The phrase, “White Privilege” evokes a defensive response from some people. People come from varying circumstances, struggles, trials, and families. To insinuate that someone is privileged dampens their personal struggles. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real, though, but that the verbiage of “privilege” connotes a knowing sense of elitism. When we think of privileged children, we think of wealthy kids whose parents gently float them into expensive activities, schools, and colleges all while they spend their nights sleeping on down-filled pillows and pure silk sheets. What we don’t automatically imagine is the low-income child growing up in rural America in the home of a single mother who works as an underpaid nursing assistant. The truth is, that kid is privileged, despite his struggles, but our concept of the word “privilege” undermines the reality of what that means for black people.
White privilege implies a superiority complex. It implies a racist attitude, whether the definition truly says so or not. So when we have discussions on racial injustice, we could consider the reason so many people feel defensive. “I’m not racist, and I’m not privileged,” could prove an automatic response to the notion that there is in fact “white privilege.”
Defining Racism and Racial Injustice
The fact that a black male goes to prison more often than a white male is a complex and confusing concept. The entire structure of government and the strata of people involved in the system that more often incarcerates black males than white males may involve no one person who is overtly racist. So we have this problem of an exceptional incarceration rate in the United States for black males (The Pew Research Center has found black males to be six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males), but uncovering just how this proves to be a racial injustice is difficult at best.
Our idea of what racism and racial injustice means deflects our ability to look beyond the face of issues. We discredit how our history has enabled a system that perpetuates a cycle of poverty and incarceration for a relatively significant portion of black Americans. We can look at the criminal records of the incarcerated individuals and see that they have clearly broken laws, and those people are seemingly justifiably incarcerated. For many of us, we are looking for an overtly racist motivation for issues we have been deeming racial injustices. For some people, there is a simple litmus test to determine racial injustice: were the men who were arrested innocent and put in jail simply because they were black? No? Then there is no racial injustice.
The incarceration rates perpetuate the prejudice that some overtly racist people have: that black people are more prone to criminal activity. The problem is that without considering the historical racial issues of our nation, the white leadership history of our nation, and the lingering prejudicial heuristics many people have regarding race, understanding how and why an imbalanced incarceration rate for black males is a racial issue is nearly impossible.
The White Bubble
Very few white people in comparison to black people live in a racially diverse environment. White people learn about slavery and segregation in school and may even have parents who discuss that aspect of U.S. American history with them; however, few white people have any idea on what challenges many black people face just because of their race. White people have black classmates, co-workers, bosses and now we have a black first family. The concept of racial injustice is elusive to white people who feel they and their friends are not racist when there are obvious signs of success for many black people. The sentiment is one of comparison to successful people: he is successful, so what’s the problem?
Not all white people are racist or even remotely racist, and in fact, most are not–and that can perpetuate the inability toward solving racial inequality issues. It only takes a small percentage of racist white people in power and in the public to adversely and strongly affect a majority of black people in the United States. The issue of white racism is sordid, embarrassing and complex. Most people would not consider themselves “racist,” even if they are. In fact, even language on Ku Klux Klan websites suggest that the KKK is not an organization of hate. “A message of love, not hate,” welcomes visitors to the main KKK website. While even the KKK sends mixed signals to white Americans on what racial issues mean, most white Americans would have nothing to do with the Ku Klux Klan, and because of that, it may be difficult for them to understand or even believe that racism is still a majorly pressing issue. Many white Americans see racism as an overt act of hatred, and they view KKK members as radical and rare. They may not believe there are invisible hands of racial injustice nor that racism is prevalent enough to affect many black people.
White Bubble: How Society Presents Racial Issues
We have Black History month. There are black forums and media outlets that discuss potential racial issues. We have the NAACP. All of these attempts to rectify history and its effect on modern society inadvertently distance white people from the problems facing black Americans. The problems are presented as “black issues” or “racial problems,” instead of American problems. White people are not really taught how to identify current consequences of racial injustices that crushed families throughout history. We are taught, essentially, that racial discrimination and injustice is history. We don’t examine the link between voting rights, segregation, slavery, discrimination and the major problems affecting many black Americans today.
I’m Not Racist, But…
Racist attitudes are socially unacceptable in the United States, so many people who have hidden prejudices are reluctant to admit to anyone or even to themselves that they are racist. The taboo nature of racism creates the situation in which racist ideology can present without any signs of racism. Ian Haney Lopez wrote a book entitled Dog Whistle Politics, in which he unearths the political code words that subtly incite racist feelings. Political statements about taxes and handouts are clean of racist verbiage, but they allude to some notion that only black people are living on the system on your (white people’s) tax money. As we Americans are still brushing off the dust from an overtly racially discriminatory economic and social environment, we are still struggling to identify racism and racist attitudes in such a way that some people may be completely unaware that they are in fact racist.
Racial Injustice is an American Injustice
There is a white privilege, but people living in a white bubble will not see it. They do not see how history has affected many black people of today. They do not see overt racism on a daily basis and they do not feel a part of the story about improving racial equality. They may genuinely want to see that all people are granted the same opportunities and they may deeply feel that racial discrimination and racism is tragic. Words such as “white privilege” work against including white people into the fight for equality, because it puts many people in a defensive, “I’m not a racist and I didn’t have it easy” stance, rather than encouraging them to see how the progression and evolution of our nation and of humanity depends on our awareness of real issues facing many Americans every single day–facing them right now.
The conversation often feels like a white against black debate rather than a debate about the progress of our nation in unearthing invisible hands of discrimination that tragically affect black people and their children. When children are killed by people of another race, the real issue isn’t about which race of people is committing more crimes against the other–the question is which group of people are more inherently protected by the judicial system. So sometimes white people are looking for overt acts of racial motivation to declare a racial injustice, when the bigger picture is whether the system is fair for everyone. Because, if it is not fair for everyone, everyone suffers.