Addressing White Privilege: An Open Letter and Call to Action

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 

14 thoughts on “Addressing White Privilege: An Open Letter and Call to Action”

  1. Hi. I thought this was an excellent piece and educated me on aspects of white privilege I had not given thought to. This is really important and I am sending it to all my friends and will be reposting on Facebook. Thank you for having the patience and courage to write this piece for us white folks.

  2. Privilege politics is ultimately completely dependent upon precisely that which it condemns: white benevolence. Black people will not be liberated by white people’s guilt. Not once in this article do I see a call for white people to publicly stand up to racism.

  3. ‘White Privilege’ Defanged: From Class War Analysis to Electoral Cynicism

    October 27, 2016 abolitionjournal Abolition and the 2016 Elections
    by Zach Schwartz-Weinstein

    (10/27/16 – Part of our blog series on Abolition and the 2016 Elections)

    Throughout the current election cycle, it has been striking to note the ways that privilege discourse has been deployed to demand loyalty to particular parties and candidates. “Either vote Clinton,” one widely-circulated tweet demands, “or admit you’re a privileged asshole.” Bernie Sanders refused to concede to Hillary Clinton because of privilege. Third party voters are privileged. “Ultraleftists” are privileged. Privilege has thus become central to a heavily moralizing language of civic responsibility which demands that the US electorate maintain a neoliberal bulwark against the far right for the putative good of the less fortunate. This use of the concept marks an appropriation, one which transforms privilege discourse fundamentally, from an analysis of white supremacy’s capillary and quotidian power into an individuating and deeply ideological mechanism of state discipline.

    The origins of the idea of whiteness as privilege lie in W.E.B. Du Bois’ insight, in Black Reconstruction, that white workers were bestowed with a “public and psychological wage”:

    “It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and tides of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them. White schoolhouses were the best in the community, and conspicuously placed, and they cost anywhere from twice to ten times as much per capita as the colored schools. The newspapers specialized on news that flattered the poor whites and almost utterly ignored the Negro except in crime and ridicule.”[i]
    Du Bois’ framing of whiteness as an accumulated set of benefits informed the subsequent theorizing of New Left radicals, (and, of course, inspired the title of one of the foundational texts of whiteness studies, labor historian David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness.) For new leftists like Noel Ignatin (aka the whiteness studies scholar Noel Ignatiev) and his comrades in the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), a Midwest-based New Left cadre organization active from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s, “white skin privilege” represented, in the words of STO’s contemporary interlocutor Michael Staudenmaier, “a material basis for the ideology of white supremacy,” which both revealed the contingency of whiteness and confirmed that white supremacy could only be defeated through militant struggle.[ii] Ignatiev believed, Staudenmeier explains, that the struggle against white supremacy was central to class struggle in the US and across the globe. The New Left conception of white skin privilege was materialist and anti-imperialist where some of its successor formations would sometimes too easily lapse into liberal idealism, slipping from a systemic analysis of white supremacy into a somewhat mystified narrative of personal acknowledgment and awareness which tended to center white subjects rather than provincialize whiteness. Nevertheless, even the more recognizable frames of privilege theory which have recently been the subject of significant critiques from both academic and organizing perspectives (“privilege politics is ultimately completely dependent upon precisely that which it condemns: white benevolence,” argues one of the critiques linked to above) share with Du Bois and Ignatiev a basic understanding of privilege as forms of domination imbricated into everyday life which had to be rejected and challenged in order to build a better world.

