On Racism and White Privilege

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Overview: 

Explores issues of race and white privilege

Excerpted from White Anti-Racist Activism: A Personal Roadmap by Jennifer R. Holladay, M.S. (Crandall, Dostie & Douglass Books, Inc., 2000)

On Racism
Racism is a doctrine or teaching, without scientific support, that does three things. First, it claims to find racial differences in things like character and intelligence. Second, racism asserts the superiority of one race over another or others. Finally, it seeks to maintain that dominance through a complex system of beliefs, behaviors, use of language and policies. Racism ranges from the individual to the institutional level and reflects and enforces a pervasive view, in whitedominated U.S. culture that people of color are inferior to whites.

Racist beliefs include things like “White people are smarter than people of color,” or “White people make better teachers.” Racism can manifest itself in terms of individual behavior through hate crimes, or in institutional behavior through employment discrimination. Racism might manifest in individual language through the use of slurs, or in institutional policy through a school’s selection of Eurocentric textbooks.

Related to these relatively obvious manifestations of racism is a subtle system that also contributes to the maintenance of the racial status quo. That subtle system is white skin privilege.

On White Privilege
White skin privilege is not something that white people necessarily do, create or enjoy on purpose. Unlike the more overt individual and institutional manifestations of racism described above, white skin privilege is a transparent preference for whiteness that saturates our society. White skin privilege serves several functions. First, it provides white people with “perks” that we do not earn and that people of color do not enjoy. Second, it creates real advantages for us. White people are immune to a lot of challenges. Finally, white privilege shapes the world in which we live — the way that we navigate and interact with one another and with the world.

White Privilege: The Perks
White people receive all kinds of perks as a function of their skin privilege. Consider the following:
• When I cut my finger and go to my school or office’s first aid kit, the flesh-colored band-aid generally matches my skin tone.
• When I stay in a hotel, the complimentary shampoo generally works with the texture of my hair.
• When I run to the store to buy pantyhose at the last minute, the ‘nude’ color generally appears nude on my legs.
• When I buy hair care products in a grocery store or drug store, my shampoos and conditioners are in the aisle and section labeled ‘hair care’ and not in a separate section for ‘ethnic products.’
• I can purchase travel size bottles of my hair care products at most grocery or drug stores.

My father, who has worked in economic development for 30 years, would explain away these examples of white privilege as simple functions of supply and demand economics. White people still constitute the numerical majority in this country, so it makes sense, for example, that bandaid companies would manufacture “flesh-tone” bandages for white people.

Even if I concede to his argument (and ignore the “buying power” of communities of color), it still does not change the impact of these white privileges. As a white person, I get certain perks that people of color do not; I get the bandages and the pantyhose and the shampoo at the hotel that works with my hair. And in a new grocery store, I will not have to scan the aisles for my hair care products. They will be in the section called “hair care.” This is how I experience the world.

These seemingly benign perks also demonstrate a danger on closer examination. Let’s say that I forgot to pack my shampoo for a business trip. When I get to the hotel, I see that the complimentary shampoo is not the standard Suave product to which I am accustomed but rather Pink Oil Lotion for African American hair. I would be surprised and might even think to myself: “Those black folks and all their lobbying … This is so unfair!” I expect these perks. As a white person, I think I am entitled to them.

White Privilege: The Advantages
Certainly, white privilege is not limited to perks like band aids and hair care products. The second function of white skin privilege is that it creates significant advantages for white people. There are scores of things that I, as a white person, generally do not encounter, have to deal with or even recognize. For example:
• My skin color does not work against me in terms of how people perceive my financial responsibility, style of dress, public speaking skills, or job performance.
• People do not assume that I got where I am professionally because of my race (or because of affirmative action programs).
• Store security personnel or law enforcement officers do not harass me, pull me over or follow me because of my race.

All of these things are things that I never think about. And when the tables are turned and my white skin is used against me, I am greatly offended (and indignant). The police department in my community, like so many other law enforcement agencies throughout this country, uses policing tactics that target people of color. Two years ago, I was driving down Rosa Parks Boulevard, a street that runs through an all-black and impoverished area of town, at night. I was looking for a house that I had never been to before, so I was driving slowly, stopping and moving as I searched for numbers on residences.

