By: Isabella Astuto
The concept of white privilege often causes extreme reactions right off the bat. The phrase has been misinterpreted, exaggerated, and just generally misunderstood for most of its existence. Considering the riots occurring in America following the death of George Floyd and other victims, understanding not just blatant racism, but also systemic racism, which white privilege directly causes, is incredibly important.
Oftentimes, white privilege is described using Peggy McIntosh’s essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack” from 1988. It was interpreted as inconveniences in day to day life for any person of color, which while heavily debated, was at the same time the most digestible interpretation. However, it isn’t the most accurate definition.
To get the true white privilege definition though, we also need a working definition for racism. The Merriam-Webster definition is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Systemic racism is when that racism is carried out by groups in power, such as the government or schools. Another important term to understand when exploring this issue is racialization, which is the grouping of people based on certain physical characteristics, specifically skin color.
The reason that many people get so defensive about white privilege as a concept is because it seems to suggest that all white people have never suffered. However, right upfront, we need to dispel this belief, because it’s not at all the intention of the wording. White privilege is not saying that white people have never had to suffer, or even that white people don’t have to work hard to achieve success. White privilege instead is a societal advantage that every Caucasion, particularly in the West, is automatically born with. Yes, they can also experience disadvantages based on location, first language, appearance, financial status, and many other factors, but that one advantage of skin color does still exist.
Before 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, white privilege was really only used to refer to legal rights that white people had over others. However, as more laws were passed to give specifically black people more technical rights, white privilege was adapted as more of a psychological bias that can be perpetuated through either conscious or subconscious actions. This can manifest on a professional level, where certain typically black hairstyles are deemed unprofessional, or even on a day to day level, where when crayons or Band-Aids come in skin color, the color is always a very specific shade of white skin tone.
A very common critique of white privilege comes into play when mentioning these examples, and that is why do these things matter? At first glance, they seem trivial when there are obviously much bigger issues in the world. Well, to explain just why it’s a problem, there’s a concept called the power of normal, that states when something is more normalized and mainstream, it’s more humanized, and vice versa. So when whiteness becomes the default, other races end up being dehumanized. This can start with inaccurate portrayals in the media, causing stereotypes that lead to many growing up believing that all people born with a certain skin tone are a certain type of way. While some of these stereotypes may seem harmless, like all black people liking fried chicken, it is dehumanizing. If you are used to stereotyping people based on their food preferences, it can be a slippery slope to thinking that they may tend to be lazy as well, or more likely to steal, and thoughts can snowball from there. You may not even be trying to think these thoughts, or believe that you believe them. But when you allow any stereotypes to be accepted, you’re more susceptible to taking on others, even just subconsciously. When a group of people are treated as nothing more than a set of stereotypes, they aren’t seen as individuals, and less likely to be respected in the long run.
This may all just seem like conjecture, but many studies do prove that some individual’s thought processes do play out like this. For example, New York City used to have a Stop and Frisk policy, where police could stop anyone to frisk them for weapons or contraband. More black and Latino people were stopped than any other race. It has also been made very clear recently just how many deaths by police officer’s hands have been African Americans. On a much smaller scale that shows just how basic day to day respect is hindered by subconscious biases, a study in Australia was done where people from various different ethnic backgrounds tried to board buses, but first told the driver that they didn’t have enough money for the trip. Over 1,500 attempts were made with a steady script kept throughout, and the results were that 72 percent of white people were allowed to stay on the bus, while only 36 percent of black people were allowed the same.
Going back to the aforementioned term of systemic racism, this is perhaps the biggest perpetrator of white privilege of all. Seeing as blatant racism was common and pretty much widely accepted for the creation of America, many of the systems were built with these ideas in mind. Many families of color live in poorer neighborhoods because of zoning laws from after World War 2 and that eventually evolved into many of them not being allowed to raise children, invest money, and basically just live life in ‘high value’ neighborhoods. This lowers inheritance values, which contributes to the wealth gap between white and black or Hispanic households. These poorer neighborhoods also force families to send their children to public, higher poverty schools, which have less opportunities and worse education overall.
Racial biases also exist in the workplace, shown through a study at Texas A&M University that showed that applicants with weaker racial identities were more likely to be hired than those with stronger racial identities, such as those who may belong to a certain races’ student union. By weaker racial identities, I specifically mean people of color who have conformed to the ‘white ideal.’ An example of just how long this concept has been going on for would be the cultural assimilation of Native Americans from 1790 to 1920. Native Americans would be forced to go to white schools and stripped of their traditions, taught English and standard subjects, and made to go to Christian churches. Those with a weaker racial identity are those who have been specifically Americanized so that any part of them that would be deemed too unprofessional or out of the norm is shaved down to a digestible amount. It is forcing people who are probably against the assimilation into molds that take away parts of their identity and life that could be an essential part of their very being.
As all of this information shows, while white privilege on its own may not be as big of a deal as other racial problems, many of those problems are the effects of white privilege, and the ignorance towards it. Overall, it makes life much more dangerous and difficult for many based simply on their skin tone, and in the year 2020 where many pride themselves on how far this country has come, that should most definitely not still occur.