White Privilege Explained


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Your author is a first-generation immigrant white guy, living in semi-rural Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie, with his white American wife. The town we live in is very nice, very clean and generally deemed to be safe. So much so that kids can play out in the streets, parks, and gardens without fear as to their well-being, something that they readily take advantage of.

A day or two ago, two black kids happened to call by the back of our house, looking for my step-son. My near octogenarian neighbor, nice guy as he is, saw this and then magically transformed into Usain Bolt to come tearing out of his house to see “what the (two black) kids wanted?”

Now, your author is all in favor of effective neighborhood watch schemes. However, the uncomfortable fact of this matter was that such vigilance has never really been seen before when, on many an occasion, it happened to be a couple of white kids that made their way onto our property. White kids don’t tend to experience that. In contrast, black kids tend to have that sort of thing happen to them a lot.

You may not then be surprised to learn that my neighbor is white. He will flat out tell you that he doesn’t believe himself to have any racial neuroses whatsoever. After all, his son-in-law is black.

For a modern, advanced country, the US has any number of historical hang-ups, from a Second Amendment that’s still underscored with a subconscious tinge of fear that the ghost of George the Third is going to rear up out of the Chesapeake Bay like a modern-day imperial-tyrannical Godzilla, to Confederate statues and monuments still cluttering up public spaces not only in the south, but as far north as Montana (yep, that Montana, you know, the nearly Canadian one.)

Those Confederate monuments to intolerance and prejudice are the give-away taster to America’s undeniably biggest historical hang-up – that of race. Despite a Civil War less than two hundred years ago that literally tore the country and families apart, and an iconic Civil Rights movement within the last 50 years that seemed to offer so much promise, the issue of race still simmers on. And one particular manifestation of that is white privilege.

If you are a non-white person in the US, you are very likely to have been on the wrong end of white privilege many a time. Where do we begin? Disproportionate stop and search by the cops? Incarceration demographics for young black men? Seeing your job application prospects improve because you have a white-sounding name? Moving into an overwhelmingly white neighborhood as a non-white without feeling that somehow, someway, your new presence there isn’t quite fully appreciated?

White privilege entails a default position of unconscious advantage for tens of millions of white Americans. It is so ingrained, yet so subtle, that those same tens of millions would only ever realize that they had it if it was to be taken away from them. “Try walking a mile in my shoes” captures what being on the wrong end of white privilege entails.

Of course, these are times quite like no other. We currently have a sitting President who is a cause célèbre with far-right politicians around the world, David Duke and a whole array of tin-foil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists and out and out racists in the US. Trump will, of course, deny that he is racist. His supporters will gleefully point out that the US is no apartheid state, Lincoln was a Republican, and for extra points, they know non-white people. Crucially they don’t how the vast majority of non-white people live day to day, the difficulties and subtle yet sinister challenges that they continually face, yet they still know non-white people.

As we have already touched upon, one of the more brow-furrowing features of the US is its simultaneous fixation with both the past and the future. It can literally shoot for the stars while at the same time letting its citizens shoot semi-automatic battlefield weapons with minimal accountability, courtesy of the historical hang-over that is the Second Amendment. The US moves forward but forever harks back to the past, peering over its shoulder as to what came before, unsure if it has, or if it even wants to, leave it all behind once and for all.

This is important because white privilege feeds off that. It’s the prominent scar-line on the wound of race relations in modern-day America. So, the US fought a civil war to end the blight of slavery, only to see Jim Crow. The US took on the scourge of Nazism, but with segregated army units. Black and non-white enlistment rates in the Second World War were high and yet very few went on to see actual combat – somehow they were always not quite good enough, not quite ready to for the real thing, needing to prove their pre-battle mettle time after time, even though they were meant to be fighting against prejudice.

The US continues to struggle to throw off its racially contentious past as lingering white privilege shows us to this day. Being a non-white citizen in the US comes with exactly the same array of tools that being a white citizen does. Constitutional protections, enfranchisement, and the right to pursue that famed life, liberty, and happiness.

Yet that same apparatus of citizenship is really an idealized blueprint – the bones upon which the meat of everyday living hangs upon. The reality of white privilege despite the Bill of Rights? Being on the wrong end of a twitched curtain as a black couple who newly turn up in a mostly white neighborhood; the All Lives Matter retort to Black Lives Matter; the “why’s she wearing that pulled up hood here?” mentality. That is the engrained, subtle, and subconscious malevolence of white privilege.

Trump is the most brazen, grotesque almost comedic manifestation of white privilege. Not just the fact that the guy is an (alleged) billionaire with a gold toilet and absolutely no idea what it’s like to go grocery shopping. Because the US is many years post-slavery, post-Jim Crow and decades on from the Civil Rights movement, Trump and the conscious and unconscious supporters and enablers of white privilege will maintain that racial bias is not really a thing in the US of today. Yet still, there’s the lingering, overpowering smell of institutionalized, normalized just below the surface, racial disharmony aka – white privilege.

As we know, Trump has a particular habit of saying/doing one thing and then saying/doing the complete opposite. So, he will reference himself as being “the least racist person you know” after having suggested that there were “very fine” people on both sides of the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” demonstration and subsequent counter-demonstration. Consequently, white privilege fits in perfectly with the Trumpian day is night and up is down world of drip-drip-drip gas-lighting. Trump has spent his entire presidency doing one thing but saying another. From crowd size to election interference to gun control to calling Meghan Markle nasty, caught 100% on video, then denying he’s ever said that Trump keeps on telling us the sky is becoming more and more day-glow pink by the hour.

Such brazen gas-lighting is a stable-mate of white privilege. “What’s the problem, you’re black, and you can work, vote, go to college, have a gun, etc, etc…” Which is, of course, true. But that truth is not the full story. “Hey, black athlete! Don’t take a knee because this is the greatest country in the world!” becomes very hollow when that same black athlete, as a kid, like millions of other black kids, was disproportionately more likely to be stopped by a cop, arrested and subsequently imprisoned than compared to white kids. You may be saying one thing, but every sense and nerve-ending in my body is saying another.

White privilege, when effectively challenged, can resort to a passive-aggressive “well, I’ve given you this, what more could you possibly want?” attitude. White privilege wraps itself up in a superficial veneer of grit-your-teeth generosity when really it’s a cover for systemic and institutionalized unofficial racism. White privilege is just a short stone’s throw from the wearisome refrain of “I’m not racist but…”

It should be the case that white prejudice in the twenty-first century is unthinkable given the heart-ache and turmoil that had for so long been the hallmark of American race relations. At some point, surely, the US has to finally turn the page and get on with life without the hang-up of race? Even more so given that just over a decade ago, Americans voted for their first black President. Alas, no.

Trump, the embodiment of whiteness, privilege, and nativist bigotry has set us ever further back. White prejudice is sitting just fine, just as long as we have a Commander-in-Chief who makes reference to sitting members of the House of Representatives, women of color, “going back to where they came from.”

The fact that white prejudice is overwhelmingly passive makes it no less insidious. Getting rid of Trump is, of course, an important step in tackling white privilege. However, long after he is gone, the US is going to have to work very hard at properly dismantling the deep-seated problem of white privilege.

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