What White Privilege Means To 8 People of Color
When I think about the ways, big or small, that white privilege affects me, it's the daily microaggressions that come to mind first. I remember being on the beach, watching a few cops bust some kids who had open alcohol containers about 10 feet in front of me. The cops were a bit aggressive — one kept putting his hand on his gun (not as if to threaten them, but as a reflex, maybe) — and I remember expressing the sentiment to my friend (who was not a POC) that I, as someone who was completely irrelevant to that situation but sitting close to it, felt uneasy in their presence. I distinctly remember her laughing and saying that I was being ridiculous, and I'll never forget that. I'll never forget how comfortable she felt not only with the police and their presence, but how comfortable she felt minimizing my fear.
A family member once posed this question to me: Do you feel the police are protecting you from other people, or protecting other people from you? As the years go by, and the body count of POC's continues to rise at a staggering rate, I cannot help but feel as if the police think they need to protect others from us, from people of color, from me. Today, to me, the greatest white privilege is being able to live without fear of a police officer shooting you dead in the street, or shooting someone you know — shooting your brother, your father, your mother, your child. To those who deny the existence of white privilege: you are the ones benefitting from it. White privilege isn't something tangible you can touch or hold. I suggest reading Peggy McIntosh's White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack to understand more.
But then I spoke to a few friends about their experiences with white privilege — how it affects them, how it affects the people they love — and they were gracious enough to grant me a little glance into their world. Maybe an academic text can't do all of the work. But maybe my friends can do some, by speaking out and further developing this discourse:
As a black femme body, I've always been hyper aware of my place in this world.
Being black in America means living in a constant state of terror. We have to worry about our children dying at the hands of the state. We also have to worry about people rejoicing in the deaths of our children, trying to convince us that our existence is reason enough to take our lives; we constantly have to defend our humanity and our worth.
If only we had the privilege to not have it consume our thoughts multiple times a day. Not a day passes where I don’t think about all the black children in the world and whether or not one will become a victim of their existence. It is hard to believe that there are people who don't worry about their lives and the lives of their family on a daily basis.
To be confident that your existence won’t be threatened is a white privilege. We set similar goals to white people, yet the challenges that face the African American community become a recurring toll that exhausts us. White privilege is not realizing that you are being catered to. White people are so used to having their needs put before others that when they are being set on equal ground as other races, instead of having their wishes explicitly catered too, they feel that they are losing something.
Navigating through spaces is something that we also are constantly aware of; it’s stressful being the spokesperson of your race when you’re the only black person in the room; it’s disheartening. I feel like African Americans should be able to navigate and just be; if only we had the privilege to just be.
White privilege affects me because it exhausts me.
I'm quick to be attacked for expressing why something upsets me and then expected to educate people on what microaggressions are, what intersectional feminism is, etc. I'm expected to have graphs and charts made and hand over my research, when Google is always free. I've taken the time; they should take the time, too.
It exhausts me because I shouldn't have to explain to a human being that another human being didn't deserve to die because they maybe stole cigars.
It exhausts me because white is considered normal and POC are considered not relatable and people don't understand how offensive that is.
It exhausts me because I'm made to feel that what I'm saying doesn't matter unless another white person is explaining this for me.
White privilege is the ability to go through life without constantly thinking about these issues on a day-to-day basis.
Once you truly understand what white privilege is, it is impossible to deny. In America, people with white skin get some unearned privileges that aren't afforded to those with darker skin — even people with skin as light as mine. I'm not saying this to make white people feel guilty, but to make white people aware that, whether they acknowledge it or not, they benefit everyday from the color of their skin.
It's as simple as turning on the TV and not wondering if your race will be represented. It's being in middle school and starting a fashion trend and unlike me, you don't get called down to the principal's office and asked if you are starting a gang. It's celebrating your 16th birthday and new learner's permit by driving with your dad and unlike me, you aren't stopped by the police because some neighbors called the cops about two suspicious individuals "casing houses" in the middle of the day. It's never having the experience of being followed around a store and asked if you are going to pay for your items. It's being at airport security and never being asked if you've sewn a knife into the lining of your Harvard backpack (nope, just the books, thanks).
