'White Privilege'. It's a term I never even heard until I was in my early 20's. Perhaps you can attribute that to the fact that I grew up in a predominately white community where I was never forced to reconcile as a child that America still had a race problem. Honestly, I just never saw it. Perhaps that makes me privileged, and if it does, I'm willing to accept that. But does using the term 'white privilege' really solve anything? Conceivably, it brings awareness to a deeply rooted matter that we as Americans need to recognize. Nevertheless, is this claim bringing Americans together, or is it only dividing us and segregating us further?
Race in America
America is a great country. I'm thankful I live here and wouldn't change my experiences or way of life for the world. I grew up in a small city in Colorado where my dad worked for the government and my mom was a teacher. I regularly found myself around other middle-class, white children, and I can't remember thinking about race very often. It just wasn't something we talked about. If I had an African-American, Hispanic, or Asian kid in my grade school class, he was one of us. I never thought of him as any different.
It wasn't until I was 12 years old when I experienced my first run-in with racism. On a hot summer day I was skateboarding with a friend in a neighborhood in the older part of town. We suddenly came across a car full of young Hispanics, probably just old enough to drive, who started glaring at us and calling us names. My friend and I were ultimately chased into the backyard of another friends house (who wasn't home at the time) and we had to hide there until the carload of boys chasing us finally left the area. It didn't hit me at first, but looking back on it, it's pretty obvious that there was some racial tension that afternoon. I never had another encounter quite like that one, but I do remember being given the middle finger by Hispanics several times during that time of my life, and it was always completely unprovoked. However, I did begin to become suspicious of other young Hispanic boys because of these experiences. I was always friendly, and even had several Hispanic friends, but if I came across a Hispanic whom I didn't know, I would naturally be cautious. Now I'd like to ask you, "Is this a form of racism?" Whatever your answer may be, I do know that I was just a kid who was only responding to my own environment, and for that I cannot be held at fault.
Race in America has quite an ugly history. Even today it cannot be denied that racism still exists at some level. The philosophy of 'white privilege' is that our society, government, economy, and culture have all been systematically created or adjusted to give favor to people with white skin. It's not so much a moral assessment of an individual person, or even an attack on white people, but more of an acknowledgment that's saying, "the system is set up in such a way that white people, whether they realize it or not, benefit from".
The first time I heard this claim, I felt like I was being put alongside white supremacists. "You just need to recognize that you have white privilege", I was told, "and it's because of your skin color that you are where you are today." I was outraged. I became defensive and couldn't believe that people were blaming me for the color of my skin, like it was something I had control over. This was even harder to accept since I was living in Hawaii at the time and had experienced several racist encounters with people of color who said and did things to me clearly because I was a white, 'haole' from the mainland. Hawaii's my second home and I love the people and culture there, but I definitely learned what it meant to be a minority. My experience in Hawaii also helped me understand (at least partially) what it would be like to be a minority on the mainland of America and to be discriminated against because of my skin color.
What is 'Privilege'?
No one wants to be labeled a racist, especially people who definitely are not one. My thought was, "Hey, my family came to America several decades after the civil war. Neither I, nor my relatives had anything to do with slavery. Why am I being blamed for this?" I continued to be confused by this notion of 'white privilege'. I even found out that the program I was working for out in Hawaii used affirmative action in their hiring, and were even proud of the fact that they hired a large number of minority employee's. I suddenly felt lucky that I got into the competitive program, being a white male and all.
Over the next several years I maintained this defensive reaction to the accusation of 'white privilege'. However, with more recent events such as the cases of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, I've been challenged once again with this notion of 'white privilege'. And for the first time, I've been able to reconcile that "yes" I do believe some form of white privilege exists in America. I began to think about how I became suspicious of other Hispanic boys my age when I was a teenager, and wondered what it would be like to be a black teenager in a community where white people dominate the police force, white people control the majority of wealth, and white people hold most of the political sway in my city. How would I feel if I were in their shoes? Would I be suspicious of white people? Would I think the system was set-up for white people to succeed? And even more importantly, would I think the system was set up for me to fail? Absolutely.