Out of nowhere, this large police van pulled me over, blue lights flashing and sirens blaring, and a handful of well-armed police officers jumped out of the van and surrounded my car. I did as I was told, and got out of my car. (“Hands above your head; move slowly!”) I then succumbed to a quick physical pat-down, as well as a search of my car. The officers had pulled me over -- not only because of my erratic driving -- but also, because, in the words of one officer, I was “a white woman driving down Rosa Parks after dark.” They thought I was looking to buy drugs.

When I went to the office the next day, I relayed my story to several white colleagues. They shared my sense of violation, of anger, of rage. These co-workers encouraged me to call our legal department and report the incident. I later told the story to a colleague who is black and who lives on Rosa Parks. “You just never have to worry about those things, do you, Jennifer?” she asked and then walked off. In twelve words, she succinctly challenged my sense of privilege.

White Privilege: The World View
The third thing that white privilege does is shape the way in which we view the world and the way in which the world views us. The perks and advantages described above are part of this phenomenon, but not all of it. Consider the following:
• When I am told about our national heritage or “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
• Related, the schools that I attend or have attended use standard textbooks, which widely reflect people of my color and their contributions to the world.
• When I look at the national currency or see photographs of monuments on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., I see people of my race widely represented and celebrated.

As a white person, I see myself represented in all of these places. And, until a couple of years ago, I never questioned that representation — or why people of color were excluded. After all, people like me have done a lot for this country and for the world. If people of color had done their part, so the theory goes, they too would see themselves represented.

Well, people of color have done more than their share for this country. There is an old saying that the victors of war get to write the history of the world. White privilege works this way, too. Since white folks have been in control for so long, we have determined what is valuable or interesting or useful in terms of education. Greek and Roman mythology, Chaucer, and other canonized works have been selected and revered through the ages as critical components of any “solid liberal arts education.”

I rarely have to question the validity of these selections — this is, after all, what is valuable and considered “the real stuff.” And I am entitled to a good education, aren’t I? I never question how or why some things are valued and others are not — why some things are important to “us” and other things are not. When people begin talking about diversifying a curriculum, one of the main things that opponents say is: “I am not willing to lower standards for the sake of minority representation.”

The Black Student Coalition at my college, for example, lobbied the faculty to diversify the readings for the Literature 101 class, a required course for first-year students. One professor objected, saying: “You want me to replace Chaucer with the likes of Alice Walker?” Why do we value Chaucer more than the literary offerings of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, or Audre Lorde? Who assigns that value and on what basis?

Things are starting to change slowly. Perhaps your high school hosted programs during Black History Month or during Asian and Hispanic Heritage Months. Maybe your college offered courses in Black, Latino, Caribbean, Native American, Asian or ethnic studies. These are good places to start, but we should not need separate months or classes. Black history is U.S. history; Chicano literature is valuable literature.

White privilege is a hidden and transparent preference that is often difficult to address. Only on closer inspection do we see how it creates a sense of entitlement, generates perks and advantages for white people and elevates our status in the world.

Comments

Totally disagree

Submitted by Anonymous on 7 July 2014 - 3:16am.

Frankly, the very term 'White Privilege' is racist. The truth of the matter is that when a single ethnic group dominates the cultural development of any country or region, the social, economic, and cultural structures of those nations will reflect the values of the dominant group.

Which is why 'Greek and Roman mythology, Chaucer, and other canonized works have been selected and revered through the ages as critical components of any solid liberal arts education.' Because for American culture, and it's European counterpart, it was these works which shaped our society. Cultural works by individuals of other ethnic groups did not. Would you decry the Chinese for having their education system highlight the works of Chinese individuals? Would they have 'Chinese Privilege' because they didn't provide equal coverage of Korean or Japanese works?