    What we are now seeing in the context of US electoral politics is a neoliberal appropriation of privilege discourse which mobilizes privilege as, in essence, an argument for the continuation of privilege. Only privilege would motivate someone to fail to vote for Hillary Clinton. Only those with the privilege to do so can afford to work outside the frames of electoral politics. Thus, privilege is mobilized to support a politics in which steady support for drone-bombing, violent coup regimes, criminalization of Blackness, and apologia for state violence are not worth batting an eye over. This is a radical shift in what invocations of privilege are meant to do, in what kinds of reactions they are intended to provoke, in what they are meant to challenge. Understanding how and why this shift has come about would require retracing the long history of the intertwining of postwar racial liberalism, neoliberalism, and multiculturalism, would require following the work of scholars like Jodi Melamed, Chandan Reddy, and Jasbir Puar through the twentieth century’s coupling of legal rights for minoritized subjects with nationalist designs, imperial projects, and new legitimations of state violence which divert and reframe the struggle against white supremacy into an exceptionalist argument for US imperial modernity. I raise this issue not because I want to get into another pointless debate on the value or necessity of lesser evilism in US electoral politics, the very premise of which seems complicit in the same moralizing discourse which makes possible this yoking of privilege discourse to the priorities of the Democratic Party, but instead because I think it’s important and needs to be taken seriously on its own terms.

    If an abolitionist praxis means an expansive critique of racial capitalism and white supremacist, colonial heteropatriarchy, then this new instrumentality of privilege discourse must not go unchallenged. This is so less because this language that has been appropriated by the state is somehow “ours” to be rescued for our ends, than because the ends to which it is now being put are certainly not “ours,” however “we” are constituted. Part of what is so objectionable about how privilege is mobilized here is that it presumes electoral politics as the horizon and totality of the political – nothing else matters, and there is nothing beyond voting. It makes anti-strategic claims in the name of strategy, obliterates possibility for the sake of exigency. This profoundly cynical and pessimistic naturalization of the carceral/military state depends in turn on the naturalization of the production of neoliberal subjectivity, a process which is demobilizing, atomizing, and individuating. But the apocalyptic, frenzied nature of the panic around third-party voting, the rush to defend the present state of things with the language of those who have endeavored to abolish it, suggests that it is not only the Right which is in crisis. The neoliberal moralization of privilege belies the ongoing fracturing of the US liberal imaginary which the movement against police violence has so powerfully exposed. What is needed is an unflinching focus on how white supremacy works, even when it does so through the language of its most committed antagonists.

    About the author: Zach Schwartz-Weinstein recently completed a PhD in American Studies at New York University. He writes about histories of racialized service work and US universities. He has also worked as a labor organizer, boycott coordinator, and freelance researcher. Connect with him on Twitter: @nerdosyndical.

    1. Hey,
      Next time share your own opinions, instead of posting a different article as a comment.

      This is still the core issue.

      If you are not comfortable with the ideas when you read this article, say that.

      Ridiculing the author, and accusing them of being anything at all is entirely inappropriate. BTW the anonymity still afforded to you from being an internet commentator sure looks a lot like the privilege that this article is already talking about.

      No one is begging you to change yourself, but don’t stop others from that opportunity.

      I’m glad you care enough to have an opinion, but make it your own.

    2. This was rude and thoughtless. Why not write your own opinion rather than referencing someone else’s work that you may/not have permission to republish. If this is your work – publish it on your own. Also, and this is essential so read closely – her article is not a pedagogical grandstand on the issue of racism, white responsibility or politics. This is a research backed, humanely written description of her experiences. If you cannot respect that you are a troll and you should be ashamed of yourself for watering down such an important piece of work.

  4. “Privilege politics is ultimately completely dependent upon precisely that which it condemns: white benevolence. Black people will not be liberated by white people’s guilt. Not once in this article do I see a call for white people to publicly stand up to racism.”

    Holy wow ! The oppressed have to beg the oppressors to be decent human beings and to stand up against racism… that concept just blows my mind. “Oh please oh please won’t you stop acting like sadistic or apathetic animals and act like decent, caring human beings? Something is very wrong if that request even needs to be made…

    No one needs to rely on white benevolence. We’re informing everyone that things are going to change around here. End of story.

    I see this is upsetting to you, Lonnie. Brb, let me grab a tissue for your white tears.