But most of all — white privilege is about having the ability to say, "I never think about race" and actually mean it. You aren't forced to think about your race everyday, whereas a black woman in America, people go out of their way to make sure I don't forget.
White privilege is a huge burden for people of color, like myself. It's a constant reminder of the things that are not available to us. From their position of power, white people have created a standard of success, beauty, and intelligence that is molded to fit them and rarely accommodate non-white people. They have also created a world in which their experiences are the known default.
I'll never forget the fall semester of my sophomore year of art school: In a design course, we were told to model an architectural structure after an object of our choosing for a week-long exercise. I was snacking on Oreos during my brainstorming session so I decided to go with it; it was meant to be a pretty superficial assignment to get us thinking about form and aesthetic, so it didn't need to be too profound. I focused on the contrast of the hard cookie and the soft filling, as well as the darkness of the chocolate and the white creme.
During my critique, we discussed the hard/soft contrast briefly before our guest critic, a local architect, decided he wanted to focus on my blackness. He spoke at length about the contrast between the color of my skin and my ability to articulate my thoughts. He compared my complexion to chocolate. He made connections between me and a cookie because he walked into that classroom never seeing me as more than just the black girl, the different one. So much so that he'd forgotten that the assignment, which he'd drafted himself, was about architecture.
People of color never get to exist separate from our ethnic background. We're expected to hyphenate our identities and live up to insulting stereotypes. People of color will always be boiled down to what makes us different, simultaneously being asked not to acknowledge or celebrate that difference. White people get to just be... people.
I guess growing up in a small suburban town and being one of a handful of black families in the area, you see and hear a lot of things. Moving Upstate, the color of someone’s skin didn’t really phase me, because of being born and raised in NYC till about age seven. I had been exposed to so much, with NYC being one of the biggest melting pots in the country. When we did move, it was a drastic change, especially in school, which had only two or three kids of Asian ethnicity, two or three black kids like myself, and two or three kids of East Indian descent. There wasn't much diversity to begin with. My teacher had asked my mother if I would have a hard transition, which I didn’t.
But the hardest thing with school growing up was having some educators, even some classmates, assume you came from a broken home because you were African American — which is why my parents always made it a point for me to be well-dressed and be very polite at all times. My fifth grade teacher was the first male educator I had ever had, and as the only black student in the classroom, I noticed after a few months that he would treat me differently than the other kids and kind of talked down to me at times throughout the year. My report card would always reflect that I was excelling like everyone else. But I think what hurt me the most was that at the end of the year at graduation, he didn’t have anything nice to say about me or mention anything that stood out to him about my personality, as he had done with all the other students.
I also remember that when we moved into our home, our one next door neighbor seemed a bit skeptical of us moving in and basically made it a point to ask what my parents did for work. My father had worked for the NYS court system and my mother was finishing up a job at Barnes and Noble in the city. She wanted to eventually start looking for work upstate once she was done, and I guess she asked our neighbor if he knew of any places that would be hiring. All the places he listed were office and facility cleaning jobs — he suggested these without really asking her if she had a degree, or what work experience she had.
Still to this day at times, in either a grocery store or small commercial store — whether it's extremely busy or not — it’s like I don’t exist. I’m not asked if I need help as I walk in or at the cash register, and it’s 2016. The worst thing is being ignored, just being stared at when you’re checking out, after I clearly saw the cashier trying to make friendly conversation with the customer in front of me.
Most of my life people have told me that certain race issues can’t or don’t affect me because I’m bi-racial. But being half white hasn’t insulated me from the effects of white privilege.
