I recently read an article about a “white privilege” essay contest that caused a bit of controversy in Westport, Connecticut. According to The New York Times, this wealthy coastal town is over 90% white and has an average salary of $150,000. While most of the students did not have a problem with the question, many parents were outraged. The question asked: “In 1,000 words or less, describe how you understand the term ‘white privilege’. To what extent do you think this privilege exists? What impact do you think it has had in your life—whatever your racial or ethnic identity—and in our society more broadly?”
The question sparked outrage by some parents who called it “race baiting,” “offensive,” and “divisive.” As a diversity & leadership educator, as well as an upstander, I encounter comments like this across the country as well as internationally when the topic of white privilege is raised. The idea for some white people that their incredible success could not be derived from anything other than their Protestant Work Ethic mentality that says essentially that “I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps” and nothing else is impossible to conceive. Rather than become offended, I think it is important to acknowledge that most of us have some form of privilege and part of the path to making our privilege irrelevant is to acknowledge it.
I am a black man living in inner city America, I am not wealthy, and I don’t have a “common sounding” name that allows me to easily blend in. I have experienced my fair share of racism, stereotyping, profiling, you name it. Despite this, I have to realize that I also have my own bit of privilege. I am a man living in a male dominated society. My gender provides me with the privilege of not needing to be engaged in certain conversations that disproportionately affect women. For example, I can, if I choose, completely ignore conversations relating to sexual harassment and assault, because this issue generally affects women more than man. If I indeed fall victim to a sexual assault, no one will blame the clothes I was wearing that day or accuse me of seducing my attacker or look at my body development and say “well what did he expect to happen?” That’s privilege.
Being a man also allows me to generally choose any career that I want and not have to worry about passing “my time” to advance my career to the fullest. For example, I have female friends who work for the State Department and the Foreign Service in general. One friend told me that she and her female friends have to decide if they are going to start a family young and risk not receiving certain promotions because of maternity leave for example, or forgo starting a family in order to rise through the ranks faster. I have yet to speak to a single man in the foreign service who has had that problem. It’s still a problem for younger generations too evidenced by a survey I took of my American University students. I asked them how many feel as if they have had to plan out the stages of their lives since the age of 10 with set deadlines based on their age. Only the females raised their hand. One male student was shocked because, as he said, “I never had to think about” an age limitation. That’s privilege.
I also happen to be an American passport holding citizen. In most places around the world, simply showing this passport affords me a certain level of privilege than someone from my parents’ home country of the Congo. This has become even more evident in a Trump administration where even green card holders are no longer guaranteed entry into the United States. As stated previously, I face many forms of stereotyping, racism, and profiling, but generally speaking, my nationality has served as a net plus in the more than 20 countries I have visited to date. That’s privilege.
At the end of the day, if we think hard enough, we can all realize that there are some privileges we do enjoy over others because of our education, race, gender, zip code, nationality, etc. For the people of Westport or other well-to-do white neighborhoods, no one denies that you have worked hard for what you have. But it is also important to know, as professor Tim Wise points out in his film and book “White Like Me” that this government has been set up over a period of centuries for the advancement of white people. We can go back as far back as Slavery to programs of the last century such as the post-World War II GI Bill that provided white military veterans with more opportunities for education and homeownership over black soldiers. Opportunities such as these gave many white families a head start on opportunities to build wealth. There is a racial history of privilege in the very zip codes that most of us reside in and the schools our children attend. To ignore this basic fact is to simply ignore reality.
As Georgetown University professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson stated, the concept of white privilege is at the heart of many of the challenges we face in America today. White privilege keeps white people who are not part of the upper echelon arguing against their own interests and failing to realize they have more in common with marginalized communities of color. Denial of white privilege allows for those white people who make up the majority of upper class America to deny that they or their forefathers may have had access to opportunities that were often (legally) denied to other communities, thus limiting their pool of competition. I recently came across a picture that shows the difference between equality and equity which is shared below:
The picture says it all. This is a country who, for almost 400 years has never fully approached equality and therefore not even come close to equity. Taking the bold step to acknowledge our privilege will get us closer to equity, if we would only be honest with ourselves, equally.