people and people of color, may have other privileges or advantages you don’t - financial and economic ones are a good example. That doesn’t mean you don’t still have a privilege or advantage in being white skinned. It is complicated, there are many forms of privilege and they all intersect in different ways. Economic privilege is a thing, and it becomes more and more prescient as inequality widens. It is a problem, too, and I have yet to meet anybody who says racism is a problem but economic inequality isn’t. That’s just not the topic of discussion when the words “white privilege” are used. There is no reason to be ashamed of your skin color or the unfair advantages afforded by it, you didn’t have anything to do with it (this is the problem with it, why it’s unfair). There is no reason to beat yourself up over it. However, it is very important to be aware of it and to try to use it to help eliminate its unjust presence in our society. -Sean


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