White Privilege: Myth or Reality?
The idea of white privilege is not new.
The book “Black Like Me” (written in the sixties) investigates the idea. It is an account of the experiences of a White journalist who disguised himself as Black in the deep South to see what it is like. Eddie Murphy’s humorous skit “White Like Me” on Saturday Night Live is similar; he disguises himself as a white man to see what it’s like. For those unfamiliar with it, in the USA, it is the idea that simply being White confers upon me many unearned (often undetected) privileges that others of different races will not experience.
I hear many White people reject or balk at this idea as they look around and see affirmative action at work and political correctness dictated to them. They feel the opposite: that privilege is given to the minority. I used to feel the same way.
Now, I am convinced that white privilege is real. Here’s why.
The first thing I did was to start really listening to my African-American, Latino/a and Asian-American brothers and sisters, instead of dismissing their experiences as slight paranoia or “playing the race card.” Certainly there are instances when a person may see race as a factor when it truly was not. However, not one single person I spoke to from a minority race in the USA said, “Oh, I don’t see race as an issue in my life.”
If the consensus among minority races in the USA is that race is an issue, who are we, as Whites to ignore that? Which brings me to the first proof that White privilege is as work. As Whites we can go throughout almost all of our days without thinking about the issue of race. African-Americans, for example, do not have that privilege. When I walked into Bertucci’s for lunch in Massachusetts’ North Shore (a homogenously white community) with my 6’3″ African-American friend and I witnessed the double-takes, I understood a little better. Where those double-takes malicious? Almost certainly not. They were a natural human reaction to seeing something we do not expect to see; we do a double-take.
But, that incident made me realize that my dear friend experienced constant, daily reminders that he looked different. I do not experience that as aWhite person in the USA. Unless I go into a predominantly Black neighborhood. But I can avoid the Black neighborhoods. African-Americans cannot avoid the White world. They must exist in it. They have no choice.
So, the main privilege I have is not having to exist in a world of people different than me. I can very easily chose to be around people who share my skin color, speech patterns and world-view and not have constant reminders that I am different from the majority. (I highly recommend Peggy McIntosh’s article on this matter. It does the topic more justice than I can.)
What brings this to the forefront now is the fact that I no longer live in the United States. I live in an country whose population is made up of Arabs, Indians, Asians, Africans and a few Europeans and Americans. I am a minority. That begs the question: Is White privilege at work outside the USA?
The answer is that it is unapologetically at work outside the USA. Do I get double-takes when I walk into a restaurant here? You bet I do. I cannot hide my skin color. So, in that way my experience is similar to my African-American friends in the USA. There is, however, one important distinction. I can be confident that the attitude toward me here, even though I look different, is overwhelmingly positive.
I have been to the slums of Kenya where my companions and I were the only white people around for miles. We were showered with attention and surrounded by admiring children. The same was true in India. Is there anywhere in the world an African-American could go and experience the same thing? Here, in Dubai, I can get a job making a much higher salary than my equally qualified Indian co-worker, just because I am White. If, for example, we want to complain about an incorrect order at a restaurant, my Indian family asks me to speak up; my white skin will get a quicker more positive response.
There are very, very few places I can go in the world where I am not admired or respected simply because I am White. As a Christian what should be my response? I cannot accept it as just “the way it is.” All people are created in God’s image. Therefore, systemic, unjust inequality should not be tolerated. Should I use my White privilege to do good in the world? Can you use benign power without expanding it or corrupting it? Can I use my White privilege to lessen my White privilege? Or should I just do my best not to utilize it?
May God give me the humility to see every person as His Icon.