What is the Deal with White Privilege? Is it Real?

Photo by Ja Corie Maxwell

White Privilege is a term that is offensive to many white people. Does White Privilege really exist? What does it mean to say someone has privilege? The laws of segregation were struck down during the civil rights era, but racism and privilege exist to this day. We all need to understand how it works.

So, let me walk you through an exercise that I used in every class I taught as a Lecturer at the University of Texas, Dallas. I took my students out to the courtyard and had them stand in a straight line. I had them take steps forward and steps back based on the following questions to demonstrate how the inequalities of the past have affected opportunity and equality today. The truth is, we do not begin the race at the same starting point. Since we are not in a courtyard, let’s use points. Have a pen and paper?

1. Add 1 point if your ancestors were forced to come to the U.S., add 3 points if your ancestors came willingly to America.

2. Add 3 points if you can do well and not be called a credit to your race. If not, add 1 point.

3. Add 3 points if in most cases when you ask to speak with the person in charge you will be facing a person of your race, add 1 point if in most cases you would not be facing a person of your race.

4. Add 3 points, if when you learned about the history of this country and of civilization in general your racial group was primarily represented, if not add 1 point.

5. Add 3 points if you can be pretty sure you will not be followed by store security while shopping because of your race, add 1 point if you can’t be sure.

6. Add 3 points if when you apply for a loan you are pretty sure you will be dealing with a loan officer of your race, add 1 point if you can’t be sure.

7. Add 3 points if the color “nude” refers to your skin color, add 1 point if it does not.

8. Add 3 points if a cop pulls you over you can be pretty sure you weren’t singled out because of your race, add 1 point if you may very well be singled out because of your race.

9. Add 3 points if when in school you received materials that taught you the history of your race, add 1 point if you rarely received materials that taught you the history of your race.

10. Add 3 points if you can take a job without worrying that people think you unfairly gained your position because of affirmative action. OR Add 3 points if you can go to a prestigious college without worrying that people think you were accepted only because of affirmative action.

11. Add 3 points if you grew up trusting police officers, add 1 point if you were taught to fear or be careful around police officers.

12. Add 3 points if you trust the courts to treat you fairly, add 1 point if you cannot trust the courts will treat you fairly.

The higher your score, the more White Privilege you have. As a white person, I don’t have to worry about being treated fairly, I don’t fear the police or courts, “nude” matches my skin color, and no one follows me when I shop at a store. We must understand that these events happen every single day to people of color, and that is what we mean when we say White Privilege. It helps to know a little history in order to see how White Privilege evolved.

In 1619 the privateer ship, The White Lion, brought 20 Africans to be used as slaves to Jamestown, Virginia. Millions of kidnapped Africans were brought to America in the 1700s and 1800s. By the time of the American Revolution, the economy depended on cheap slave labor. The southern states refused to ratify the constitution without codifying slavery, so a compromise was made. Slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a human being for the purposes of taxation and representation, and the institution of slavery was left standing for future generations to fight over.

African slaves were “free” after the Civil War in 1865, right? Well, not really. They may have been free in the sense that they were no longer “owned”, but after Reconstruction, the south made sure former slaves could not vote or own land. General William T. Sherman issued an order in January 1865 that allowed African Americans to claim 40 acres of land for their own. (You can learn about that order here.) In the fall of 1865 President Andrew Johnson, a southern sympathizer, rescinded the order. After Reconstruction, the South legalized segregation. Jim Crow laws enforced the segregation of blacks and whites. African Americans remained second class citizens. Access to financial and social opportunity was blocked, violence against blacks was considered acceptable, and opportunities were anything but equal.

Every group of immigrants in the United States came willingly, except African Americans. Irish, Polish, and Italians, among others, became Americans in two or three generations who no longer spoke their mother tongue. African Americans, however, were not permitted to assimilate and did not have the same rights as other immigrant groups. (Native Americans and other ethnicities experienced similar difficulties; White Privilege is not limited to African Americans.) African Americans worked as farmworkers and in service positions, not in the professions (there were rare exceptions). It also has to be said that although Jim Crow did not exist in the north, African Americans were discriminated against and de facto separated. American society was effectively closed to African Americans. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s removed Jim Crow laws from the deep south, but could not make up for 400 years of discrimination and institutionalized racism.

Let’s be clear: if you are white, you did not cause White Privilege. You did not own slaves. But our nation and our economy were built on slavery. I am white, and I did not create White Privilege, but I have benefitted from it my entire life, and I recognize the unfair advantage I had. I want everyone to have the same opportunities in life, don’t you?

Photo by Jon Sailor

How can we restructure society to be truly equal, so that we hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL people are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness? It is a complicated issue, how to give all citizens the same access to opportunity. We the People must create a more perfect union that includes all of us, and the conversation of how we can make that happen must commence. It is, after all, the promise of America.

Former Lecturer at University of Texas at Dallas; Author and Award-Winning Travel Writer

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