We live in America. Like it or not, our country was founded by European Caucasians, and our history reflects that. Lamenting on how people of color are 'underrepresented' is silly, because they aren't. Their cultural contributions are recognized. Like every other child in the US education system, I learned about people like George Washington Carver, MLK, and Rosa Parks.

Totally Disagree

Submitted by Anonymous on 29 July 2014 - 4:14pm.

It is unclear why you argue that the term "White Privilege" is racist. This term does not demonize White people, nor does it assume that non-Whites are more superior to White people. It is a conceptual term that highlights the economic, cultural, social, and political power of the dominant society over the rest and the extent to which access to power positions are denied to other marginalized groups.

Reading about Rosa Parks or other Black activists and intellectuals is not a sign of real inclusion. Although you may have read and learned about MLK, I am sure you did not read about his critique of American imperialism, capitalism, and the involvement of American military in Vietnam. Moreover, we often read about these individuals in specific parts of the curriculum, when their inclusion serves the dominant values about the United States: "America is the land of Freedom". The curriculum remains a White dominated entity that normalizes White privilege, which is what you profess: "Which is why 'Greek and Roman mythology, Chaucer, and other canonized works have been selected and revered through the ages as critical components of any solid liberal arts education.' Because for American culture, and it's European counterpart, it was these works which shaped our society. Cultural works by individuals of other ethnic groups did not." Regarding your last statement, it is important to note that it was Muslim scholars who reintroduced the scholarship of Greeks back to Europeans. Study your history and you will find plenty of examples of how non-Europeans have contributed to the culture(s) of the United States.

BTW, America was not founded by European Caucasians. Rather, it was invaded and forcefully taken by White colonialists, whose ideologies assumed one racial group was more superior to others.

The word "race"

Submitted by Anonymous on 2 July 2014 - 12:50pm.

Have you ever noticed, when we think of the word "race", we think of black, Asian, but we don't think of white people, just like when we think of the word "gender", we think of women, as if men don't have a gender, as if white people don't belong to a racial category, as if heterosexuals don't have a sexual orientation. That is why hair care products for white peoples' hair doesn't go in "ethnic products".

Could you possibly consider

Submitted by Anonymous on 12 July 2014 - 12:08pm.

Could you possibly consider you said way more about how you think, than you did about the way "we" think? I do think of white people as a race and men as a gender. And, in different geographical regions- the ethnic product would be "for white people" depending on the country one is in.

Just some points

Submitted by Anonymous on 1 July 2014 - 3:13am.

I agree with the points, except the one where you said store security or LE don't harass whites. I used to work at a clothing store and we were told to watch out for white teenage girls.

You forgot to mention that when a black person does something negative, all black America is labeled. White people never get labeled "terrorist" when one white person bombs a building, but that is not true for Arabs.

I just feel so guilty that

Submitted by Rob on 26 May 2014 - 1:38pm.

I just feel so guilty that I'm white. Every day I pray that the sins of societal whiteness can someday be expunged and obliterated. The crimes of white skin privilege leave me filled with shame and loathing.

Guilt free

Submitted by Anonymous on 7 June 2014 - 12:29pm.

You have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about. You have no more reason to apologize for being white than I do for being black. Wave your white pride banner high and be proud of who you are!

I find the term: "white

Submitted by ccesena2 on 26 May 2014 - 11:18am.

I find the term: "white privilege" divisive, offensive and an objectionable, racist term of it's own. Racism has no power in our country but this term gives it life, gives it legs so it can stand on its own.

This term reminds me of the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. It is a scapegoat, thug mentality that offers a racist term to supplant issues of personal responsibility and a government wrought with overlapping programs to keep groups down and subservient for the purpose of ideology and political expediency.

This is a horrendous explanation that supports a visceral hatred of one group for another, bastardizing the concept of equality and fairness in order to isolate and demonize one group for the benefit of another. I am deeply offended that it is perpetuated with tax payer dollars in an effort to irrationally, subjectively brainwash a generation to live in a manifest destiny of a conflict within the human race that does not exist, save the mass psychological neurosis spread by these purveyors of the politics of envy, of identity politics and the politics of division, to one end, to political power of collectivist ideologies of malcontent that deny personal success or personal failure with personal responsibility.

