"White Privilege,"by Michael R. Wenger July/August 2013 issue of Poverty & Race
On average, African Americans begin life’s journey several miles behind their white counterparts as a result of the legacy of our history of racial oppression. This disadvantage is compounded by institutional hurdles they encounter at every stage of the journey: the socioeconomic conditions into which they’re born, the system of public education through which they pass, the type of employment they are able to secure, the legacy they are able to leave behind. These hurdles, arduous, relentless, and often withering to the soul, do not confront many white people as they pursue their hopes and dreams. It is at the core of the privilege of being white in our society and it is a reality I have witnessed from a unique perspective—as a white man in an interracial marriage raising three African-American children and now being married to a white woman as we help to guide our four African-American grandchildren and one great grandchild on their life journey.
Whether attending school, leaving home for college, seeking a job, purchasing a house, buying a new car, traveling on vacation, or simply walking down the street, my skin color is never a factor. In most circumstances, it is a huge plus. In school, I experienced only the normal growing-up anxiety about fitting in. My father’s connections, which would have been nonexistent had his skin color not been white, were an advantage to me for obtaining summer jobs during high school. When I bought my first car, I had the security of having my father with me, confident that, because of his skin color, he would not be taken advantage of. In seeking my first job out of college, the factor of skin color never entered my mind. After moving to West Virginia, I felt only the anxiety of culture shock in moving from an urban environment to a rural one.
Nevertheless, the concept of white privilege is an understandably difficult concept for white Americans to grasp. Most do not feel privileged in their daily lives. Their income may barely be enough to make ends meet. Economically, they may be only one or two paychecks away from disaster. They fear that if one of the working parents in a two-earner household were to become seriously ill, the deductible for the care they might need, even if they have health insurance, and the loss of time on the job could rip their budget to shreds. Life is a continuing struggle, and the light at the end of the tunnel is dim. To talk about white privilege under these conditions yields an ironic laugh at best and an angry diatribe at worst.
And yet, even with these burdens, I can drive any car that I can afford and not worry about being stopped by the police. I can stop to ask directions of a police officer without concern about the officer’s possible reaction. I can read about racial incidents in the newspaper almost every day and not wonder whether it will happen to me. I can make a fool of myself or simply be silent at a meeting without worrying that others will think my performance is reflective of all white people. Within the limits of my budget, I can travel and eat wherever I want without attracting attention. Sociologist Joe Feagin speaks of the innate confidence of being white in a white world. My wife Jackie and I see it every day in the predominantly black community in which we live. We’re a distinct minority in our neighborhood, as well as a minority in our county. I’m in the minority in the office where I work. Yet we know innately and instinctively that the world is ours. We see it in newspapers every day. We see it on television. We know it in the way we’re greeted when we step out of our community. We know it in terms of our access to economic resources and to political power. And we know it from our government, both historically and contemporarily.
When I begin the discussion of white privilege in my classes, students often ask why I talk about privilege. Isn’t it simply another way to describe racial discrimination? In answering the question, I refer to a speech given by then Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) from the floor of the House of Representatives. He asserted that the idea of collective guilt for slavery “is an idea whose time has gone. I never owned a slave. I never oppressed anybody. I don’t know that I should have to pay for someone who did generations before I was born.” In a narrow sense, Rep. Hyde was correct. But what he failed to acknowledge, or probably even to understand, are the benefits that were afforded him simply because he was white. His argument turns on whether or not he engaged in racist behavior. In that context, it’s too easy to become defensive and let yourself off the hook by proclaiming that you don’t discriminate, or that you don’t have a racist bone in your body. But when you come at the issue from the perspective of white privilege, you change the context of the argument from whether someone engages in racist behavior to whether people have benefited from the racist behavior of others in the past. Such an argument eliminates the need for people to be defensive about their own behavior. It gives them the freedom to acknowledge that whether or not racist behavior still exists, the legacy of past racist behavior continues to privilege white people today, and it helps to make them feel more accountable for correcting the inequities that persist.
Thus, while one may not be consciously guilty of racist behavior, understanding the privilege conferred simply because of skin color raises the question, “What will I do to lessen or end racist behavior?”
