I was 23 years old when I heard the term “white privilege” for the first time. And I immediately hated and resented it.
First I had to learn what white privilege meant. Simply put, it’s a term that describes the inherent advantages people like me enjoy simply from being born white. For instance, I don’t have to worry about being pulled over by the police just because of my skin color. I can live my daily life absent any and all concerns about race and how it affects my career, negative judgments during daily interactions with people, and my personal safety. Basically, white privilege means I have an easier path in life with fewer obstacles than people of color.
But for someone raised in America the land of the free where opportunity abounds and success always follows hard work, the entire notion of white privilege was impossible for me to swallow.
I heard “white privilege” and immediately classified it as someone making excuses for black people instead of holding them accountable. I heard someone trying to tell me I was spoiled and lazy just because I’m white. And I was threatened and defensive because I heard someone trying to take away from my accomplishments and hard work, simply because I supposedly had things handed to me due to my whiteness.
Basically I felt like I was being called a cheater.
So I went on the attack. I said things like “this is America and everyone has the same chance at success,” and “if black people want the success white people have, they need to work harder.” I screamed about Al Sharpton and shouted about the ridiculousness of the “race card.” And I capped off all such arguments by reminding anyone who would listen that slavery was a long time ago and we live in a modern, enlightened society largely free from racism.
It would take several years and a whole new network of friends from all over the world to see what an absolute jackass I was being.
Through new jobs and the power of online networking and social media, I began to talk to a variety of people with a plethora of life experience. Those friends and acquaintances made the difference, as suddenly the world as I knew it opened up – and looked very different from what I had known.
I’ve seen a mother with a black son and white son, and the pain she goes through when they enter a store and her black child is routinely followed and eyed with disdain, while her white child wanders around free from suspicion. I’ve listened to black fathers break down emotionally when they have to explain to their children why other kids at school refuse to play with them simply because of their skin color. One friend of mine was in a group of underage people who were caught drinking by security. Despite all of them being under 21, only my friend was detained while the rest were told to scram. I’m sure you can guess what color my detained friend was.
Even now you can see real-life stories of everyday racism and unfairness by viewing hashtags such as #AliveWhileBlack. It’s terrifyingly eye-opening, especially compared to #CrimingWhileWhite, which describes the leniency many white people experience during run-ins with law enforcement officers.
I know you’re thinking “Oh great, another I-used-to-be-racist-but-now-I’m-an-enlightened-progressive-white-guy” article. Fair enough. I’m well aware that for some people, that’s all this will ever be.
But my point is, the things I learned in the classroom about civil rights and MLK as a suburban white kid in a town that’s 93% Caucasian? They’re not enough. It needs to be personal.
I had no black friends because there was no diversity in my community, so I never had the opportunity to talk to different people. And I know I’m not alone in that boat. I truly believe if the majority of white people who don’t believe in privilege connected to people of color and listened to their perspectives – if they actually witnessed the pain and fear as they describe their experiences – things would slowly start to improve. A foundation will be built.
It’s not ever fun to admit you’re wrong about something as fundamental as how you view the world. Yes we live in America and yes it is a land of opportunity, but I was born a lot closer to opportunity than others. Too many white people think white privilege means they don’t work hard or earn their way in life, but that’s not true. White privilege does NOTHING to devalue the success that only hard work and determination can bring. But in the midst of all that, it’s important to realize we face fewer obstacles than people of color, who often have to work twice as hard for the same results. It’s all about perspective.
I hope white people will see white privilege is not an accusation – it’s just reality. Because that’s the starting point for the larger conversation about race this country so desperately needs.