What Privileges Come From Being White?

Sit-in at Woolworth's lunch counter: Tallahassee, FloridaPeople have begun to publically worry that the world is forgetting what happened in Ferguson, Missouri over a month ago. I haven’t forgotten. I was praying for the families there this morning.

I could say many things about the Michael Brown shooting, how the police have handled it, how the community has handled it, the demonstrations, and the militarization of civil police forces. My perspective on these things has been stretched, and I don’t want ignore it. So let’s talk about “white privilege.”

You can see it in videos like this, showing a social experiment. A white guy tries to break into a car for thirty minutes, alarm blaring, without being questioned or stopped. A black guy does the same for less than five minutes before police show up. You have to assume witnesses believed the white guy had lost his keys (or something legit), but the black guy was obviously committing a crime. (Here’s a man’s reaction to the video, blaming blacks for legitimizing the stereotype they dislike.) I’m told the same kind of experiment has been tried with two men and a woman, each pushing a car up a street. Witnesses ignore the white man, question (or call police on) the black man, and offer to help the white woman.

In these cases, white privilege—no matter what the term may imply when pundits and professors use it—means being able to get on with your life without harassment, even when your car has broken down. Dr. Jarvis Williams describes other ways the term applies: getting a job or promotion, hailing a cab, or walking around a department store on your own merits, not being judged by the color of your skin. As a white man, I have never thought I could look suspicious while browsing a store, but that has been the experience of many respectable people who are judged regularly by their skin color. The absence of that public suspicion is what “white privilege” means.

Dennae Pierre is a white woman who married a black man eight years ago. In a post today, she describes a small part of how her perspective on being black in America has changed. “I may have been able to have deep discussions with my husband about race, but I hadn’t lived THAT intimately side by side with someone who was African American and really given them permission to give me all their unfiltered thoughts with no threat of judgment, just a desire to really understand.”

What will we understand if we truly listen? We’ll understand that many Americans come from a family or a community that has been beaten down one way or another for years. They know people who were denied a drink at an old-style department store. They remember seeing reasonable, intelligent neighbors or relatives abused by police who were supposed to be keeping the peace. They were told by their elders that they would have to work twice as hard as others just to appear to be pulling their own weight, that they were prejudged at a disadvantage.

Some of us may have experienced discrimination like this, but we didn’t attribute it to our white skin. We thought we were facing tough competition. Perhaps we blamed it on group politics. It’s a whole other level to have enough evidence to suspect, if not actually believe, the opposition we have faced is society-dominant racial discrimination. That’s a hurdle we can’t jump through personal exercise or study.

What can a young woman do about how police perceive her? [The following anecdote has been shown to be exaggerated.] Young actress Daniele Watts discovered how little she could do when she was cuffed and detained the other day on suspicion of being a prostitute. The evidence? She had been seen kissing her husband a few minutes prior. Why didn’t the cops approach him first?

It’s an ugly story, and you can see she takes it personally. “As I was sitting in the back of the police car, I remembered the countless times my father came home frustrated or humiliated by the cops when he had done nothing wrong. I felt his shame, his anger, and my own feelings of frustration for existing in a world where I have allowed myself to believe that ‘authority figures’ could control my BEING… my ability to BE!!!!!!!”

I gather she means her ability to be a black woman married to and publically affectionate with a white man. This isn’t something that goes away by ignoring it. It isn’t a minor incident in a young person’s life. It’s a defining moment, and the idea that such a moment is unthinkable for my wife is the definition of white privilege.

So what can be done? Let’s talk about it.

14 thoughts on “What Privileges Come From Being White?”

  1. That’s irritating, but it shows reality I suppose. The story gets muddled a bit in the interview in the Hot Air article. She, an actress, is spinning the experience as a good PR event. That’s irrelevant. What is more relevant is her attitude of what’s acceptable in public. And who was the busybody who made the call? Were their motives pure?