The Self-Perpetuating Cycle of Negative Racial StereotypingA key aspect of white privilege is not being plagued by negative racial stereotyping. When I was in school, the books we used to learn to read contained nary a black face. Reading these books, one would have thought that the entire population of the United States looked just like me. Compounding the problem was the virtual exclusion of African Americans, except as slaves, from our history of nation-building. The American history I was taught barely touched on the harsh treatment of enslaved people (finally brought alive by Alex Haley in Roots) and their countless efforts to escape. It included no contributions by black people to the building of our country other than a line or two about George Washington Carver inventing three hundred uses for the peanut. As a child, I took great pride in reading about white inventors like Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, and white pioneers like Daniel Boone and Lewis and Clark. My dark-skinned brothers and sisters had no such sources of pride. I was never taught that black people invented the refrigerator and the traffic light, discovered blood plasma, designed Washington, DC, and built the Capitol. Neither was I taught that the concept of mandatory public education emerged from the policies of black-led governments in the South during Reconstruction. Names like Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois and Ralph Bunche were mentioned only in passing, if at all. But emphasis was placed on the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who was willing to accept the concept of white social superiority as the price of black job-training.
Our schools, the media and often public officials too often bombard us with negative images of people who are not white, and simply ignore positive images of nonwhite people, making stereotyping virtually impossible to avoid. Unless we can understand and confront this concept, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to overcome the persistent racist behavior that plagues our nation. And make no mistake: Virtually all white people are guilty of such stereotyping, to various degrees. It often occurs subconsciously, despite our best intentions.
We see it clearly whenever a major incident occurs. For example, when a tragic event like the killing of students at Columbine High School or the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building occurs and the perpetrators are white, we spend an interminable amount of time agonizing over why they did it. Did their parents abuse them? Were they taunted by peers for their nonconforming behavior? Did they play too many violent video games? We don’t, however, extrapolate from their behavior negative feelings toward the general population of young white men. And yet, when we hear of violence perpetrated by a young black man, we all too often associate such conduct with the majority of young black men. We do not inquire into their individual backgrounds. We simply shake our heads in disgust, even sadness, at the perceived bad behavior of others who look like them.
The reality hit harder more recently, when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was murdered. There is little doubt that if Trayvon had been white, with his iced tea and his bag of Skittles, he would still be alive, and if George Zimmerman were black, he would have been arrested on the spot. I thought about my grandson, Michael Ian, now 11 and tall and husky for his age. Because of his skin color, he will undoubtedly face challenges that are foreign to young males with my skin color.
I will leave the authoritative explanations to experts in psychology and sociology. What I do know is that this stereotyping—dehumanizing black people—has its roots in efforts to justify slavery in the context of our founding principle that “all men are created equal.” And based on my own experiences and observations, it is self-perpetuating. Most children grow up in homogeneous racial environments, and people from different racial backgrounds are relatively unknown to them. When they are bombarded by negative racial stereotypes from family and friends, from the inaccurate and incomplete version of American history taught in school, and from inaccurate portrayals by a media more interested in profit than in fairness, they do not have the knowledge or understanding to counteract the bombardment. So, they fall prey to the stereotyping. Even as adults, we have precious little meaningful interaction with people from different racial backgrounds. These negative messages fuel fear and prejudice, which lead to discriminatory or dysfunctional behavior that is often unconscious. This makes meaningful interactions with the stereotyped group even less likely, and in turn, the separation widens and the stereotype intensifies each time we observe behavior that supports it. For example, if we harbor a stereotype that most young black males are dangerous, we will avoid them at all costs. By avoiding them, we give ourselves no opportunity to counteract the stereotype, and the next time we see a violent act by a young black male, our stereotype will be reinforced and our fear and desire for separation will grow. When we do encounter a young black male, we will likely act in ways that reflect the stereotype, which further reinforces and perpetuates it.
Who Pays the Price?But it’s not only black people who pay a price for this negative stereotyping. Our nation also pays a heavy price, economically and politically. Negative stereotyping often causes us to avoid hiring people who could make valuable contributions to our businesses and our economic productivity. Such stereotyping contributes to the high level of unemployment for black people and to the cost of that unemployment to society: government assistance we must provide, productivity that is lost, increased crime rates that are often a consequence of unemployment, family dysfunction that arises due to a husband or father’s inability to find a good job, and the skyrocketing costs of incarceration that limit government funding for such needs as better schools. In a labor force that is becoming increasingly diverse, this situation weakens our society and our ability to compete in the global economy. It contributes to budget deficits, lowers the standard of living for all of us, and increases racial divisions.
Politically, we pay a price because we are frequently scared into electing public officials whose motivation is victory rather than good public policy. Therefore, we often end up with bad public policies that further exacerbate racial and ethnic divisions and perpetuate societal problems. Perhaps the greatest cost of stereotyping concerns the moral hypocrisy and self-deception we practice. We think of ourselves as a people committed to the principles of justice, fairness and freedom. But each time we unjustifiably discriminate against someone, we puncture our ideals and call our values into question.
