White Privilege

There was an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning that basically argued that white folks should just shut up and listen instead of talking about the egregious, ongoing attacks on dignity and justice that black folks endure as part of their “freedom” in the US.

I respectfully disagree.  I think there is a moral imperative for privileged old white guys like me to speak out loudly to those who don’t get it.

So, at the risk of bringing down the wrath of all the Internet trolls out there, here goes my take on white privilege and the current political climate.

I hate to break it to all the whiners out there who complain about being white and having it tough, but white privilege has nothing to do with having an automatically easy path through life.  There are some, like our great leader, who had money showered on them by a rich father, and who have had an easy path through life.  Most of my fellow countrymen and countrywomen, however, didn’t have that lifestyle kick start.

My father had a ninth grade education from a small school in rural Mississippi.  After serving in the Navy in WWII, he went through an apprentice program and became a sheet metal mechanic.   He worked his butt off for his entire life to make ends meet – and they often did not exactly meet.  My mother finished high school and, after working her butt off rearing my sister and me, worked a series of secretarial jobs to bring in money and get those ends nearer to meeting.  I have done ok, but it’s not because life was easy.

Was I the beneficiary of white privilege?  You bet your life, I was.  For a start, growing up in the Jim Crow South, the public school I went to was far, far better funded and supported than the black public schools.  When I graduated from high school, I could go to any university I could get into and afford, and there was no grandstanding asshole standing on the admin building steps telling me I couldn’t go there because of the color of my skin.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is white privilege.

A friend and colleague of mine had a father who was a diplomat.  While they were abroad, the family arranged for my friend to attend a private school – and the school was thrilled to know that they were getting the child of an American diplomat – until he showed up at school with dark skin.  Then they suddenly had a “space” problem and couldn’t admit him until the diplomat went to court.  If my father, heaven forbid, had been a diplomat and I had shown up for school, they would not have lied about not having room and in fact, they’d have made room for me if they had to.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is white privilege.

My parents never considered warning me about how to behave with the police when I was stopped.  First of all, it was not likely that I would be stopped for no reason (and they would have been all for me being stopped for a good reason), and second it was basically inconceivable to them that I would be handled in an unfair and dangerous manner.   Every black family I know with children routinely have “the talk,” especially with young black men, about how to behave when stopped by the police.  The assumption is that they will be stopped for “driving while black” or some other “reason” that has black men stopped at a ridiculously higher rate than white men.  Even today, just a couple of months ago, I felt perfectly safe making snide comments to a cop who had stopped me for violating a minor traffic law – I knew that the chances were approaching zero that he would do anything other than hand me the ticket and tell me to have a nice day.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is white privilege.

But if you REALLY want to see white privilege in action, take a picture of this.  A group of fat-assed white dudes carrying automatic weapons marches on the state capitol building in a Midwestern state, actually making threats against the governor.  What is the police response?   “Now, boys, I know you’re upset – you just go on and have your protest.”  I would ask anyone with at least one lonely neuron firing in her or his brain to consider what would be the police response if a bunch of black dudes marched on the state capitol carrying automatic weapons and shouting threats to elected officials.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is white privilege.

Or take a picture of this.   A black family is at home, standing on their own front porch, not protesting, not shouting, just standing on their own front porch as a police line walks by on the way to a demonstration.  The police leader shouts at the family to get back inside their home.  There is no confrontation going on, no protesters in sight – the cop just gives them an order to get off their own front porch.  If that happened in my white neighborhood, I’d be tempted to tell the cop to go eff himself, and I would in all likelihood suffer no repercussions for doing so.  For the black family things didn’t work out that way.  They didn’t go inside fast enough, so the police opened up with rubber bullets and tear gas.

That, ladies and gentlemen is white privilege.

White privilege is not about having it easy.  It’s about not having to put up with this kind of bullshit every single day of your life.

A couple of years ago I was having lunch with a student who wanted to talk with me about the career he was just starting.  This young man had all the elements that suggest a promising future – he is smart, well-spoken, attractive, and personable.  He is also black.  During the course of our conversation we began talking about the latest police killing of a black suspect.  He said to me, “I try hard to be calm, and I know I shouldn’t get angry.”  I interrupted him and said, with some incredulity, “why the hell should you not get angry?  You should be furious.”  The question is not whether injustice and abuse should make you angry – the question is what to do about it.  I won’t get started about whether protests work, but what I told him then is what I would tell him today.  Protest, by all means, but organize.  One person acting alone is good, but ineffective.  One person acting in concert with others who share frustrations and convictions is called a movement, and that can be effective. 

It is my hope that people of good will, white and every other color, will be willing to crawl across broken glass to vote against any candidate who in any way, through action or through rhetoric, supports the racial, political, religious, and social fracturing of the country.