Shame on these hate dealers!

YOU ARE A FOOL

Submitted by Anonymous on 1 July 2014 - 12:00am.

Race doesn't not exist - to you BECAUSE YOU DON'T EXPERIMCE THAT ON THE DAILY.
Step outside your comfort zone and read White Privilege by Peggy Mcintosh, Peggy is a white woman who makes a list of all of the privledge you get with being white.

I was just about to suggest

Submitted by Anonymous on 12 July 2014 - 12:40pm.

I was just about to suggest reading that same article to the poster,

First off i'm white and I'm

Submitted by Carl on 11 April 2014 - 9:40pm.

First off i'm white and I'm not racist. We've all felt racism that it's not the point we should worry about intelligence because only people with low IQs are racist. And that is a fact. And the only one that holds you back is yourself. Just because your white that's does not mean your privileged and my black and Spanish friends make just as much as me because they are intelligent we are all just people. Stop Being ignorant don't ignore the facts

Wow, Carl. You missed the

Submitted by Brown Person on 30 April 2014 - 9:56pm.

Wow, Carl. You missed the entire point of the article, made an outrageous claim based on zero fact and without citing a source (only people with low IQs are racist), and the final line of your comment...classic.

"We've all felt racism that it's not the point..." Correct, that is NOT the point, and not the point of the article. White privilege is not the same thing as racism. Did you even read the article?

"Just because your white that's does not mean your privileged..." Ignoring the grammatical errors, yes, just because you're white, that does mean you are privileged. Did you read the article? It provided clear evidence of the author's own personal experience with white privilege, and even provided a counter example so that you would recognize a situation that a white person would not even think about (the ethnic shampoo in the hotel) to illustrate the extent to which white privilege is so prevalent, and so accepted as the norm, that white people cannot see it. The greatest symptom of white privilege is just that -- the nature of the privilege is so ingrained that you cannot see it. You would only notice it if it were taken away suddenly.

Please provide proof of your stated "fact" that only people with low IQs are racist. I alone know many highly intelligent people who are racist. Guess what, because they are smart, they know their racism is wrong and either actively work to correct it, or hide it from others.

White privilege is going to the supermarket and not having your food categorized as ethnic. Why do I have to buy my asian noodles in the ethnic food aisle? Why can't they be next to the culturally accepted, baseline, European pastas? Why isn't the "Chinese" mustard in the condiment section? Because of white privilege. We've already had the Supreme Court declare that separate is inherently not equal, so the tacit statement here is that these "ethnic" foods are not equal to the entire store's worth of "white" foods.

Do some critical thinking, open your mind to the possibility that your white way of perceiving the world is not the experience that every other person out there has.

Hispanic and Latino are false

Submitted by June on 12 January 2014 - 3:22pm.

Hispanic and Latino are false labels given to people who speak Spanish or from *so called* Latin American countries. Many people are of Indigenous (yes, Native American) and African ancestry.
The labels are just another tactic used by the government to place people under one umbrella and to erase and deny their history, and the holocaust and genocide of all the Natives in the Americas.

Well done and thank you. My

Submitted by Doreen Poehling on 8 September 2013 - 2:14pm.

Well done and thank you. My husband and I are white and have adopted an African American boy who is now 7 years old. I found your article as I researched information to prepare a "talk" with him about how to deal with racism. It is valuable to remember that while I want all of us to be prepared to deal with overt racism (name calling, etc), I must keep in mind that what will affect our son the most isn't necessarily racism but white privilege. Right now, he is benefitting in a lot of ways from our white privilege, since being with us since birth.

This is not a joke

Submitted by Anonymous on 28 June 2014 - 11:52am.

What exactly do you mean by white privilege? I'm very happy for you adopting an African American boy, and I wish there were more family's out their like you. But to joke about using the white privilege card and say that your adopted black son has benefitted from it is kinda like imposing modern slavery, and I hope your not that sick of a person to play that game. Once again I'm happy for you and your family but please do not joke around like that.