Unfortunately, policies that could narrow the gap and strengthen our nation, such as affirmative action, individual development accounts, or even some form of collective reparations, are rejected out of hand by most white Americans. They believe that the playing field of opportunity is essentially level, that any failure to succeed is a matter of personal responsibility and therefore government action to move us closer to racial equity is unnecessary and undesirable. Given the whitewashed (pun intended) version of American history we learn in school, the media’s penchant for sensationalism without regard to fairness, and unscrupulous politicians whose win-at-any-cost attitudes border on the unpatriotic, our collective ignorance and our internalized sense of white superiority are not surprising.
If you are not white, the hurdles continue as one emerges from public education to either attend college or enter the workforce. Getting ready for college is an exciting time for young people. After 12 years of regimented schooling, freedom beckons. They’ll decide what they want to study, choose their own classes, make their own schedules, decide whether to attend or skip class, and whether and when to do their homework. And they’ll be held accountable for whatever consequences their behavior yields. Black children, if they’ve been able to surmount the hurdles and make it this far, have the added challenge of being marginalized in a predominantly white environment, unless they choose to attend a predominantly black university.
These hurdles continue in the world of work. When white people enter a company, they rarely worry about whether or not they will fit in. Most employees look like they do, grew up in similar environments, and share similar experiences. Rarely does a white person have the experience of going to work in a company with predominantly black employees; rarely does a white person have to adjust to being the odd person out. Affirmative action has been effectively demonized as giving African Americans, women, and Hispanic Americans an unfair advantage. From my perspective, when one is evaluating people with similar qualifications, it is a valuable weapon for confronting the ever-present good-old-white-boy network and moving us closer to a level playing field.
Even African Americans who have successfully navigated the journey often pay an emotional and physical price that most white people do not pay. The effect of racism is insidious. It’s like a worm coursing through your body. Gradually, it creeps through every cell and pore of your body, eating away at your sense of control over your life. Each incident can make you more wary, more suspicious, more agitated. The cumulative effect can make you seethe with resentment. You can’t believe that white people are so oblivious to the indignities you endure, and it becomes difficult to view white people as friends or allies. The pressures affect both your emotional and your physical health. According to a recent study, 33% of African Americans suffer from hypertension (high blood pressure), which puts them at greater risk of heart attacks and strokes. Some people attribute this statistic to genetic differences. However, the same study found that only 16% of West Africans and 26% of people from the Caribbean suffer from hypertension. This strongly suggests that the stress is related to racism, as well as to the subtle yet significant consequence of white privilege.
Over 20 years ago, I took a creative writing class and became friendly with a white woman in the class. Over coffee one day, we talked about our respective ambitions. I said I wanted to write a book, but I despaired I’d ever get around to it or that anyone would ever publish it. I must have sounded whiny, because after a minute or two, she snapped at me. “Michael, you’re a white male. You’re the most privileged person in this society. You can do anything you want. So, don’t complain to me.” She was, of course, correct.
ResourcesAlexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, The New Press, 2012.
Anderson, Elizabeth. The Imperative of Integration, Princeton University Press, 2010.
Blackmon, Douglas A. Slavery By Another Name: Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Anchor, 2009.
Corcoran, Rob. Trustbuilding: An Honest Conversation on Race, Reconciliation, and Responsibility, University of Virginia Press, 2010.
Cose, Ellis. The Rage of a Privileged Class: Why Are Middle-Class Blacks Angry? Why Should America Care?, Harper Perennial, 1994.
Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me, The New Press, 2008.
Loewen, James W. Sundown Towns, Touchstone, 2006.
Shapiro, Thomas. The Hidden Cost of Being African American, Oxford University Press, 2005.
Tatum, Beverly and Perry, Theresa. Can We Talk About Race? and Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation, Beacon Press, 2008.
Michael R. Wenger is Senior Fellow and Acting Vice-President for Civic Engagement and Governance at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and an adjunct faculty member in the Sociology Dept. of The George Washington Univ. He formerly was Deputy Director for Outreach and Program Development for Pres. Clinton’s Initiative on Race. This article is drawn from his personal and professional memoir, “My Black Family, My White Privilege: A White Man’s Journey Through the Nation’s Racial Minefield” (iUniverse Incorporated, 2012), available in hb, pb and e format.
See in the Resources Sec.,the closely related short item by Sam Fulwood III, “Race and Beyond: Witness to Whiteness.” firstname.lastname@example.org
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