The first time I heard the term white privilege, I did what many white people do. I leapt immediately to defending myself from whatever accusations those words generated in my mind, choosing to passionately present the case for my innocence rather than simply listening.
In the years since then I’ve learned a bit, thanks to some good and really patient people who cared enough to endure my ignorance and give me time to step outside of my experience enough to see more clearly. It’s a daily endeavor and I have a long way to go, but for those reading this who happen to be white—here are a few truths I wished I’d understood better back then.
Privilege simply is. You are privileged whether you believe it or not. The way the world sees you has made a difference since the day you showed up on the planet. Your pigmentation has come with certain advantages and exempted you from specific obstacles and there’s simply no way around it. If you are a white person living in America or many other parts of the world, you have had the luxury of feeling as though your skin tone is somehow the default, the baseline; that you are the standard against which others are measured and referenced. This matters because it has altered your daily experience of the world and your very sense of identity. You’re not privileged if you’re white and mean or white and racist or white and a jerk. You’re privileged solely because you are white.
You don’t have to feel your privilege for it to be real. In fact, the essence of privilege is that its effects are so subtle and so built into your daily experience from birth, that they are hardly noticeable. They are givens that are givens to you precisely because you look the way you look—but these realities are not at all universal and that’s the rub here. Like breathing, privilege is simply a reality of life that you are largely unaware of. Over time, you may learn to see it on display in certain moments and precise ways, but the greater truth is that privilege is at still at work even when you cease to be aware of it.
Privilege isn’t personal. This isn’t about whether you “like” people of color, whether you have black friends or not, whether you listen to hip hop or not. It’s not about whether or not you vote Blue, or whether you do or don’t or say whatever you believe “racist” things to be. In many ways, this isn’t about you. The heart of privilege is that it is a systemic reality; you are part of a larger truth that is far greater than your individual experience or personal actions—as important as those things are. Recognizing privilege isn’t just about policing your behavior or monitoring your thoughts, it’s about purposefully pushing back against systems that nurture injustice and inequality in our culture, in the workforce, in our government—places you and I feel very comfortable.
You can have it tough and still be privileged. Like many white people, the suggestion of my privilege initially felt like a statement that my life was free from discouragement, pain, or hard work. I rushed to present my life resume and to detail the hardships I’d experienced as a way of refuting the charges I imagined levied against me—but this was and isn’t helpful. Of course you can be white and work hard and face disappointment and prejudices of some kind. You can be white and poor, white and unemployed, white and struggling. But the truth of privilege, is that even on our worst day, our whiteness is still a help; a barrier that will always shield us from the greatest adversity, the kind that people of color encounter with great regularity.
Shame is the wrong response. Many white people, once faced with the understanding of the advantages they’ve been afforded because of the color of their skin, choose to withdraw into a place of guilt and shame. They make the moment of clarity about feeling bad about themselves. This is a selfish response that is itself a form of privilege, because it centers your experience and it changes nothing about the reality of the systems that are preferential to your pigmentation. I began to understand my privilege a bit better once I realized that it didn’t require an apology, just a response that intentionally leveraged that privilege for justice. White people, we don’t have to be sorry for being white, we just have to be aware that being white has been a help and it gives us a platform and influence which we get to use to do something beautiful. The redemptive response to the truth of our privilege isn’t shame—it’s movement.
This is certainly not an expansive or deep understanding of white privilege. For that you might look here or here or here or here or here.) Better yet, you might sit down with a person of color or an LGBTQ person or a woman, and ask them what white privilege means to them, and instead of defending your position or refuting their feedback—simply listen.