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The Funny Thing About Privilege

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The Funny Thing About Privilege

Imani Gandy

To put it plainly, white people, including white women, have advantages simply by virtue of their skin color—advantages that I will never have. These advantages are often invisible. These advantages are also unearned. And that’s why talking to someone who has never considered their privilege about the fact that they have privilege can be so jarring for them.

This morning, I appeared on Nicole Sandler’s radio show Radio or Not to discuss the Patricia Arquette kerfuffle, which I wrote about here. (You can watch the exchange I had with Nicole here—my segment starts at about minute 28.)

My conversation with her got me thinking about the conversations that I have with white women about privilege and why it tends to devolve into shenanigans and feelings of ill-will (as it unfortunately has with Nicole).

Oftentimes when I have these conversations with white women, they’ve never heard the term white privilege before, or if they have, they dismiss it as inapplicable to them.

“White privilege? Fuck you! I grew up poor. I don’t have any privilege.”

Well actually, yes you do.

Here’s the thing about privilege: There are all kinds. There’s privilege based on race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, citizenship status, and on and on. (A great primer on the concept is Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege: Unpacking the Privilege Knapsack.”)

And you know what? Almost every single person on the planet has privilege in some form or another.

Me? I have class privilege. I make a decent living now and I grew up upper-middle class. I never wanted for anything. And I rarely want for anything now. (Certainly the things that I want are luxury items that I really don’t need. I mean, I’ve got my eye on a Michael Kors purse, but do I need it? Hardly.)

Growing up, I even had access to white privilege through my mom. (As my This Week in Blackness brother-in-arms Elon James White would say, my mom was my white privilege Pokémon.)

For example, when schools refused to put me in gifted or AP classes (because I was a Black kid and, really, how smart could I be?), my mom would take time from work to go to my school, talk to the administrators, and demand that I be placed in advanced classes. That, incidentally, is another form of privilege—my mom worked at a job that allowed her to take time off to be heavily involved in my schooling. Most working class parents don’t have that luxury.

But although I have class privilege, I am also Black. And being Black means that I have disadvantages that white people, as a general rule, simply will never have. Most white people can walk through the mall without security guards or store clerks following them around wondering if they’re going to steal something. Most white people don’t have panic attacks when they are pulled over by the police, wondering whether or not a simple traffic stop will escalate into something far worse. And most white people can always turn on the television or open up a magazine and see themselves reflected back at them. They never want for representation of people who look like them in the media and in pop culture.

To put it plainly, white people, including white women, have advantages simply by virtue of their skin color—advantages that I will never have. These advantages are often invisible. These advantages are also unearned. And that’s why talking to someone who has never considered their privilege about the fact that they have privilege can be so jarring for them. Because in their mind, especially for people who are struggling to make ends meet in this economy, they have worked really hard for everything that they have and they’ll be good and goddamned if some “politically correct” leftist/feminist is going to tell them that maybe—just maybe—some of what they achieved is due to this privilege—due to circumstances beyond their control and circumstances for which they never asked.

Having privilege rarely lessens any single person’s achievements. (Of course there are exceptions—*cough* George W. Bush attending Yale University *cough*.) That you benefit from your privilege does not negate the fact that you have worked very hard for your lot in life.

But to ignore that a white male can more easily achieve certain goals or navigate the world in a certain way than a white woman, who can, in turn, more easily achieve certain goals or navigate the world in a certain way than a woman of color, is simply refusing to acknowledge reality and often causes cognitive dissonance.

And that cognitive dissonance is often accompanied by a great deal of defensiveness, anger, and a feeling that one is under attack. And so I try to be careful—as I was with Nicole this morning—when I talk to people, especially white women, about privilege. (My explanation of privilege starts at minute 32:18, below)

When I talk to white women about their privilege, I like to put in terms I know they will understand. I like to encourage them to think about their white privilege in juxtaposition to a type of privilege that neither they nor I have: male privilege.

Usually, when I mention male privilege, white women will nod and say, “Yeah, that makes sense. I get that.” After all, it’s painfully obvious that most men can navigate this world freely and have all sorts of advantages simply by virtue of the fact that they are men. (Hello, wage gap!)

But when I try to take that next step and draw a parallel between male privilege and white privilege, oftentimes, white women will get defensive: “It’s not my fault that I’m white.”

Of course it’s not your fault that you’re white, and there’s no reason to get defensive about the fact that you’re white because I’m not blaming you for anything. I’m simply stating a reality: You benefit from white privilege whether you realize it or not. It’s not an insult, I don’t mean it to be an insult, and it should not be taken as such.

The privilege from which you benefit is not your fault. Whether you choose to recognize that privilege, and then how you choose to leverage that privilege is what matters. Are you actively working to tear down the structural racism, sexism, and cissexism that is built into our society in order to level the playing field and promote equality for all people? Or are you simply looking at those who don’t have the advantages that you have, shrugging your shoulders and saying, “Sucks to be you, yo.” That’s what matters the most. It’s not the privilege. It’s what you do with it.

Ultimately, when I talk to white women about white privilege, I really would like for them to think about how it feels when they are trying to talk to men about male privilege only to have those men speak over them. It’s frustrating as hell, right? So why would you talk over a woman of color when she is trying to talk to you about white privilege?

And when I, as a Black woman, am deemed angry (as I was by some of Nicole’s listeners this morning) because I may get a tad heated when talking to white women about the sorts of issues that affect my life, I would like white women to think about how it feels when they are deemed bitchy or catty or bossy when they get a tad heated talking to men about equality for women and the lack of male privilege that impacts their life. Because that, too, is frustrating as hell.

At the end of the day, it’s not a contest to see who is more oppressed. It’s about figuring out a way to work for equality for all people. And to do that, we need to be a bit more open-minded and to be a bit more willing to walk in another person’s shoes.