However, I wasn't ready to stop there. I thought to myself, "If white privilege exists, then there's a really good chance there's other types of privilege that exist as well." Think about it. How we define 'privilege' is all based off of what we value in society. Because Americans value success, money and possessions probably more than anything else, then we are going to be most aware of the gap between successful people of affluence and of unsuccessful people who are destitute. If we group these people into demographics, we find that minorities are often worse off than white people. Thus, a 'race war' begins. But what else is out there that gives people privilege? Does it all boil down to the color of your skin?
What Makes You Privileged?
Think about it. What in your life has given you an advantage over others? There are many types of situations and circumstances out there that can give people privilege, despite their race. For example, maybe you grew up in a Hispanic family in a prevailing white community. It would be easy to say, "well, I grew up Hispanic and I can clearly see that white people have more money, they dominate the population, and they are overall, better educated and have better jobs than Hispanics." However, if you grew up in a Hispanic family, there's a really good chance that you are bi-lingual. The likelihood of landing a job with bi-lingual skills is much greater, because companies see you as a great asset to them. You may have studied hard in school, but if you didn't grow up in an American-Hispanic home, you likely wouldn't be bi-lingual. This skill is a privilege that you have been given, aside from race.
People are born with all types of privileges. Having two parents in the home is a privilege. Kids, no matter their race or ethnic background, who grow up in single parent homes are more likely to drop out of school, make less money, and end up in prison. Having parents who have college degrees is also a privilege. Other privileges have to do with what you were born with. Some kids are born with higher IQ's, better social skills, and more athletic ability than their average pier. These are all privileges because these kids are statistically more likely to be successful in life.
The problem with compartmentalizing privilege into 'white privilege'
We've already seen there are many types of privilege that people are born with. 'White privilege' is certainly one of these categories, but throwing all white people into this category is dangerous. First of all, many white people become extremely defensive when they are first confronted with 'white privilege', just as I was when I was challenged with it several years ago. Is it because their privilege is being exposed? Perhaps. But I would surmise that most people just don't want to be labeled and put into a box. They also don't want to take responsibility for the actions of a white police officer that lives halfway across the country, nor do they want to feel guilty for something they had nothing to do with.
There are plenty of white people in America who are worse off than the average black person. To tell them, "you have 'white privilege'" would only confound them. To them, their race hasn't helped them one bit. There are also many pockets in America where being white isn't necessarily a privilege. There are many white communities and diverse communities that are considered poor. Many white people in the southern United States near the border with Mexico receive immense discrimination in schools, businesses, and communities. All across America there are examples of discrimination and prejudice against white people.
The truth is, telling all white people that they have privilege solely because of their race is mass stereotyping and is only continuing to fuel the 'race war'. Maybe this isn't the intention of everyone who chooses to use the term 'white privilege', but it's certainly a byproduct.
As far as I can see, the term 'white privilege' is only dividing us more. Although I agree with how 'white privilege' is bringing awareness that we still have issues in our society that need to be fixed, I do not agree with how the term 'white privilege' is used by most people. In most circumstances, it's used to make white people feel guilty. It's used to spur things like affirmative action forward, giving classroom seats or employee positions to people of color who are not as qualified for the job as others may be. It also often shuts down conversation. Are we really trying to solve problems? Or does it just feel good to see people at the top suffer through guilt and shame?
If we want to instill change in America, what we should not do is make others feel guilty for the color of their skin. If we want to change as a country and put this 'privilege' behind us, it is only going to happen by inspiring young minorities to take individual responsibility and understand that they control their own future. Teaching one another the philosophy of 'white privilege' only puts people further into poverty. The reason why is because if people think that the only privilege out there is 'white privilege', then they have no reason to try to be successful in life. They will concede that the system is set against them, so why try? Further, they may overlook certain privileges they've been given, and waste their God-given talents.
Yet we know as Americans this is not how it has to be. There are numerous stories of people who have come from nothing and achieved great success, despite the color of their skin, or whatever 'disadvantages' others told them they had. That's what makes America great.
"You have the ability to choose which way you want to go. You have to believe great things are going to happen in your life. Do everything you can - prepare, pray and achieve - to make it happen." - Dr. Ben Carson