We’ve all heard about white privilege but it’s really hard to really explain what it is and how it affects, say, your life or my life. The definitions and discussions we hear about it in class or on TV include big words, race theory or the people talking over each other. None of those things are conducive to having normal people like us really understand what it really means and why scholars and activists are so sure that it exists.
It is a common reaction as a white person to feel defensive upon first hearing the term. It could come with guilt or denial. But neither of those feelings allow for a frank look at the reality of what’s happening, just the chance that it could hurt someone’s feelings. Oftentimes, these opportunities for learning and discussion are passed over to preserve the peace but that in of itself is an example of white privilege.
For people of color, especially black and brown people who are immediately identifiable from their darker skin tone before you even register their facial features, it is an experience we’ve had to navigate our whole lives. Some people would rather not “open the can of worms” but the fact that it is the feelings of the white people rather than the lives of people of color being centered is the very definition of how white people are privileged because they’ve never had to think about how race affects their lives. Our very lived experiences and the scars on our bodies, minds and genes are what’s being passed over and ignored. The very fact that we exist in this country is the can of worms.
What Race is Not
One of the first things I always rush to clear up when discussing what white privilege means to friends, acquaintances, classmates, etc. is that the privilege doesn’t come from the individuals as much as it is the system that provides for the environment which it exists in. So, a white person might not have that privilege if they were to be placed in a different culture or country or the privilege manifests itself in ways different from what we see in America.
I also have to mention that race by itself is incredibly malleable because it is based on cultural perceptions and beliefs. What it means to be a black person in America is different in France vs Brazil vs South Africa. It goes without saying that in countries where it’s majority (what we think of as) minority races, race relations are vastly different to America’s so a discussion like this about how white privilege is baked into society and its institutions wouldn’t even exist.
So all of that is to say that racism and bias and prejudice against people of color are not inevitable or even particularly common as part of human nature. It is simply the context of the culture and history of this country that has given rise to our current situation and it is through the understanding of this country’s history that we will find the answers of where and how privilege for one group and conversely, the oppression of others is perpetuated.
The Invisible Hand
It is a dramatic heading, I’ll admit but it does fit. The words system and institutions conjure images of big, imposing buildings with Greek columns and big domes and they do very little to help us truly understand the scope of what is being talked about. When I say that the system as a whole in America perpetuates white privilege at the expense of others, it is unclear who or what I mean. It is hard to wrap our heads around something as abstract as that.
But there isn’t really a better way to describe it because this privilege and oppression is everywhere. We have to be abstract precisely because it exists in all institutions from the lowest levels to the White House and above. Housing. Education. Healthcare. Law Enforcement. Employment. Loaning practices. Technology. By everything, I mean everything.
Since it manifests itself so often and so casually, it is often hard to see it even when it’s in front of you. When we talk about white privilege, the first resource that is often referred to is the essay by Peggy McIntosh called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. If you have the time, I highly encourage the read. It is a good introduction to the topic.
The fundamental takeaway from the essay is that the privilege is more often than not, subtle and not entirely intentional on the part of the individual receiving the privilege.
It manifests that what is labeled “skin-toned” or “nude” when it comes to Band-Aids, ballet shoes or foundation shades. It is in the types of faces we feed into machines as training data for facial recognition software. It is the fact that you can safely assume you aren’t being pulled over by a cop, followed in a store, singled out for being white. It is the fact that you can expect to be represented in all forms of media you consume: TV, movies, comics, radio, news, stories. History class feature the struggles and ultimately, the triumphs of your ancestors. You can expect to be in, so to speak, on cultural references, jokes and conversations. You can expect that the medical care you receive are based on rigorous study of your biology, your genetics and your skin tone.
For people of color, privilege looks like the absolute confidence to move through your life, knowing that you belong, knowing that you deserve everything you have and knowing that your race will not hold you back.
Perhaps it is more efficient to illustrate the instances when white privilege isn’t there and look at some of the common reactions during those instances in an effort to regain it.
When a white person is irrationally upset by others speaking a different language within earshot and demand that they speak English.
When someone is eating food unknown to the white person and they assert that it’s gross or smells funny or weird, centering their own experiences and ignorance as the norm.
Getting irrationally upset when a movie or TV show centers a character other than white and complaining about political correctness or racial pandering when it fails to occur to them that people of color have complete lives and stories worth telling too.
When they are confronted by an unfamiliar name or word in another language and instead of trying to learn it, they either give up and avoid pronouncing it, pronounce it wrong regardless or use a nickname instead.
When white people get irrationally angry when they encounter others who can’t speak English which reveal not only their automatic assumption that English is the norm but also that others should accommodate them in their native language while making no effort themselves to reciprocate.
These examples are the ones that are pretty overt and easier to point to and say, “That’s white privilege.” One things all of these have in common is the expectation of the world around them to accommodate to their needs and their comfort. Even in cases where it’s just the perception of the loss of white privilege, there is often a violent reaction. White anger and subsequent backlash is a well-documented phenomenon and is an experience that many people of color have borne witness to.
So far, we’ve looked at simple examples that don’t seem to operate on the vast scale capable of pervading foundational institutions of society. So, let’s look at some bigger effects and see just how powerful the invisible hand is.
Instead of talking about huge, nationwide incidents, let’s just look at one region in particular. In the podcast, Nice White Parents, it talks about one school and one school district in New York City over a period of 60 years and how white parents have worked their invisible power over it.
The podcast centers specifically on a middle school and how, from its very conception, white parents had enormous sway over the decisions made about the school. The story starts with a new middle school being built that was meant to serve a black and brown neighborhood but white parents from an adjacent neighborhood petitioned to have it moved to the border between the two neighborhoods on the grounds that they could also send their kids to it so their kids would be part of a diverse environment. The local board of education agreed with them over the protests of the black and brown community.
