Realizing + Understanding My White Privilege
Updated: Jan 24
I’m sick and tired of hearing people say they’re sick and tired of politics; the irony isn’t lost on me, considering the ability to ignore politics is a privilege to begin with. Privilege can refer to any advantage or right that a certain person is given above another, and while there are many different kinds of privilege, the one I have the most experience with is the kind dealing with race. Ah, the elusive white privilege. Maybe you’ve heard of it through the Trump administration’s recent ban on racial sensitivity training for federal agencies (Kelly, Caroline. “Trump Bars ‘Propaganda’ Training Sessions on Race in Latest Overture to His Base.”), or perhaps from your racist grandmother who called it “propaganda”. Maybe you’re already educated on the subject and are reading this now in support. Regardless of why you’re here, white privilege is defined as just that: privilege someone receives just by being white.
More extensively, it gives white individuals advantages that non-whites don’t receive.
A few years ago, I was completely unaware of the word. See, I had the privilege of not needing to know, since being white had never affected my life in a negative way. However, over the years, I’ve learned a lot from my own research as well as listening to people of color (POC) experiences that made me understand white privilege like never before. The recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has spurred forth a new generation of youth crusaders in an increasingly volatile political climate. Demands are beginning to be met, and though it may not be as quickly or drastic as is necessary, starting a conversation is the first step. Doors that have remained sealed shut for decades are now billowing open, allowing activists all over the world to unite in their causes. Ideas that were once labeled “radical” are now much more accepted and agreed upon by the general public. When the BLM hashtag first popped up in 2013, it was met with overwhelming amounts of backlash—look how far we’ve come! We have a long way to go, but I believe change is slowly (but steadily) being made. With that being said, we can’t be afraid to speak up: silence in the face of oppression is as much of an offense as being an oppressor yourself. One of the most crucial talking points when dealing with racism is white privilege, and it’s prevalent in more ways than meets the eye.
When we talk about white privilege, one of the first examples that may come to mind is dealing with authorities. Police officers have demonstrated racial profiling from their implementation as southern slave patrols all the way to now, post-civil rights era. Not only is targeting people based on race common in the force, rather it is encouraged(Cab, Officer A. “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop.”) Certain police departments have laws in place that encourage racial profiling--in my experience living in Frederick County, I’ve seen the direct effects of programs such as the 287(g) agreement that allow police to racially profile “immigrant-looking” people and turn them into ICE. Police brutality has been growingly spoken upon, with George Floyd’s murder in May being the event to jumpstart the second wave of BLM protests across the globe. So yes, the police force’s relationship with minorities is common knowledge at this point, but I only recently learned how early this kind of discrimination starts.
People don’t think about school resource officers and how they directly contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. Black students have disproportionately higher suspension, expulsion, and school arrest rates, even though they make up a significantly smaller portion of the student body. To make matters worse, students who receive disciplinary actions at school are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. Why is it that I’m not confronted for wearing a short skirt, but young black girls face such a degree of sexualization that they are forced to go home and change? You’re telling me my natural hair is fine, but theirs is “unprofessional”? I’ve only been sent to the principal’s office on one occasion, an occasion that I was let completely off the hook with, yet my POC peers are charged for lesser offenses?
The truth of the matter, what they don’t want you to know, is that racial discrimination is engraved so deeply into the system that it starts in our schools. Authority figures of all kinds, from the police department to school administration to employers, contribute to creating an environment in which only those with white privilege can survive.
Addressing the rampant discrimination enforced in our schools is vital in the fight against racism, but understanding the reason that it stems from is just as imperative. Some of the first instances where I became aware of whitewashing (erasing POC history in order to make room for white history) were located in my history textbooks.
My government classes avoided topics like voter suppression, the industrial prison complex, and affirmative action in order to focus on George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, men who contributed great things to the country! Wait, let me check my notes--while being the two U.S. presidents with the most slaves. The only dose of black history we get is slavery and the civil rights movement, and even then textbooks continue to gloss over the significance of lynchings and other atrocities committed by white people at the time. There are so many famous figures of color to focus on instead of only the well-known racist Christopher Columbus. I grew up learning about these prominent white historical figures while my peers of color never got to see people like them on our teacher’s slideshows. I want to see black girls able to learn about inspiring black women like NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, or have Latina girls listen to Mexican pop-star Selena in their music classes.
Whenever the curriculum actually touches on other cultures, they seem to mix up the term “education” with “cultural appropriation”. While I was having a blast at my first grade Thanksgiving party making noodle necklaces and Dollar Tree feather headdresses, Native Americans had some of the highest rates of suicide and mental illness. The only time we learn about Hispanic culture is when we make piñatas in art class for Cinco de Mayo, a holiday the majority of Mexico doesn’t even celebrate. There’s a substantial difference between cultural appreciation, where we can demonstrate sincere interest in a culture and learn about its significance from the people it represents, versus cultural appropriation, where my friend’s mom bought a sugar skull costume for a Halloween party despite not being Hispanic nor knowing anything about Dias de Los Muertos. So many minority groups suffer hardship for honoring their native customs, but white people trivialize the adversities they face for an arts and crafts project.
When there are so many schools that don’t value resources such as Black Student Alliances and culture clubs, it’s all the more important to give students of color representation that isn’t presented as paper-mache mockeries of their traditions and customs.
