Friday, August 23, 2013

Becoming Conscious of White Privilege

Today was Thursday, August 22, 2013.

I saw a fabulous video today that is going around on social media, where a black woman tells about an incident at a store in which she went shopping with her sister-in-law, who happens to be "half" black and white, but who can "pass" for white.  Her sister-in-law makes her purchases first, and has a friendly conversation with the cashier as she makes out her check, which is accepted for payment without incident.

Then it is the black woman's turn to have her groceries checked.  When she begins to write out her check, the cashier, who has not bothered to make much conversation, informs her tersely that she will need to see two pieces of ID.  (Normally, if ID is asked for, one piece of ID, is generally considered to be enough.)  The black woman decides not to argue and produces the ID, but the cashier then takes the time to check the driver's license against the numbers of people who have passed bad checks.  Meanwhile, others in line are kept waiting.

The sister-in-law notices what is going on and comes back to call out the cashier for her treatment of the black woman, who realizes that her sister-in-law has decided to use her "white privilege" in a conscious way to point out the unfair treatment.  

Here is a link to the video.

A lot of white people are unaware that white privilege exists, mainly because they don't have to alter their behavior or watch what they say for no other reason than the color of their skin.  White privilege should not be confused with white supremacy (the belief that white people are superior, biologically and mentally. than other races, and that they should therefore dominate society)   As well, it should not be confused with white racism.   There are a growing number of white people nowadays who are well aware that there is nothing particularly superior about the white race, and who do not express racist views in their words or actions.   These people still benefit from white privilege, however, even though they may be unaware of it.

White privilege was well defined back in 1988 in a paper written for Wellesley College by Peggy McIntosh.  Basically, white privilege is an unearned advantage that people have because of the way society is structured.  Here are some examples: (Since I'm white, I'm going to use the pronoun "we" in these examples.)  White people can choose to live virtually anywhere we wish, and we don't have to worry that we or our children will be safe in our chosen neighborhood.  We watch TV, go to movies, and read books in which the protagonist in the story is the same race as we are.  We read magazines in which the vast majority of articles and ads feature white people. 

We can go to any store and find clothing that looks good on us, and food items that are culturally acceptable to us.  Our children can play with dolls and action figures of our own race.  We can go to any hairdresser, confident that they know how to cut and style our hair.  We are not asked to provide unreasonable amounts of ID when we pay for purchases with checks or credit cards, and we are not followed around in stores.   We can stay in any hotel without fearing that we or another member of our race will be refused service or harassed.  We can get legal and medical help when we need it, without hassle.   If we ask to speak to the "person in charge," we are likely to meet a person of our own race.

We can work for an Equal Opportunity Employer without worrying that others will think we got our job because of our race.  When we do something negative or when we do a shoddy job, our entire race is not blamed. When we do something positive, we are not told that we are a "credit to our race," as if this is an unusual thing.   We are not asked to speak for, apologize for, or explain our entire race.

We can be totally ignorant of the languages, customs and cultures of non-white people around us without being openly called ignorant.  We can express criticism of our government without being accused of having racial motives.

At work, in stores, and at our places of worship, we don't generally feel outnumbered, or that our ideas and opinions have no merit. We are well represented at the local, state, and national levels of government.

In the fish illustration above, the largest fish feels that the world is just find and dandy, because it's at the "top of the food chain."  In the world of human beings, that would be white men.  The middle fish feels that there is some justice, but is obviously aware of some injustice, as well.  That would be white women, because they do experience the negative effects of male privilege as well as the perks of white privilege.   The third fish represents just about everyone else. 

White people sometimes get defensive about this issue, because there is a lot of anger on the part of nonwhites, not only about the way they are treated today, but also about the way they have been treated historically.   Whites often say in exasperation, "Well, what do you want me to DO about it?"

Here are three things we can do:
1) We can own up to our white privilege and become conscious of it.
2) We can speak out whenever and wherever we see racial injustice, and work to see that the ideas, opinions, perspectives and values of all racial groups are valued.
3) We can listen, just listen, without judgment, without denial, and without defensiveness, when someone of another race points out how our white privilege has harmed them, or when someone expresses their anger and frustration.  :-)

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