Let’s break that down. In the interests of having a diverse environment for their kids, white parents successfully moved the location of the new school when 1) the new school was not meant to be for them and 2) it is now more inconvenient for the kids the school was meant to serve now that it’s further away. The kicker comes when the narrator reveals that out of all the white parents who petitioned for the school to be moved, when the time came to enroll their kids, none of them did.
After interviewing some of those parents, we found out that many didn’t even remember writing the letters petitioning for the move or why they didn’t enroll their kids there. They demanded integration and a change of location of an entire building and then, promptly forgot about it. To them, it was as easy as breathing to disrupt the lives of others that they forgot about it completely, leaving the people affected to deal with the consequences.
The other thing that really struck me about this was the insistence of these parents of exposing their children to a diverse environment. When asked about what they meant by diverse, many parents had some vague, idealistic answer about “a wider breadth of experience” or “other perspectives”, etc. In other words, diverse was just a buzzword for them; it holds a lot of emotional and moral value by representing something good that should be aspired to while being just vague enough so that there’s no standard its champions can be held accountable against.
Some parents use what we now know as coded language to talk about how they weren’t comfortable sending their children to a school full of kids who are “academically behind” and other similar messages. This language isn’t explicitly pointing to race but we all understand that that’s what it means. We know that subconsciously because when we imagine poor, uneducated kids, we imagine black and brown kids.
It’s the same way the government used racially coded language to lock up huge numbers of black men during the War on Drugs by focusing on crack, when the government used coded language to crack down on anti-war protectors by focusing on weed and now, when the government uses the fear of terrorism as an excuse to ban and punish Muslims. This is called doublespeak. In a society where poverty, poor education and employment outcomes, and stereotypes are so synonymous with minority groups, the minority groups no longer need to be named for everyone to understand what is actually meant.
It’s also disturbing the implications of what the white parents are saying by talking about diversity; that black and brown children are to serve as enrichment for their white kids like the black and brown kids are props or educational tools to be used. Next time you or a parent around you talk about diversity and supporting diversity, think about who it’s benefitting and ask yourself what your intentions actually are.
In another episode of the podcast, the middle school, after being left alone for a bit, sees renewed interest from white parents who are interested in bringing in an immersive French program. The local school board and the principal, hoping to increase enrollment, agreed. A couple of white parents took control, drawing up plans for the program and fundraising for it. The episode included recordings of PTA meetings where we quickly get the idea that these white parents are effectively running a school within a school.
Tensions quickly rose as it became clear that the white parents’ primary motivation was to provide for their French program and by extension, their own kids. The question of fundraising came up. Until now, the PTA had fundraised locally with events open to all families. But the white parents were fundraising from corporate sponsors and other high-powered individuals and what they told the sponsors was that the money was going to go towards the French program and none of this was communicated with the PTA. Understandably, the members of the PTA who were there before the white parents were upset because it was shady and it didn’t benefit all of the kids at the school, just the select few in the French program.
This turns out to be a common trend. A school district wants to attract better performing students to raise test scores. What do they do? They implement an AP program or an IB program or some other program to attract parents. But what happens to the underperforming kids who were already there? Nothing. They get stuck and ignored in the school system that contributed to them falling behind in the first place and the school continues prioritize the needs and wants of the students in the advanced programs.
In fact, one of the stories about this particular middle school was that at one time, there were two schools in the same building and the second school was a school focused on teaching some sort of international curriculum that white parents wanted. Since a school needed a building, the local school board split the existing middle school building into its upper and lower levels and dedicated part of the building to this new global education school despite the fact that the existing middle school was already overcrowded and needed resources. Again and again, we see the wants and needs of these white families being prioritized over the black and brown families and the black and brown families being pushed to the margins as a result.
One of the things I want to highlight here is that these white parents didn’t necessarily need to shout or fight black and brown families to get their way. They simply made known what they wanted and the way cleared itself for them. The system bent over backwards to accommodate them. Their interests and what they deem valuable, for example, learning French, becomes also what the system deems valuable.
One of the scenes of the podcast details an exchange between a white guest and a Puerto Rican member of the PTA at a gala fundraiser for the French program where the white guest preaches about the benefits of being bilingual and how she speaks French and travels to France every October and how everyone ought to learn a second language and generally talking down to the parent. The irony being, of course, that the Puerto Rican parent was also bilingual but it was apparent that her ability to speak Spanish isn’t seen as being as valuable as being able to speak French.
Just from this one middle school building, we see all of these ways these white parents have used their invisible privilege to get their way over the the black and brown parents whose kids make up the majority of the school and just as quickly as they got their way, after they lose interest or their children graduate, they would leave and all that power and influence would go with them and oftentimes, the black and brown kids and their families would have to deal with the consequences.
And these are the “nice” ones: they’re the parents that say they want integration and diversity. But at the same time, you can see just how short they fall when it really counts. They impose their standards and what they think the kids should have without considerations for others’ wants or needs and it ultimately exposes that for all their progressive language and liberal posing, they aren’t aware of just how much privilege is afforded to them over the black and brown families and how their very presence dramatically changes the stakes and dynamics, and after all is said and done, they can leave just as quickly without a single thought of the damage they leave behind.
This is part one of our look at how privilege manifests and how it’s maintained throughout American history. Next up is housing and how, from the very beginning, white people have been the recipient of freebies while the rest of us were fed on a myth of hard work and bootstraps.
We’ll talk to you next time.