The phrase “white privilege” troubles many people. Often an instant response is, “I’m not privileged. I’ve worked hard to get where I am today. Nobody gave me anything.” We equate “privilege” with wealth or entitlement or ease. That, of course, is the trouble with words – they fail to describe what we are attempting to define.
In this case, “privilege” is the ability to participate in an activity without hindrance.
Think of it this way. What if we substitute the word “white” with another word.
Consider this –
- My mother is blind. Ordinary daily activities are challenging, from choosing clothes to wear, to safely navigating crowded hallways, or pouring a cup of hot coffee.
- I, on the other hand, can do things that sighted people do – use my phone, drive a car, find an item that I’ve put down, read the newspaper, or cross the street.
- I don’t give a lot of thought to those activities because they come easily to me. Mostly, I forget just how blessed I am.
- We could call it “visual privilege.”
Or how about this:
- I can walk up and down stairs, squeeze through narrow hallways and doors, and traverse the length of a parking lot or superstore without giving it a thought.
- My friend who uses a walker because of MS cannot do any of those things. My comfortable ability often makes me oblivious to the challenges she faces daily.
- I enjoy what might be called “mobility privilege.”
In the same way, I can – without worry – drive through any neighborhood without being pulled over, walk into a store without being followed by a suspicious employee, and walk down the street without anyone challenging my right to be there.
The assumption that I will be treated with at least minimal respect – that is privilege. It is something I do not particularly notice because it has always been my life experience. But it is something that not everyone enjoys.
Part of my responsibility as a white person is to wonder, explore, and learn about other people’s experiences. I need to notice things that just aren’t fair – like my brown-skinned son always being asked to show his ID when using a credit card while his white-skinned sister isn’t. When I see things like that, I need to speak up.
Perhaps the first step in combatting racism is being aware that it exists and is going on around me all the time. My obligation is to recognize that many aspects of my life are easier simply because of the color of my skin. I have a privilege I didn’t ask for or earn, but it is real. Being aware of that can inspire me to work on building a society that extends courtesy and respect to all of God’s children.