What “White Privilege” is and is not.

Until you understand that, you will fight against learning about it.

I’ve seen arguments about the terminology “white privilege.” Complaints the words themselves are too sharp and too easily misinterpreted.

In some ways the arguments make sense. If the point of the message is to be heard, why use words that offend people so much that they won’t listen to the message?

Being a words-person, I would have probably chosen other words to get my point across, but I wasn’t the one who coined the phrase. I am the learner… so I did my research to find out what is meant by those words.

When I hear people use the same argument I had at first, which is that “I earned what I have, as did my parents.” “Nothing was handed to me.” “I worked for what I have.” I can sympathize. It really could be taken that way but to paraphrase the great philosopher Inigo Montoya:

I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

You can have white privilege and still struggle to put food on the table.
You can have white privilege and still feel unappreciated by your employer.
You can have white privilege and still face injustice in your life.
You can have white privilege and still be treated rudely for no apparent reason (even by a person of color because you’re white.)
You can have white privilege and still be a loving, compassionate person.
You can have white privilege and be anti-racist.
You can have white privilege and speak against police brutality.
You can have white privilege and hate injustice.

I had a Black friend explain it this way. “The privilege doesn’t take your struggle away. But because you have white privilege you don’t have to add another struggle of being black. You (white Americans) are part of the majority and the system was designed with you in mind. It was designed for you to prosper so that’s the “privilege.” Just because you have white privilege it doesn’t mean you are racist at all. The two are not synonymous in any way. White privilege is something you are born with (based on being born American), you choose whether or not to be a racist.”

The color of your skin hasn’t been a major factor in causing your life to be more difficult than it would have been if you were Black.

Why am I belaboring the “white privilege” concept? Why is this the third post about this topic? Because I believe it’s one of the easiest to grasp. With just a little bit of thought you can see examples of it in your own life.

I said this was going to be a series that highlighted voices of color speaking out about racism and injustice, but this particular post is mostly about white people and how the view from where we sit causes us to be unable to see that privilege.

Here’s a non-race related example of where we sit impacting our viewpoint. We took the bus+train to downtown Stuttgart to have lunch with friends last week. At one point, Anna asked why we stopped. I said, “We’re at a stoplight” and she said, “No we’re not. I can’t see it.” I had her stand up and lean to the left little, at which point she was able to clearly see the stop light. Her response: “Oh. I see it.”

It took her physically moving a little bit to see it… from where she sat, she couldn’t see the stop light and denied its existence. Before I made the effort to see my privilege, I couldn’t see it, either.

I shared on Tuesday about the privilege we have, being able to walk around the city not confined to a wheelchair (as our son experienced after he broke his leg). Had we not spent several months watching him in pain, missing out on great experiences, and struggling to do the simplest things, like taking a shower or getting to our third-floor apartment, we wouldn’t have been able to fully appreciate the privilege we have to walk around on healthy, strong legs.

I read the following words from a pastor in Denver we used to sit under:

I am left-handed. Since I was a child, I have understood that the world tilts right-handed and I’ve had to figure out how to function in that environment. Every lefty knows what I’m talking about. From scissors to can openers to the attached pens at the post office, the world is designed for right-handed folks. The ten percent of us who were born left-hand-dominant have to endure lots of little daily struggles about which righties will likely never think twice. 

This is a frivolous example of how privilege works. Dr. Makiko Deguchi of Japan’s Sophia University defines privilege as “unearned advantages based on social group membership,” and observes: “Members of privileged groups often have a difficult time coming to the realization, on their own, that they have privilege…because many mechanisms are in place that blind us to this awareness.” We more naturally recognize how injustice works to disadvantage minority groups; we’re less quick to comprehend how the same system works to advantage the majority. We don’t see what we don’t have to see.

What if we progressed from the simple standpoint of “I’m a good person” and “I don’t discriminate” to a more sophisticated and self-aware basis for discussion? Scripture teaches, “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…” (James 1:19). Could we ask others simply what it’s been like to be them, holding rather than diminishing their otherness, and really listen to what they have to say?

Rob Brendle – June 10, 2020

And finally, my favorite resource on this topic, a paper written by Peggy McIntosh. It’s my favorite because her paper is what unlocked the concept in my mind. Her work made white privilege make sense and took away the mystery of it. Her paper made me realize that white privilege isn’t an accusation, but an actual statement of facts.

Please take the time to read “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” © 1989 Peggy McIntosh. I don’t want to post it here because I’d rather it be read as a whole, including her comments following. Please… read that article. Can you add a few to it?

One I could add: I can close my computer and go for a run and forget all of this for a while.

* Image: Instagram of Mrs. Tiffany Cooker
* Rob Brendle – Lead Pastor of Denver United Church on Facebook
* “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” © 1989 Peggy McIntosh

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Previous posts in this series:
Intro: #OnceYouSeeRacism
1. Build your “talking about racism” muscles. – {general racism}
2. The Dangers of the Colorblind Mentality – (color blind mentality}
3. Be Color Brave, Not Color Blind {color blind mentality}
4. See and Honor Color {color blind mentality; “the talk”}
5. What is an Ally? {allyship}
6. Allyship – digging deeper {allyship}
7. What Privilege? {white privilege}
8. Nobody is mad at you for being white. Nobody. {white privilege}
9. You are here… {white privilege}

About Jennifer

"Yes, they're all mine." The answer to the question I hear most often.
This entry was posted in #OnceYouSeeRacism, Racism/Race Issues. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to What “White Privilege” is and is not.

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