My White Privilege, Explained

A couple Christmases ago I was in the car with my family, driving around a relatively affluent neighborhood looking at Christmas lights. One particular house had a cool design going on, so we pulled over for a closer look. As we parked outside, the owners happened to return home. They noticed us staring and came over to ask if we needed something. As my mom explained how we were enjoying their lights, my uncle jokingly threw out, “We’re looking into robbing a house in this neighborhood.” The couple laughed, wished us a merry Christmas, and went inside. As soon as we drove away, my uncle turned to my family and said, “Imagine if we hadn’t been white.”

My uncle was pointing out a blatant example of our white privilege. We’re lucky that we do not have to be hyper-aware of our race. Our race doesn’t dictate how we need to act around certain people. That moment was just one of the countless times I’ve exercised white privilege in my life. I grew up in a San Diego suburb, where the population is 73.6% white, 14.1% Hispanic/Latino, 7.6% Asian, 0.9% black, and so on — the numbers only get smaller from there. My family is all white. Majority of my high school friends are white. For most of my life, the only time I encountered people who didn’t look like me was when I was watching TV.

A little while ago, I came across an article written by a white person that made the basic point that white privilege doesn’t exist and that white people have it just as hard these days as everyone else. As one of the whitest people alive (I only sunburn, never tan), I would like to tell you that white privilege absolutely exists and that if you are a white person who is unable to acknowledge and accept your undeniable privilege, you are the problem. By ignoring the basic racial foundations of our country, you are a major contributor to the ongoing racism that you supposedly denounce. 

Image source: Library of Congress

Racism isn’t just white supremacy marches, slavery, or hate crimes. Those are the most apparent, least complex examples, where racism is easy for white people like me to spot. The KKK wants to kill black people — “hey, that’s bad” is a socially and politically safe statement to make. It’s not risky for me to condemn the KKK because I’m not one of them. I don’t compromise myself or discredit my work if I state that the KKK is racist; instead, I get to pat myself on the back for doing my part to stop racism. But that wouldn’t be right, would it? If I fail to see how the roots of racism are deeper than the most obvious of examples, that makes me ignorant.

I already mentioned that I grew up in an extremely white community, where the annual median household income is around $102,000. I never had to worry about my education. From elementary school to high school, my schools had up-to-date technology and enough textbooks for all students. As my schools were some of the best in the county, I was always supplied with qualified teachers who gave me a Eurocentric education. College had never been a “what if?”, and given my access to a catalog of AP courses in high school, I had the classes and grades to get into UC Davis. I haven’t been pulled over in my six years of driving, but when I inevitably do (likely for speeding), I know that I’ll probably cry and the police officer will probably let me off with a warning. I’ve never been self-conscious about my skin color as I’ve always been represented in the media. I’ve never had to worry about being arrested at a Starbucks because people think I’m loitering. I’m comfortable making a joke about crime to a stranger, since I know they’ll laugh. I’m confident in that I can go on my entire life without acknowledging race, and I’ll be perfectly okay. That is my white privilege. 

My backstory isn’t the universal white experience. To the point of the article I read, which claimed that there are a lot of poor white people today ergo white privilege doesn’t exist, many white people do grow up in impoverished communities and do face hurdles that obstruct their access to quality health care, housing, and education. But it is the design of the American class system, not their inherent whiteness, that contributes to their social injustices. Of course, poverty and classism deserve recognition and must be addressed. But it is imperative that we not equate this to the structural factors that immobilize people of color. Likewise, it is imperative that we do not cherry-pick examples of successful people of color and assume that the entire community is well-off. 

