It has taken me a lifetime to recognize, much less reckon with, my white privilege. It’s not that I’ve been oblivious to racism. I met Jim Crow head-on while traveling through the South in 1962. I was eighteen years old, appalled by racism but clueless about my own white privilege.
White privilege begins, obviously, at birth. Through no effort on my part, I was born to parents of European descent. Their forebears emigrated here because they wanted to, not because they were captured and sold into slavery.
In my experience, white privilege is childhood in a two-parent home; parents not rich by any means, but they didn’t have to struggle to feed us and put a roof over our heads.
White privilege is attending generally all-white schools. Well-funded schools where we learned what the state wanted us to learn: little or nothing about the evils of Manifest Destiny or the recognition that this nation’s economy was built on the backs of slaves.
White privilege is being able to live wherever I choose to live, though I seem to choose places that are pretty much white like me, where amenities like clean water are taken for granted.
White privilege is access to critical medical care if needed and lifelong preventive health care.
White privilege is seeing police on the street, in my neighborhood, and feeling safe, not afraid.
White privilege is registering to vote with no stumbling blocks and then voting without threats or chicanery.
White privilege is freedom. Freedom from and freedom to. Freedom from stereotypical judgments, harassment, disdain, dismissal. Freedom to move about, to live pretty much as I want––within the constraints of society, the system.
When we talk about “systemic” racism, we’re recognizing that racism has been consciously built into our systems: educational, health care, economic, criminal justice, even religious systems. Just as racist policies are intricately interwoven into those systems, so is white privilege. The systems are gamed.
White privilege doesn’t mean all whites have it easy. Eight percent of white Americans (that’s 15.7 million people) live below the poverty line. White people struggle too, observes black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. It’s like we’re all swimming in a stream, but whites are swimming with the current and blacks are swimming against it. The system is designed to move whites forward and designed to push blacks back. That’s just one morsel among many in Oprah Winfrey’s provocative, two-hour documentary, “Where Do We Go From Here?” , available for viewing on YouTube.
I’ve never thought of myself as privileged. Blessed, yes. Richly blessed. Now as I look back on my seventy-six years, the privilege that moved me along life’s current is as glaring as neon signs on the Las Vegas Strip. I’ve been complicit in a system whose inequities are being laid bare by Covid-19 deaths, disproportionately high among people of color; inequities laid bare by videos of racist brutality.
That’s a harsh word: complicit. Yet acknowledging white privilege doesn’t require taking on a heap of guilty despair. I won’t be defeated by my lack of color any more than I want to see others defeated by their color. So where do we go from here? To the streets? Maybe. To social media? Possibly. To the voting booth? For sure. To a place of deeper understanding, a place of compassion? Let’s hope.