by ChrisTiana ObeySummer
To White folx who deny, or are unaware of, their privilege:
Considering our Euro-Centric culture, government, and education system, I empathize being faced with a lifetime of misinformation and the subsequent schema change that must come from that epiphany. It is important to be mindful and knowledgeable about what people mean when they say “White privilege.”
Let me explain.
White privilege is not measured in whether or not one receives food stamps, or wear goodwill hand-me-downs. It’s not about who owns a house, and who rents the government-owned studio apartment. It’s not about who gets to graduate college debt-free, or who is working at the local fast-food place. It’s deeper than that. It’s stronger than that.
White privilege is defined by who has more low- or no-barrier access to the intrinsic human rights that people are supposed to be afforded as Americans. It is the ability to live in this world as a human being, and not as an “other” marred by stereotypes and misconceptions that, no matter how much you attempt to deviate from them, seem to color who you are in the eyes of society.
Being without it burns the soul and cuts into the spirit.
White privilege is present when a White person can go to a Kendrick Lamar concert, and be seen as an open-minded person with varied music tastes. About five years ago, I went to a Fall Out Boy concert and was jumped by a group of White teenagers who insisted I was too fat and Black to be there via insults and slurs, and that “I need to go back” to the figurative rap concert. And no one helped me. Not one person. Not. One. Person. Even though the pit guards saw me. Others concert-goers in the pit saw me. I tried to inform the venue owners, but all to no avail.
A Black womxn getting attacked on the floor at a concert must not be that big of a concern. Perhaps it was dark? Perhaps my skin made it hard for the kids to see what they were stomping down on? Or perhaps they thought I was lying because, c’mon! How can a large Black person get beat up by seven or eight teenagers — What with all that ghetto aggression I must have.
White privilege is the ability to enter a grocery store without concern. Walk in, grab a cart, put food into that cart, pay for the food, and then leave. A White person likely won’t experience an employee that always seems to be stocking shelves in each aisle everytime their White body happen to be in it, regardless of what aisle they are in, or how quickly they are moving.
A White person likely won’t face the bemused look a fellow shopper gives when buying the cantaloupe, and bypassing the watermelon. A White person likely won’t get the audible “Huh!” from a passerby when they grab the salmon and walk past the chicken. White privilege is being able to go to a grocery store as a human being, and not as an “other” marred by stereotypes and misconceptions that, no matter how much you attempt to deviate from them, seem to color who you are in the eyes of society.
White privilege is having an expectation of safety when outside at night. After a long day of work, it is late, it is dark, and the journey home has begun: Ambulating briskly down the busy city sidewalk, hands warm in pockets, ear buds emanating ear worms, eyes studying the pavement. White (especially male) privilege protects from skin color systematically manifesting flashing lights and a squad car, or two. Operationalized stigma hypersexualizing femme Black and Brown bodies likely will not be the foundational reason why a gruffy officer will ask for identification, and begin a barrage of embarrassing inquiries about intentions of sex work. If a person were to reply “No Officer, I am a social worker,” White privilege would likely result in a trust in the narrative where the officer would respond with a request to see a work badge; not order to rifle through bags and purses for condoms and cash.
Without White privilege, where there’s a societal expectation of human rights and due process, protesting is prohibited, and escalation is forbidden! The slightest misstep or mumble can end in tragedy. We already know this. In two minutes, an officer could end a life, (Recall: Charleena Lyles.) In the blink of an “Officer, why are you doing this to me,” a criminal record can be created, or extended. Goodbye academic grants and financial aid. Farewell career and economic stability. So long housing and community stability. Hello future of volatility and marginalization.
Fear and trauma in most communities of color have conditioned folx to keep their voice and head down, constantly code-switch, and suffer the indignity in the face of present danger. It’s necessary to walk a block away, and look around before letting the tears flow; but not too many, lest attention is garnered by another drunk with power through the White gaze. Recriminations abound. White privilege is being able to be outside at night as a human being, and not as an “other” marred by stereotypes and misconceptions that, no matter how much you attempt to deviate from them, seem to color who you are in the eyes of society.
White privilege is being able to have a unique and intrinsic personality. Common wisdom states first impressions are made within five seconds of seeing someone. What pops into the imagination of others in predominantly White spaces when a White person walks into a room may be about their hairdo, clothing choice, how they smell, if they are nice, or if they are into sports. In short, what are the aspects of their personality that might be appealing, and how will this person be compatible?
When, say, a Womxn of Color, enters a predominately White space, what seems to pop into the imagination of others are: are they good at cooking fried chicken? Do they sing in a gospel choir? Are they loud or abrasive? Can they speak “properly?” In short, there is a tendency to work from a space of preconceived negative stereotypes, oppressive stigmas, and harmful assumptions about race, culture, and it’s intersections. Further, there tends to be judgement about whether this person of color will be compatible and tolerable coexisting in the space. I didn’t make up these assumptions up. These are remarks people have explicitly made within the first five minutes of meeting me. Really.