The election of Barack Obama didn’t end racism. Nor did the nationwide acceptance of Beyoncé as a queen, nor did the premiere of Black Panther. Slavery existed in America for around 250 years before the Thirteenth Amendment came around, after which segregation reigned for another 90 years. It is without a doubt impossible that the effects of racism have vanished into thin air after almost 350 years of legalized oppression, as many people — such as the author of that article — believe. The history of the United States proves that white people have taken all necessary measures to maintain our power — Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration and the so-called “War on Drugs”, to name a few examples. Racism is so casually embedded into the roots of this country that we are conditioned to not question it. White privilege is so normal to us that we get offended when called out for it.

Image source: Library of Congress

The facts are that black men are given longer sentences for committing the exact same crimes as white men. Voter ID laws are being called the new Jim Crow, as they routinely target minority groups and prevent them from voting. The effects of redlining, where the government segregated communities by denying people of color housing loans in an effort to create white suburbs, are very obvious today. California is home to the most racially segregated schools in the country for Latino students, despite the state’s progressive reputation. These segregated schools are less likely to have the resources to allow students to move onto higher education. Studies have shown that black people across the country have worse access to health care than their white counterparts. Black people also have a statistically higher chance of being shot and killed by police. The gender wage gap exists, and it has been getting worse for women of color. Citizens of Flint, Michigan — a majority non-white community — had lead in their water for years, and the crisis still isn't over. The true toll of the atrocities committed against Native Americans is rarely discussed in schools. Communities of color are hit hardest by climate change as they are more likely to face climate-related diseases and are closer to toxic facilities, thanks to redlining. This is institutional racism, a form of racism that is less apparent than burning crosses and Nazi salutes, yet it can be just as powerful. Each one of these factors is the result of systemic oppression that has been plaguing minority groups for all of American history, and each one is indisputably connected to the other. Living in a segregated area and receiving a poor education means little to no access to job security, which then determines one’s housing and health care. Equivalently, inadequate health care means lower probability of securing a job. These factors penetrate every aspect of life, and for those in the cycle it can be impossible to break out. No matter how much I or any other white person can try to empathize with people of color, we will never understand the full realities of what it is like to be a black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, or Middle Eastern individual in America. And we absolutely are in no position to tell people of color that their experiences are invalid.

I worked hard in high school, and I’m working hard in college. But the truth is that there are people of color out there who have worked ten times as hard as me and will never achieve a fraction of what I have because of the systemic injustices holding them back. Of the small amount of obstacles I’ve faced in my life, none of them have been because of my skin color. American history has worked in my favor. It has placed me, my family, and all of our ancestors at the top of the social hierarchy. I have greatly benefited from a system that prioritizes my education, my health, my ability to vote, and my history; a system that protects me at the expense of people of color. White privilege, in its simplest definition, means that white people are at an advantage in that we have never faced any sort of oppression because of our skin color and we never will. White privilege exists because of America’s racist legacy, and it often goes unnoticed by white people who do not immediately feel the effects of the past and assume no one else does either. 

Image source: Cherokee Doll

I wrote this article for a handful of reasons. First, the article I read was too ignorant to go unaddressed (it unironically made the point that white people aren’t racist because we don’t own slave plantations anymore). Second, my friend Sasha recently wrote about this same topic and it got me thinking (please go read her piece as well!). Third, it is my duty as a white person and an ally of minority communities to openly talk about racism, because the only type of person a racist will listen to is a white person. 

On an ending note, white people love to share Martin Luther King Jr. quotes. One of my favorite quotes by him is as follows: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail).

To white people reading this: accept your privilege. Don’t get offended. Acknowledge that the system favors you. If you are truly interested in stopping racism, this is the first and most important step. You claiming you’re not racist while refusing to recognize America’s continuous oppression of people of color supports white supremacy, and you condemning things like affirmative action and Black Lives Matter maintains white supremacy. This is the same white supremacy that manifests into KKK rallies, police brutality, and hate crimes. Dismantling centuries of racist oppression can only be done if we do our part. Change sparks from seemingly small elements like addressing white privilege before working its way up the chain. As inheritors of our ancestors’ privilege, it is vital that we utilize our social and political power to make strides towards achieving racial equality.