    With this new info, the cop doesn’t appear to have done anything wrong, and the racial profiling may have occurred with the citizen calling them in, if all they were doing was kissing in their car. You can see it, I think, in that social experiment video. A cop drives right next to the white guy trying to jimmy the lock, but with the black guy, he is probably responding to a call. So talking about race like I’m trying to do here is confused with natural irritation at being confronted by police who assume something wrong has occurred.

  2. Honestly, I don’t think race had much to do with Watts’ case. Inappropriate PDA combined with belligerence toward law enforcement will get you into trouble. For instance, it isn’t smart to tell an officer, “I won’t give you my ID and I have a publicist.”

  3. The Watts case is almost a counterexample here. If she weren’t black, would you have so quickly assumed that the policeman was acting for improper racial motives, instead of because Watt’s apparently bad behavior?

  4. My initial assumption was that they weren’t doing anything inappropriate. Look at the way the Reason.com article reads. It gives her every benefit of the doubt. It would be nice to get a read on the person to called the police.

    But doesn’t this touch on the very issues black people feel they can’t discuss with whites or maybe anyone else? It’s the reality in some places and the suspicion of it in other places that being black in America is more risky in general than being white. I remember reading something a man wrote about slowing down or stopping on the sidewalk when he hears sirens, even if he is in a hurry. He said when the police are looking for someone and you’re a black man running down the sidewalk because you missed the bus, you could get yourself into big trouble just for running while black (or words to that effect). You can’t say the man’s being paranoid, because enough doubt about the character of black young men has been thrown about to warrant his concern.

    Am I making sense?

  5. As to your central point, I’m sure it’s true. But for me — and I think for a lot of people — the complaint is wearing thin. No one should be stopped just for driving while black, but I keep hearing people calling in to talk shows and saying (in so many words), “White people look at me funny, and therefore I can’t have a decent life.” I think those people will only have success when they stop caring how white people look at them. We’re not magical.

  6. It’s rotten if Watts’ story is a bad example, but we can drop it. Your last point is a good reason we need to listen and work to communicate that we understand those near us who are sympathetic to this viewpoint. On a social scale, there are many voices working against us, but personally we can talk and listen compassionately, like Christ would have us do.

  7. For what it’s worth, I had two friends who almost got arrested in the Chicagoland area for excessive PDA. They were both whiter than a frog’s belly.

    It’s just not smart to do.

  8. Well, there is a danger in being too white. heh.

    I think we’re getting into one of the problems with this subject. We want to get the facts right. We think the truth of the situation will set us free, but black folks believe the facts will only get them so far, because the suspicion of guilt still hangs in the air.

    Dennae Pierre said on the radio a couple weeks ago that when she was growing up, she didn’t know anyone who took the black complaints of police mistreatment seriously. They thought they were griping because they couldn’t get away with breaking the law (or something like that). When they discovered the police chief had been abusing his power for years, all of those complaints took on a different weight. Their black neighbors hadn’t been griping. They had been telling the truth.

    It takes special effort to build bridges with people who have believed for many years they can’t simply tell the truth, that they have to work harder to be believed. I may be overstating it, but that’s how I understand it.

  9. Thanks for this post. It makes me a little sad to see the comment stream go somewhat in the “perfect victim” direction. Too often those of us who are white discount injustice if that injustice happens to people who have behaved badly, or with whom we don’t sympathize. I think it’s easier, and somehow less scary, to dwell on micro/individual sins than it is to grapple with a larger culture of injustice that has a long history and is very difficult to change.

    (Here’s an article about the “perfect victim” issue; there are many others available via quick google. http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/columns/column-black-america-and-the-burden-of-the-perfect-victim/2194597)

  10. I appreciate the comment and link. I still have questions about what happened in Ferguson, but I’m not actively keeping up with it anymore. I’ve seen some ugly details that argue against the officers actions, but it’s not clear yet.

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