Coming to understand white privilege

Over the past year, I have asked people of different races and walks of life what the phrase "white privilege" means to them.

The most common response from white people has been to interpret the term literally, i.e., "white people have special privileges," and most of them objected to that idea. Typically, and with a somewhat indignant tone, many would say, "Well, excuse me if I don't feel particularly privileged." That comment was usually followed by a lengthy description of their low-income upbringing and the hard scrabble existence they endured for many years while they put themselves through school or worked multiple jobs to get by. The suggestion that they were somehow privileged was alien to them.

Most of the black people who I spoke with had a very different interpretation of white privilege. What most referred to was the privilege that white people have of going through their daily lives without thinking about their race or skin color. As one black friend told me, "I am aware of my blackness every day."

As a white person, I never wonder if the person who just slammed a door in my face, failed to hold the elevator, or was in some other way rude or thoughtless, was behaving that way due to my color.

President Obama spoke of the experience of crossing an intersection at a traffic signal with friends and hearing car doors lock as they passed. He spoke of being followed around by clerks in stores, as though he were a potential shoplifter.

Many 'microaggressions'

Many black people refer to such behaviors as "microaggressions." While such actions do not rise to the level of Jim Crow and racial segregation, and are sometimes unintentional, they have a cumulative effect that is destructive, painful and can lead to feelings of inferiority and resentment among people of color.

A black surgeon told me that there are times when he and a fellow white surgeon are talking in the hallway, and a white nurse will walk up to them and never interrupt if the white surgeon is speaking, but will not hesitate to interrupt if he is speaking. When he visits other floors of the hospital, he is sometimes mistaken for a janitor.

Another friend was the only black person in her medical school class who graduated with honors. Yet when the newspaper printed the names of the honors graduates, hers was the only name missing.

Those incidents may or may not be related to race, but the point is that black people never can be sure. Those kinds of doubts would never occur to a white person. We whites don't think much, if at all, about our color. We are not regularly put into positions where it would even occur to us that some rudeness or slight was a reaction to our race.

The effect of such microaggressions on the self-esteem of black people is cumulative and eventually leads but to what is becoming a multi-billion dollar industry: skin lightening. One black friend laments that her 7-year old granddaughter wants to have her skin lightened. Her friend's 3-year old granddaughter wants yellow hair. Psychological studies have shown that little black girls, shown two identical dolls, but one white and one black, when asked to pick the "pretty one," will most often choose the white doll.

Understanding dawns

Having said all of this, I must admit that I, too, was initially offended by the term "white privilege."

I, too, took it literally. I thought of the low income, blue collar North Philadelphia row house of my youth. My parents could not afford a home, and so we lived with my grandmother. We never had a car and neither of my parents had a driver's license. We never went out to eat. We would surely have qualified as living in poverty. I worked to pay my way through college. And so, like many white folks, I did not feel that I had been particularly privileged growing up.

Looking back, however, I have come to realize that I was, in fact, privileged in ways that many people, of all races, were not.

I was privileged to grow up in a home where: education was valued; achievement was expected; discipline was enforced; and the work ethic was learned by example. I am satisfied that the cultural environment of my youth had much more to do with my success in life than my whiteness ever did. Thus, I have come to see white privilege not so much as having special privileges, but rather as the absence of obstacles, the obstacles that black people face every day, sometimes in the form of outright racism, and other times in the lack of sensitivity that leads to microaggressions, the latter probably being the most difficult to eradicate.

I have come to understand a great deal about all of this in the past year. This is not the kind of issue that can be resolved by passing laws or initiating speech codes. It will be resolved by white people and people of color speaking and listening to each other about this openly and honestly. The discussion starts simply: "What does the term 'white privilege' mean to you?"

Filko lives in Williamsburg and has taught Economics and American Government.

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