My friend and I grew up in the same suburb. We went to the same schools. She is black and I am white—something an idealistic liberal kid might believe in her heart doesn’t make any difference at all.
The other day she recalled that sometimes, at the grocery store, I would start eating my candy bar before we paid. “I always marveled at that,” she said. “Of course you’d always pay for it. But opening something in a store before paying? Never. Along with keeping my hands out of my pockets, not having my purse unzipped, or any other sign that I could be perceived as stealing. Those things were ingrained in me in ways your parents wouldn’t have thought to mention.”
There it was: my privilege, a rock-hard reality that for me had existed before this moment simply as a blind spot, now laid out in Technicolor black and white. It’s a micro version of the same revelation a country has grappled with since the unarmed black men Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed by police: White people enjoy advantages in American culture just by being white.
Many know this already and have been checking their privilege for years. Others are experiencing Brown and Garner as their first concrete encounters with something that has remained comfortably abstract until now. Whichever the case, sometimes it seems the only appropriate response is guilt. I’ve felt guilt, even as I know how hand-wringingly impotent—how ultimately about me—guilt is. Others go straight to defensiveness (I treat people the same regardless of skin color!), but that’s really just another way to put the individual white self at the axis of the matter, as if individual good intentions were any real antidote to a system of discrimination as entrenched and pervasive and vast as a weather front.
And then there are those who don’t buy white privilege at all. What kind of privilege is my shitty little life? goes this thinking. It’s minorities who get the accommodations. To them, I might talk about the default skin tone on TV shows and greeting cards that establish white as the norm. A playing field slanted by decades of Jim Crow and its legacies. The simple color of a Band-Aid. I would talk about these indignities and a thousand others like them that reveal the reality of white privilege, much as a twisted tree reveals the reality of wind.
And then I would invite that person to talk to me—about their own experiences of disenfranchisement.
It’s a good starting point, since everyone finds themselves on the wrong side of privilege in some way. Maybe you’re a woman. Or a sexual minority, or wheelchair-bound, or poor. Or even something innocuous, left-handed say; a person for whom the simple act of gathering around a dinner table represents discomfort and awkwardness.
No, I’m not saying that being left-handed is anything remotely like being black. Nor am I saying that those conditions can compare with the uniquely lethal experience of walking around black in America—the country whose foundational experience with black Africans was to enslave them. No, my point is that thinking about one’s own place in the calculus of inclusion and exclusion can deliver the seed of understanding one might need to get one’s head around privilege—specifically, what it’s like to be without it.
When my friend and I reunited in Seattle after college, I was fresh off a feminist awakening. I would unspool the latest indignities—the customers at my restaurant job assuming that the guy busing tables was my boss, the catcall that rang out like the soundtrack of rape culture. She would listen, good friend that she was, and she would resist comparing our claims to victimhood, and our mutual understanding deepened. I had found a kindred place in myself for her experience. And I learned that the part of me that could begin to comprehend the racial disenfranchisement in her life was the female disenfranchisement in my own.
Looking back, I wish our next step would have been to name our privileges. Those parts of ourselves, every bit as unearned, that society rewards us for. For her: soaring intelligence and extreme physical beauty. For me: majority culture status in race, in religion, in sexual orientation.
Clearly something gets achieved when we can find aspects of ourselves on either side of the privilege axis. Reportedly the Wellesley feminist and antiracism activist Peggy McIntosh—she wrote the famous essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”—began workshops that way, asking participants to identify both their disenfranchisements and their privileges. It’s an exercise to loosen resentments and entitlements, to heighten empathy, to enable dialogue, to engender mutuality.
To end white privilege? Alas, not even the idealistic liberal kid is that naive. But opening ourselves up to all the shades of victim and victor that exist in the very enterprise of being human—well, perhaps that is a point from which we could begin the end.
This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of Seattle Met magazine.