Unfortunately, the education system isn’t the only victim of whitewashing. This is a common theme throughout Hollywood, where all POC are extremely underrepresented. I spent my childhood idolizing Avril Lavigne and Hayley Williams, women who not only kick-started my love for alternative culture but whom I could see myself in as a little girl. I can’t imagine not being able to admire celebrities who look like me, but that’s the reality for so many POC. When people asked for a black Disney princess, they got Tiana—a princess who was a frog for the majority of the film. Don’t get me wrong, that movie’s awesome, but it just goes to show how young black girls don’t get to see themselves on television.
The representation they do receive is embarrassingly lacking. Tyler, the Creator touched on this in a 2020 GRAMMYs interview, where he called his rap nomination a “backhanded compliment” since “guys that look like [him]” are always grouped in the rap or urban category, calling the latter a “politically correct way to say the n-word” (Owoseje, Toyin. “Tyler, The Creator Slams Grammys’ ‘Urban’ Category as a Politically Correct Version of the n-Word.”). Lizzo, another rising star of 2020, won three GRAMMYs for categories including R&B and urban contemporary but collected none of the big four awards (while Billie Eilish took them all home).
To sum things up, representation on the big screen gives our youth the self-esteem they need to believe in themselves and strive for success. When we take this away, inspiration is harder to come by, and those big dreams of stardom America loves to glamorize seem so far away. My privilege made it so that I could always watch award shows full of strong women who look like me, but that just isn’t realistic for too many American minorities; this is where the problem lies.
When I first tried explaining white privilege to a relative of mine, they passed it off as a hoax. “What do you mean, ‘I’m not targeted because of my race?’ I have to hear comments about white stereotypes all the time!” Okay, true, there are stereotypes deemed as “white people things”, but they’re of an entirely different nature. White stereotypes poke fun at us for not seasoning our food and spending too much money on decorative pillows from Pottery Barn—someone with racial bias may label black people as gang-riddled murderers, Hispanics as rapists and drug dealers, and Asians as terrible drivers.
When leadership takes advantage of fears between different ethnicities and insists on widening the divide, it’s no wonder these stereotypes continue to exist.
Just this past year, Asian American and Pacific Islanders saw a huge spike in hate crimes and assaults due to racism stemming from politicians’ usage of the terms “Chinese virus”, and “Kung Flu” for COVID-19. BLM protesters were condemned by the media as violent rioters, while those protesting against mask mandates were applauded for their bravery in the same breath. White people were attacked for...clapping when the plane lands? You get the point. Regardless of your opinion on what counts as a joke, white stereotypes are undeniably not as harmful as those targeting other races. If you’re white, you have white privilege, and if you have white privilege, you can’t be racially discriminated against to the degree of, say, black Americans. You absolutely can struggle for reasons besides race, be that financial status, sexuality, gender, or anything else of the sort, but the key point to acknowledge is that though you may be suffering, the color of your skin isn’t making it worse.
Everything I’ve mentioned here all ties back to my privilege as a white person in America, something I never knew the name for until I got older. Suddenly those Thanksgiving parties seemed really out of place, and I wondered why I had never seen a problem with my favorite characters on television all having my skin color. I think of all the times I let people get away with bigotry when I was younger and feel sick to my stomach, but the growth I’ve experienced over the years has granted me the tools and knowledge I need to prevent it from happening near me again.
I’ve learned so much in the past few years, even more in the past few months, about the struggles of black and other POC people that I was lucky enough to never undergo. Recognizing my privilege was only a baby step in my journey, though, and I feel like that’s where a lot of people get stuck. Now my job is to make sure I use that privilege in a way that’s beneficial to others.
White people need to use their privilege to uplift POC voices and lend support.
The easiest ways are by spreading information on social media and sharing POC accounts and experiences, but there are other, more hands-on approaches you wouldn’t think of. Forming human shields at protests to protect black individuals from law enforcement, or actively showing up to protests in the first place, are great ways I’ve learned to assert my privilege. I use my voice to demand change whenever I can, enough to raise POC voices up but not enough to overshadow them. Whether that’s “being argumentative” (sorry Mom) at family dinner when I hear a thinly-veiled micro-aggression, or drafting a list of demands to my local school board created by thoughts, feelings, and stories of POC across my county.
Becoming involved in local politics is a step in the right direction, too--speaking out against officials at a local level is necessary to create nationwide change. The most important takeaway? Silence is compliance, and compliance is violence. It’s not enough anymore to “not be racist”. We must stand together in fighting oppressive systems and be actively against racism: it’s time to use your white privilege to help those without it.
Written by Isabella Lowery
Kelly, Caroline. “Trump Bars ‘Propaganda’ Training Sessions on Race in Latest Overture to His Base.” CNN. Cable News Network, September 5, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/04/politics/trump-administration-memo-race-training-ban/index.html.
Cab, Officer A. “Confessions of a Former Bastard Cop.” Medium. Medium, June 11, 2020. https://medium.com/@OfcrACab/confessions-of-a-former-bastard-cop-bb14d17bc759.
Owoseje, Toyin. “Tyler, The Creator Slams Grammys’ ‘Urban’ Category as a Politically Correct Version of the n-Word.” CNN. Cable News Network, January 27, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/27/entertainment/tyler-the-creator-grammys-intl scli/index.html.