We need to talk about what white privilege is, but let’s start by talking about what it isn’t. White privilege is NOT racism. Racism is prejudicial or discriminatory thoughts, words and actions against people from different races, based on the belief that your race is superior. It requires the active participation of the racist. Whereas white privilege is a societal construct that gives white people an easier path through life, at the expensive of people of colour. If you are white you may not have asked for it, you may not agree with it, but there from the moment you were born you have gained numerous advantages from white privilege. It exists whether you consent to it or not. It does not require any active participation on your part. It can almost be considered a hidden phenomenon as the benefits are so ingrained that often white people don’t realise the advantages it gives them, and people of colour, although they can see the injustice of it, often don’t openly discuss it.
White privilege is a term that encapsulated all of the benefits that being white gives you in a society that was founded by, and for, white people. There are some major examples, such as white people being looked upon more favourably for jobs, being more likely to be approved for loans and being less likely to be stopped by the police or security guards. The majority of the time people of colour experience the exact opposite. People of colour are less likely to get jobs even if they have the exact same qualifications as white candidates. They are less likely to be approved for loans and are much more likely to be stopped by the police or security guards, who are then much more likely to mistreat them or overact to them in non-hostile situations. When a white person commits a heinous crime I am never asked to explain it because I share the same race as the perpetrator, or to apologise on behalf of my race. Yet Muslim people of colour are regularly asked to apologise for the acts of ISIS. There are also more subtle hints that society is built by white people for white people. For example, I can turn on my television and see loads of people who look like me. I can read books, magazines and newspapers in which characters & people are described as looking like me. I can go into almost any pharmacy in the world and find make up for my skin tone. Although these subtle identifiers of white privilege are improving as society becomes more multicultural and multi-ethnic, white people are still significantly over represented and more likely to be represented in a positive light in popular culture and throughout society. Once we recognise what white privilege is and understand how we as white people benefit from it, we can act to change it to make a fairer world for all. It is best summarised by the saying “If you don’t think white privilege exists, you are already enjoying the benefits of it.”
Personally, I do not believe that white privilege is fair or just or right. I do not believe that I am superior to anyone because of the colour of my skin or theirs. I believe that affirmative action must take place to try to rectify and atone for the treatment of people of colour in the past. I believe that politicians, police officers, educators, celebrities, sports stars and all prominent societal figures must lead the way in making a fairer society for all. I believe that Tommie Smith and John Carlos were right to protest against a racially unjust America almost 50 years so, and that Colin Kaepernick is right to continue to do so today. I believe that we must raise our children not only not be racist, but to be actively anti-racism. I believe that we must demand this from our friends and family also. And because no one will ever say it better than the great man himself, I will borrow a line from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – we need to create a society in which “children will… not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Dr. King said those powerful words in 1963, and we still have a long way to go before they are actualised. I am not racist, I am actively anti-racism, and I do not agree with white privilege… but I have benefited from it, and cannot avoid it, because I am white.
To illustrate in very simple terms what white privilege is I’ll tell you a story about my friend Bertha. I was 12, had just started secondary school and was so pale that I was nicknamed Casper (after the translucent friendly ghost). Bertha was 13, her parents were Nigerian, and that’s where she was born and had lived until she was eight. We shared the same bus stop and stood in awkward silence beside each other for weeks until I eventually told her shyly that I loved her hair (she had black and red braids that reached her lower back). She thanked me and told me that her mum sewed in it. I knew nothing about afro hair, cornrows or braids before that and bombarded her with questions. She obviously found my incessant questioning nice, or at least not too annoying, and invited me over to her house to watch her mum braid hair. And that was it, from then on we were inseparable friends, and I spent many evenings after school and weekends in her house. It was always her house. Not that I minded, her house was fun, she was allowed to play music and louder and stay up later than I ever was. Also, she was definitely the "cooler" friend and I would have followed her anywhere. One day her younger brother was being particularly annoying so I suggested we hang out in my house instead, after all, it was only 200 metres down the road. She suggested numerous other options – we could go to the beach, the community centre or walk around the village but I insisted that my house was a much better (and warmer) option. Bertha protested as we walked around and got more and more nervous as we approached the door. She put her hand out in front of my torso to block me from opening the door and said “Will you ask your parents if it’s okay for me to come in?” I laughed it off and told her it would be fine, I was allowed to have friends over. She asked again, this time phrasing it as “But just ask if it’s okay for me to come in, they do know about me don’t they?” At 12, I was quite naïve and oblivious to what she was trying to tell me and reassured that of course they knew about her – she was one of my best friends. She eventually had to spell it out for me, and I’ll never forget her shaking as she asked apprehensively “Do your parents know I’m black? Are black people allowed in your house?”
My jaw dropped.
I realised then, and it has been reaffirmed repeatedly since, that there was a huge unspoken and unjust divide between us.
Being white opens doors, both literally and metaphorically.
I have never stood on a doorstep and wondered if I would be accepted on the other side.
And I will never have to…
… because I am white.