Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Other Side of Discrimination: Why Understanding White Privilege is So Important

by Nomad

It was a phrase I heard my father whenever I complained about something. "Who ever told you life would be fair?" As a child, that blunt defense of injustice was usually enough to shut me up like a clam. 
It was true that I couldn't actually recall any person  saying that life was going to always be fair.
The idea was, however, constantly implied and consistently drummed into my trusting mind. 

How would you like to be treated like that? was something I heard often enough. That is the essence of fairness. 

The Sunday school taught us the Golden Rule as a fundamental principle of the Christian faith. One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.
It was so simple and yet things were still not fair.

Privilege and the Advantage of Being White
Despite our egalitarian pretensions, American society is, like most societies, often unfair. It is based less on merit but on privilege and status.

Once upon a time, our forefathers might have dreamed of a classless society in which opportunities were not limited to a certain group. How serious they were is of course debatable, since many of them owned slaves.

Today. we might talk about equality for minorities, but, in reality, we tend to accept that some people have it better than others. The reason for this is based on nothing more than inborn privileges.
More and more, we watch as people with very limited talent, some not particularly intellectually-gifted people, are able to advance in life with the minimum of effort. (Based only on a brand name, people like this can even be elected president.)

The privileged classes can be based on class, gender, sexual orientation and, most notably, skin color. Some of these privileges overlap, as we all know. Therefore, to be white, rich, Christian, heterosexual and male is like winning the demographic Powerball lottery. You were born with the winning ticket in your little white hand.

For members of the white-skin privileged class, racism is a rather abstract concept. Pointing out discrimination is just a loser's complaint. "Instead of complaining," they will say, "why not work harder?" or  "Why not be more like us?" 

In some respects, the concept of white-skin (or simply white) privilege is really just the opposite of racism. Race discrimination is a limiting factor, white privilege is a liberating, empowering one. (At least for white people.)

Paradoxically, for those inside the privileged class, being light skinned is rarely seen as a particular asset. That's because it is nearly always taken for granted as a social norm. The idea is that's just how the world works (as if that's ever been a good excuse for injustice.) So suck it up, as they say.

Here's a short video you might find interesting on this subject.

Things We Take For Granted
In an essay, Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley Collage Center for Research on Women. has made a list of some of the privileges being white offers
Here are thirteen from a list of fifty things that white people take for granted:
  • If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
  •  I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
  •  I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  • I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
  • I can be pretty sure that my children's teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others' attitudes toward their race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the "person in charge", I will be facing a person of my race.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race.
  • I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children's magazines featuring people of my race.
  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
  • I will feel welcomed and "normal" in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

McIntosh goes on to say that as a white person in a society that offers rewards for a lighter skin color. there were assumptions that generally go unchallenged. 
My skin color was an asset for any move I was educated to want to make. I could think of myself as belonging in major ways and of making social systems work for me. I could freely disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. Being of the main culture, I could also criticize it fairly freely.
However, she adds, the advantages of being white comes a cost to those who do not belong to this privileged group. Every undeserved privilege is a small theft of somebody else's right.
In proportion as my racial group was being made confident, comfortable, and oblivious, other groups were likely being made unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated. Whiteness protected me from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which I was being subtly trained to visit, in turn, upon people of color.
It's not about feeling guilty. It is about acknowledging that racism can be a subtle slippery thing. For white people, who have never walked in African American shoes, the concept of racism can be such an abstract idea.  

That's true even for the best hearts who might give plenty of lip service to equality without understanding how it actually feels to be on the outside.

Unlearned Lessons of the Golden Rule
Acknowledging the existence of white privilege forces us to look at how much of our success is unearned, how much of it was merely a matter of chance.  That kind of serious introspection and relinquishing of power is not an easy thing for anybody. Even if doing so means a more fair and harmonious society, there are a lot of people who are willing to fight to the death for their entitlements.
It is no wonder that racism has been so hard to stamp out.
Disapproving of the system won't be enough to change them. I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude. But a "white" skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us. Individual acts can palliate but cannot end, these problems.
In a competitive society- practically Darwinist- every advantage must be seized even if that means treating people in ways you would never personally accept. 

McIntosh points out in her essay that by keeping the majority of people believing that life is fair for all people, a small number of people in power are able to hold onto power while also limiting the access to that power. 

The truth of that has become a lot more apparent to middle class white America not because of a sudden awakening to the realities of racism,  The existence of white privilege is becoming more and more obvious to the white population as the income inequality widens the gap between "the haves" and "the have nots."
As the privilege slips out of the hands of all white males of a certain age and into the hands of the white rich, suddenly some people are wondering why the world is suddenly so damn unfair lately. 
*   *   *
I still believe that while life is often unfair, fairness is not such a bad goal. Now- with the wisdom of decades- I would answer my long-gone father.
"Nobody said life was fair. But unfairness and injustice is not something anybody should have to accept."