In kindergarten, I was teased and told by my classmates that I wasn’t a girl because girls have long hair and I had a close-cut Afro, so I must be a boy. Shortly after, my mother started relaxing my hair. Hundreds of dollars were spent and a lot of damage done to my hair over the years because she needed to “do something about my head.” There were no special products or how-to’s on taking care of my hair type and the mainstream solution was to fix the texture of my hair so that it looked "normal and pretty." As an adult, I made the decision to go natural. However, while working at two different companies, I was told I need to work on my appearance because I looked disheveled and undone (meaning I did a wash-and-go and my curls where large and full), while my white counterparts where complimented daily sporting their cute messy buns.
Up until recently there were very few, if any, dolls that resembled women/children of color. It didn’t matter much until people started to buy the dolls “made for me.” When American Girl dolls hit the scene, I was so excited to get one. I read all the blurbs about each doll, and I wanted the rich and fancy Samantha. I was gifted with Addy — the escaped slave who learns how to read. Shockingly, I couldn’t relate to this doll and reading her stories did nothing but make me sad.
A few years later, on my birthday, I got a Dionne doll (Cher’s light-skinned black sidekick in Clueless). By the end of my party, I had opened three more of them. I remember being so sad, because there were so many cool toys I actually wanted that had nothing to do with how I looked, but my friends and their parents were sure I’d be so much happier with this doll that looked like me. Stacey Dash? Really?
As a woman of color, my experience with white privilege has largely been connected with the idea of who is deserving (or worth) — who deserves wealth, attention, approval, love, acceptance, etc.? I am constantly inundated with images of happy, carefree white people which claim that white people deserve these things and should be associated with positive qualities such as attractiveness. And that as a person of color, my best bet to be accepted is to try and imitate white speech, white hair, white fashion. Anything outside of these perceived norms (i.e. wearing my hair braided or natural) can cause me to be labeled "too ethnic" or "provocative.” I can either be rebuked for looking too black or, conversely, fetishized for my black features. Neither of which is good.
White privilege is having dialogues of racial inequality overlooked or POC being perceived as ungrateful or trying to cause drama by bringing up these topics. Having to worry about how to address racial inequality because it could offend white people. I've heard countless stories from other people of color — and even experienced this myself — where someone says something offensive directly to you (the only person of color), and instead of going off on this person about making racist comments/assumptions, you have to play it cool and politely diffuse the situation in an effort to keep the white person's pride intact (so they don't feel racist).
However, when there is a public outcry about something that affects white people, then everyone should be concerned/upset/angry. When white people feel victimized, they are not labeled as whiny or ungrateful or looked down upon; they are merely expressing themselves. Yet when black people protest racially-motivated police brutality, their assembly becomes a "riot" and there is all this effort by the media to somehow prove that the POC victim was resisting authority or a "thug.”
Even as victimized minorities, we still have to save face and maintain positivity when white people say things that are clearly grounded in racial prejudice. All of this, in order to protect white people from thinking that they might in fact be racist. Because being honest and angry somehow makes that white person the victim of your racial tirade, instead of allowing this opportunity to open up a discussion on how prevalent racism is (even from people who don't think they're racist!). How do we correct this behavior when white people refuse to be receptive to being called out?
Some of my white friends and family literally sneer at my sister and me when we bring up civil rights topics — especially those involving people of color — namely us.
Reactions to our issues would range from “OMG really? But I really don’t understand how you would feel that way,” to “Well, life is way better for African Americans now; you all just need something to whine about.”
I won’t even get into the context of these conversations, but on my end, I noticed a pattern.
We were constantly dismissed. Shushed. Laughed off. On one end, I could understand; I mean, white people don’t experience racism on the same level as black people. So their ignorance to the microaggressions people of color battle every day sort of made sense. But when these same parties refuse to take off their blinders and empathize with another’s experience… well, that’s where we are going to have issues.
Their privilege allows them to behave this way. It’s like they’re granted immunity — easy passes to get out of the conversation. We bring up these issues not to make anyone feel guilty, but to enlighten you — to engage in an intelligent discussion with the people we call family. I don’t think showing a little humility would hurt.