I often refer to the question of privilege in these pages, so I thought it would be helpful to spell it out. Of all that I have written, this is the one essay I would encourage you to print out and discuss with your friends.
Privilege is utterly invisible to most whites and perfectly, constantly, daily, painfully obvious to almost all minorities. It provides whites with a place in the social hierarchy, a belief in upward mobility and a sense of identity – they can know who they are because they are not “the Other.”
Privilege is the advantage of having views that define the norm for others. It tells whites that their experience is objective, universal and “non-racial,” while blacks can only represent their own racialized experiences. We speak of “African-Americans,” but never of “Euro-Americans.” Language, more than law, reveals who is part of the polis and who isn’t.
Privilege allows white people to universalize, to claim that “black people are also prejudiced,” to claim that racism is fluid, one day (or era) benefitting whites and another day benefitting blacks. While the notion of individualism declares that we all need to see each other as individuals (everyone is different), the privilege of universalism declares that we all need to see each other as human beings (everyone is the same) and subtly functions to deny the significance of race and the advantages of whiteness.
Simultaneously, whites learn that they are individuals and not part of a racially socialized group. The privilege of individualism erases history and allows whites to view themselves as unique and original, unaffected by the relentless racial messages in the culture, to distance themselves from other, “bad” whites. Whites are privileged to invoke these seemingly contradictory discourses – we are either all unique or we are all the same – interchangeably. Seeing themselves as individuals outside of race frees whites from the psychic burden of race in a wholly racialized society. Race and racism become “their” problem, not “ours.”
Privilege allows white conservatives to judge social welfare programs as “unearned income” and identify their own economic situations as reflecting only hard work and virtue, while ignoring the reality of inherited capital and generations of structural inequality. It allows white liberals to see blacks as “underprivileged” without seeing themselves as “overprivileged.” It allows poor whites to favor cultural advantages over economic interests, to identify as white rather than as poor.
Privilege allows whites to confuse responsibility with guilt. If “my ancestors didn’t own slaves, then I’m not guilty, and I don’t have to do anything to transform the system.” Rejecting guilt, they also reject the responsibility to understand how slavery’s legacy offers them privilege. It allows them to deny that racism is ultimately a white problem and that the burden for interrupting it belongs primarily to white people.
Whites are privileged to have selective memory, to “remember Pearl Harbor / the Alamo / 911,” etc, while admonishing minorities to “move on, not dwell on the past.” Rejecting personal responsibility on race, they feel privileged to demand that minorities accept such responsibility on economic matters (“take care of your own needs without expecting government help”). In other words, whites are privileged to personalize rather than systematize.
Whites are privileged to claim an intellectually level playing field, to debate and disagree with perspectives that challenge their worldview, when in fact they don’t understand those perspectives.
Privilege allows half of all whites to believe that blacks enjoy economic parity with them, 61% to say the average black has equal or better access to health care than the average white, and 85% to say that blacks have just as good a chance to get any housing they can afford, despite the contrary views held by the great majority of black people. This means that whites are privileged to say to blacks, in effect, “I know your reality better than you do.”
Whites are privileged to choose when, how and how much to address or challenge racism. In discussions of race, whites are privileged to use the language of self-defense, to position themselves as being attacked – and thus as superior – to blame others, to falsely position their discomfort as dangerous and to demand more social resources such as time and attention. Indeed, whites believe that they are victims of racism more often than blacks (http://now.tufts.edu/news-releases/whites-believe-they-are-victims-racism-more-o).
Privilege allows whites to choose segregation, to assume that “good” neighborhoods and “good” schools are euphemisms for “mostly white,” that the quality of white space is largely measured by the absence of people of color, especially blacks.
Since whites rarely need to build up the cognitive or affective skills to allow for constructive engagement across racial divides, they often experience “white fragility” when forced into such conversations. Privilege allows them to respond in ways that function to restore their emotional equilibrium: resistance toward anyone who triggers their reaction, shutting down and/or tuning out or indulging in emotional incapacitation. They may say that they don’t feel safe, when in fact they simply don’t feel comfortable. This stance trivializes and perverts the reality of history – addressing blacks about safety allows them to ignore what it means from a position of societal dominance. Complaining about safety when merely talking about racism is a way to refuse exploration of alternate racial perspectives and to reinforce their unexamined white perspectives as universal.
Ultimately, privilege allows whites to not think about privilege. It allows one to not have to think about race every day, not be perceived as either hyper-sexual or lazy, not be racially profiled, not assume that in driving through certain areas one will be stopped by an officer inquiring as to one’s intent, not be viewed with suspicion when shopping, not be unfairly treated when buying a home, not have to work twice as hard to prove oneself, or not be denied job interviews. It is the freedom to avoid being stigmatized by the actions of others with the same skin color. It allows white politicians and professionals to not have to transcend racial stereotypes. It allows one to not worry that an officer will shoot when one’s hands are up.