When I introduce my true and unadulterated self in White-dominant spaces, every non-stereotypical and culturally-diverse aspect of my being is storied as an astounding concept. Well-intentioned, “liberal-minded,” White folx will spew short-sighted statements like, “I CANNOT believe your favorite music genre is modern rock!” or, “How did you hear about Taking Back Sunday?” or “You SERIOUSLY don’t know how to cook fried chicken?” or, “How are you such a big WWE fan?” or, “I didn’t even know there were Black Mormons,” or “Wait, there’s no WAY you were born in Alaska. They don’t have Black people up there!”
The fight for space and respect in this current society and political climate is neverending. It is a dangerous and radical stance in America to be an educated queer womxn of color with disabilities who loves both Rick Ross and My Chemical Romance, who is a WWE fan, who enjoys kale chips as much as I love pork ribs, and who will shamelessly pair my self-made organic herbal tea with my bowl of maduros on rice and peas.
I’ve been conditioned to remain hypervigilant of the impact my presence, and it’s capability to incite fear or apprehension in others based on traditional American cultural conditioning of how people who look like me “are.” I’ve learned to be constantly wary of allowing my naturally 3C hair exist uninhibited in professional space, and give-in to the expectation to alter the reality of how my hair looks growing out of my scalp. In 2017, I must exercise extreme caution eating chicken, watermelon, or fruit flavored sodas in public, or suffer the consequences of prejudice.
I have been encouraged to endure the agonizing frustration of being the butt of racist jokes: from being able to handle the sun, or using the phrase “cotton-pickin’” or shaking their neck and finger back and forth as they begin their statement with “Guurrrlll…” with the fiercely defended excuse of innocence in ignorance. White privilege is being able to have your own personality as a human being, and not as an “other” marred by stereotypes and misconceptions that, no matter how much you attempt to deviate from them, seem to color who you are in the eyes of society.
This letter is not about othering White folx simply due to the color of their skin. This letter seeks to bluntly address the true, honest, and empirically proven existence of White privilege, and how it provides significant advantages and mobility throughout society. The White American have historically established the litness standards of beauty, intelligence, strength, power, empathy, class, fitness, style, fashion, politics, and all the other goodly things in American culture. The American dream is a meritocratious and paved path for the White person because that is precisely whom this culture celebrates and reinforces as the model to which we all should aspire.
If you don’t believe me, or psychological/sociological research, watch American television for 15 minutes. Even the celebrities of color who have been accepted as beautiful or inspiring have all assimilated into a Euro-centric concept of beauty in one way or another. Place a photo of Beyoncé or Jennifer Lopez next to their pre-fame self and critically examine whether there isn’t evidence of significantly lighter skin color, more aquiline features, or straighter hair.
While there has been discussion around awareness and sensitivity to issues of race and privilege in this country, there is a long way to go. Together, we can work toward cultural humility and universal intersectional acceptance. As a community, we can build allyship through affirmation in personal and communal progression toward cultural and social awareness. But the first step is to understand that: 1) White privilege exists; 2) if you’re White, (or White-Passing,) that you have White privilege, and; 3) because of the privileges afforded to you, there are systems of racism and oppression from which you benefit, and it is at the expense of people of color.
It is imperative White folx become mindful of this concept and allow it to reframe their social schemas because, as aforementioned, White people have historically, and still are the bar this society asks all of us to strive toward. Only when a greater percentage of White allies demanding equity and promoting anti-racism in lockstep with people of color will this social and political brick barricade of hatred and blatant human disregard be dismantled and transformed. All change-work follows an initial recognition of truth and injustice, and that truth is White privilege.
I ask you to please consider this letter a formal request to self-reflect and take action against racism. I’m not simply trying to call out every White person to “check their privilege,” I’m asking for intentional consideration and critical analysis of the community we share. Do you notice racial disparity in the moment. Have you been the recipient of favoritism or preference? Do you believe your success is based on merit, or is it even partially based on skin tone? I implore those who are unsure or unaware of their White privilege to explore these concepts constantly, and fully understand that not everyone can enjoy the benefits that come along with having lighter skin
All the examples mentioned in this article have happened to me. Most more than once. Many dozens or hundreds of times. Have they also happened to you? If not, or only marginally, meditate on that realization and understand: that is White privilege.
And if more material is needed to reach the epiphany, consider the reality of having the privilege entertain the possibility of having White privilege.
This psychological constructual change, and it’s ignition of social action towards an equity, intersectional acceptance, and anti-racism change your life, save mine, and heal our country.
ChrisTiana ObeySumner is an academic and ferociously passionate advocate for what is equitable and just in our society. They are an Alaskan-Born, Philly-Raised transplant who loves WWE, MUSE, and karaoke.
Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Joe Brusky