In Salman Rushdie’s story “A Prophet’s Hair”, the father, Hashim, is a greedy man consumed with delusions of his own generosity and sacrifice. He behaves as if he is helping others, when he is, in fact, abusing them. His pride in this projected self makes him a liability to everyone with whom he interacts. Rushdie weaves a tale in which Hashim’s misplaced self-satisfaction destroys his life, damaging everyone around him in the process.
Rushdie’s story reminds me of our ability to delude ourselves. Most of us are invested in maintaining a narrative of how we got to be who we are. America’s obsession with bootstraps and linear growth trickles into each of our lives, convincing us that life is about independent advancement. My toddler constantly says, “I do it. I big girl,” and my colleagues constantly say, “I built this/did this/achieved this.” We love the myth of our independence so much that we fiercely defend ourselves against perceived threats to the notion that we earned every inch of our place in the world.
Because of this, when we talk about privilege in society, defenses and accusations fly. While we have been discussing privilege for a few weeks, this essay addresses racial privilege specifically. Frances Kendall offers an expansive definition that orients the term white privilege in the context of today’s American cultural context:
Kendall offers a logical analysis of the structural reality of America: Most power and financial resources are held in white hands. Any cursory view of our society reveals America is racially stratified in nearly every arena. Racial disparities are consistent in economics, education and therefore, in access to advancement.
Living in a world where you can access every industry, opportunity and service your family requires without going outside your race or area of town is itself an indicator that you benefit from white privilege. As a result of centuries of systemic, procedural racism, we are mostly segregated in our neighborhoods, schools and churches. A person unaware of their privilege might say, “I’m not racist. I never even really talk about race and I certainly avoid racist people.” A person who is aware of their privilege might tweak that statement to acknowledge, “I don’t think about race or privilege as I move throughout my day. I am starting to see that people with a different racial background from mine might not have the privilege of never having to negotiate racial differences in their everyday lives. Maybe I could learn something from people who negotiate difference more gracefully (or at least more often) than I do.”
The concept of privilege does not imply unearned talent. Rather, it is useful in recognizing that in our society, people with white skin are often given the benefit of the doubt, an assumption of belonging, and an earned seat at the table. For people of color, however, there is an often unacknowledged wall to climb, a deservedness to demonstrate, an “I’m one of the good ones” to convey; simply, people of color are not given the benefit of the doubt, but the burden of doubt. This reality can best be seen in the fact that when a black man commits a crime there is a level of expectation and confirmation bias felt by many people; however, when a white male commits a crime, most people don’t project the actions of that man onto his entire race. If he is white, the crime is an abnormality, but if he is black, his actions confirm a criminal proclivity in poor, black people. White privilege allows my mistakes to represent me, not my entire race.
I spend time with a lot of people who are becoming aware of the foundational racial tension that exists in our country. While the way in which they are leaning in—pursuing others, exploring their own bias, awkwardly learning about experiences different than their own—inspires me, some of these dear friends rigorously clam up when “white privilege” is mentioned. I have noticed two consistencies in these friends:
1) They are incredibly compassionate and generous when they engage another person who is different from them or is in need. The attitude of shut-your-mouth-and-calm-down only occurs when that individual need is contextualized within the realities of systemic racism and racial disparity. Individuals inspire compassion; systems inspire rejection.
2) They derive a great deal of their value from their own stories of ascension. Their narratives of learning to position themselves as subjects (not victims or objects) is deeply invested in the lore of their work ethic. These friends react defensively to the idea of white privilege, immediately feeling attacked.
And yet, there is a palpable energy in our country to face our collective past trauma. From our last national election, with its strategically divisive rhetoric, to white supremacists marching, to dozens of unarmed black men being killed by civil servants, our racial issues are obvious. Most of us now admit we are a society deeply divided along racial lines; the conflict begins when we try to explain why.
Rather than blame, might we benefit from simply encouraging continued curiosity and observation? To my friends who feel that acknowledging white privilege is an unfair attack on their personhood, I ask them to shift from, “Don’t dare call it privilege; my family worked hard for every single thing we have,” to, “My family worked hard for everything we have, and I am starting to see that a family of a different race could work just as hard and not end up where we are.” Could we recognize that we live in a society that allows what Michelle Higgins calls, “privilege [that] specifically applies value aside from talent?”
What if we worked to acknowledge these biases, bringing them into the conversation? It takes nothing away from my experience as a white professional woman to recognize the reality that most power and money are held in white hands, and because we live in segregated communities, this impacts access and equity. When a person mentions white privilege, they are not attacking me, calling me lazy, or suggesting I have not earned my place at the table. Instead of being defensive, I now recognize that when I don’t invite people of color to my table/work/church, I am hoarding my privilege and, importantly, limiting my ability to relate to and know others. If we are sincere in our desire to lessen these divides and move toward reconciliation, we must all learn to acknowledge and counteract the real impact of white privilege on our outlook, behaviors and understanding of America.