No, Your Hardships Don’t Erase Your White Privilege

By Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts

I could tell she felt awkward. Concern was written all over her face. Her pale skin had turned slightly pink. Her eyebrows were furrowed. Her words were clear but filled with emotion.

“This feels awkward. And a little unfair.”

He, on the other hand, was totally relaxed. Hands in his pockets. Expressionless. A couple of shrugs and these words: “I’m a straight, white male. I kind of knew this would happen.”

Both were standing in front of the class, a significant distance from the rest of their peers who were spread out across the room, in various positions, front to back. They were all students in one of my English courses who’d just participated in our class privilege walk exercise. I’d gotten the idea from a recent video experiment conducted by Buzzfeed and wanted to use it to illustrate some of the ideas put forth in one of the articles we were reading: Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. The privilege walk exercise works like this: students are asked to stand in a straight line across one side of the room. As I ask specific questions related to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, they move forward or backward depending on their answer. The point is to use a visual to drive home the validity and complexities of privilege, in general, and white privilege, specifically.

Some of my white students, like the young man I mentioned earlier, totally got it. They were pretty clear that they experience privilege daily because of the color of their skin. The young woman who ended up in the front of the privilege walk was even able to recount a time when she and a friend, also white, were walking down the street with two Black men and confronted by police. The two white girls were immediately let go. The two Black men were taken downtown where they spent the weekend in custody. “For no reason,” she said with a slight sadness. Her story caused one of the Black women in the class, who’d landed somewhere in the middle of the pack, to turn her head as tears filled her eyes. The exercise was truly illuminating for all of them.

However, there were other students in the class who were less willing to accept the notion that they were somehow privileged because they were white. “I’m not privileged because I’m white. I’ve had a very rough life. We were poor. We struggled,” one student announced.

There it is.

My student’s defensiveness is all too common. In a study conducted by L. Taylor Phillips and Brian S. Lowery for the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the denial of racial privilege is significant among policy makers and power brokers. This inability (or refusal) to see privilege, of course, leads to a lack of consideration or action when it comes to issues related to racism. Think about it: If you don’t believe that inequality exists, you are not likely to fight for the dismantling of systems that others tell you promote it. Phillips and Lowery note that acknowledging racial privilege “may be difficult given that Whites are motivated to believe that meritocratic systems and personal virtues determine life outcomes… however, claiming personal life hardships may help Whites manage the threatening possibility that they benefit from privilege.”

This is likely why so many of my students – black and white – were visibly moved by the privilege walk. The exercise demonstrated clearly those who benefited from privilege—as well as those who didn’t (see the transgender man who was in the back of the class by the end of the exercise).

No one sees their privilege from their position in life. Their lens is tainted by circumstances and personal experience. But the truth is, privilege really isn't about what you recognize or what you see. It's about what others see in you. It's about how you are perceived based on the color of your skin and how those perceptions afford you benefits that others don't receive. So take note: just because you don't see your privilege doesn't mean it isn't there or that you don't benefit from it.

Much of the “but I had it bad too” defense from those who are challenged on their racial privilege is rooted in this notion that somehow if you are white and poor or white and come from a tragic home environment that exists because you are poor, then you have somehow bypassed your white privilege. But conflating racial privilege with class privilege just doesn’t work when compared to the actual facts: According to Maryhelen MacInnes, Hsin-Yi Liu, Jana Knibb and Leslie Killgore in an article for The Providence Journal, "When class is held constant, race remains a factor in negative health outcomes for African-Americans. Class advantage also does not protect minorities against bearing the brunt of environmental racism and the accompanying health risks.” Studies have found that environmental zoning and protection laws are enforced unequally across states, counties and neighborhoods, leaving communities of color, regardless of their socioeconomic status, in the position of being vulnerable to highly polluted environments.

But I gather that the defensiveness of some white people comes from the fear of being categorized as racist if they acknowledge their racial privilege. Let me help you with that: It doesn't make you racist that you have privilege. Barring extreme efforts, you can't change your skin nor how people perceive it. I'm not even inclined to tell you to turn down your benefits (provided that there isn't an obvious transgression against a person of color a la my student’s white girls go free story). However, you just might be racist though if you continue to deny the existence of white privilege with the intention to somehow neutralize the voracity in which people of color express and demonstrate how that privilege and the white supremacist system that supports it impacts us. Why? Because the only reason anyone would deny what has been obviously documented over the last century would be because either consciously or unconsciously they have a desire to maintain their status. By vanquishing the complaints, you keep your benefits. By acknowledging the complaints and aligning with the complainants, you essentially are saying that you want to sacrifice the benefits afforded to you based on skin color alone in order for everyone to be treated equally.

But no worries. That’s not likely to happen. White privilege is the favorite child of White Supremacy and has to be dismantled at both the heart level and in our systems simultaneously. Even if prison, education, and economic systems were righted, we would still have to contend with "the hearts of men." And that's a much more challenging battle. I’d go as far as to say an impossible one. So as long as there are employers who still see a white man in a suit with an impeccable resume but maybe a tragic, impoverished past as still smarter, more intelligent, more qualified than a Black or Brown man with all the same attributes, your white privilege, denied or acknowledged, is safe.

So why acknowledge it then? Well, because acknowledging it and aligning yourself with those who are fighting for social equality and justice is a step toward change. Because, make no mistake, righting the wrongs of our white supremacist systems is still all too necessary. In fact, doing so becomes even more critical simply because of the impossibility of human beings’ ability to change other human beings’ hearts. Dismantling systems means that if that employer who hires according to his racist heart gets caught, he will be held accountable by a justice system that is truly blind—and not just wearing cool shades like the one we have today. It means that elected officials who are called on the carpet for their racist comments will have to wrestle with the fear of losing their jobs or the support of their constituency as opposed to simply riding out the tumultuous waves of our 24-hour social media news cycle. It means that Officer Daniel Panteleo could have choked out Eric Garner or those deputies could have tased Natasha McKenna to death or George Zimmerman still might have killed Trayvon Martin, but all of them would be rotting away in jail right now.

So now you know. White privilege exists. And white people benefit from it regardless of any other status held (class, gender, etc.). Ironically, it is this same white privilege that gives white people the agency to either deny or acknowledge it. But in the words of that prophetic voice from hip-hop’s golden age, Black Sheep, “The choice is yours.”

Choose wisely.

Photo: Shutterstock

As a writer, editor, and educator, Tracey Lewis-Giggetts offers those who hear her speak and read her work an authentic experience; an opportunity to explore the intersection of identity, faith, and culture. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication from the University of Kentucky, an M.B.A. degree in Marketing from Montclair State University in New Jersey, and an M.F.A in Creative Writing from Fairleigh-Dickinson University. The widely published author of eight books is a professor of English at the Community College of Philadelphia.

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