NegusWhoRead
Politics & Race
Stop Calling It “White Privilege”

Imagine growing up poor and white (I know it’s hard, but try), working hard to graduate at the top of your class in high school and college, getting a job or starting a business, earning good money, and one day you get to buy a nice house or car… Only to have some hipster tell you that you are benefitting from “white privilege.”

Words mean something.

A few weeks ago there was an alert of “suspicious persons” in my mostly white neighborhood. The same morning, while standing in the street 100 yards from my house, I was stopped by a seemingly well-meaning police officer and asked for  my license. At first, I rationalized that a black guy in a hoodie was a little out of place in this neighborhood…

Until I turned the corner and saw my neighbors out jogging, or taking morning strolls — mostly wearing hoodies.

When I relayed this anecdote to a friend they commented: “that’s how white privilege works.” They didn’t have to worry about what they wore or how they looked when they were out for their morning run.

Then I thought about it.

“Wait. Being able to wear what you want or walk around in your own neighborhood without being harassed by the cops ain’t no goddamned privilege. That’s a right!”

Last year, the term “white privilege” expanded out of the arenas of academia and critical race theory and into the lexicon of the politically correct groupthinking masses. Almost everywhere you turned you ran into social justice warriors and neoliberals explaining to white people how privilege works. It moved from an academic term into the zeitgeist of popular culture, and we all bought into it.

Whenever anyone explained the term, they would unfailingly point to Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” which explains how being white comes with certain privileges. She even goes on to list some of those advantages like the ability to shop in an expensive store without being followed or the ability to live in any neighborhood she can afford without her being an “integrator.” When I read the essay, I had the same reaction that I had to my neighborhood harassment:

Wait.  That ain’t no goddamned privilege.

priv·i·lege

ˈpriv(ə)lij/

noun

1.A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.

If we are all guaranteed something, and you take that guaranteed thing away from me, everyone else isn’t getting a special benefit. They are getting what they are supposed to receive. When I see white people walking around in a hoodie, I don’t think, “boy are they lucky.” I don’t think about it at all. A privilege would be me discovering that white people got an extra hundred dollars in their check every week or two chocolate chip cookies in the mail every morning. When a society guarantees its citizens certain basic freedoms, puts those freedoms in writing and calls it a constitution, those freedoms are not called privileges, they are called rights. That’s right. White privilege is not a thing. They are just being not subject to racism.

But “White privilege” sure sounds better than “racism.”

So I understand how some white people feel when they worked their ass off for something, achieve it, and then hear some patchouli-smelling fellow caucasian tell them they succeeded because of “white privilege.” White people do generally have an advantage in America over people of color in this country, but not because there is some unseen hand giving white boys college funds and extra points on standardized tests. It is because systematic racism is the unseen force kicking the legs out from under people of color. You’re not taller because you’re standing on the stepladder of privilege. We’re just shorter because we stand in the hole your racism has dug.

So stop calling that “white privilege.”

Calling it privilege is a subtle way of dismissing the existence and negative effects of prejudice and societal oppression that people of color face. My neighborhood isn’t mostly white because of a secret meeting where  they handed out “good schools” giveaways, “low crime” coupons and “big house” vouchers in a caucasian lottery. My neighborhood is mostly white because of hundreds of years of the government practices of red-lining and segregation. My neighborhood is mostly white because of the disparity in income and education in almost every corner of the country. My neighborhood is white because of racism.

I can understand why the phrase would upset some hardworking ‘person of no color’ (that’s the opposite of a “people of color”) because it insinuates that someone gave them something, or their achievements were because of a special benefit, and the absence of racism is not a benefit.

So here’s what white people should do to end the usage of the term “white privilege:”

Stop being racist.
Stop anyone around you from being racist.

That would erase the phrase from the vernacular tomorrow. Until then you have to deal with the fact that every time you go jogging past your manicured lawns you’re collecting on your privilege. As for everyone else, we should stop using the phrase.

When an employer would rather interview Elizabeth than an equally qualified Lakeisha stop calling it “privilege”.

When the high-end jewelry store overlooks Ian’s saturday afternoon ball cap but follows DeVante down the aisles, don’t refer to that as “privilege.”

It’s not “privilege” when 12-year old Justin can play with his BB gun in the park, but Tamir is dead.

It’s not “privilege” when 15-year old Dickie can walk home in the rain after buying Skittles and pull his hood over his head.

It’s racism.

Maybe we should start calling it that.

About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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