This originally appeared on The Good Men Project
Recently I was invited to participate in an online forum about race in America. Three other guests and I were discussing the murder of Mario Woods by the San Francisco Police Department, the Bundy Oregon occupation, and the lack of African Americans in Silicon Valley. As we talked about the issues and the reasoning behind them, one of the guests said, “The reason why the Bundy family has not been arrested, more Blacks are not working at dotcom’s, and Woods was murdered is because of white privilege. If Woods had been white, none of this would have happened. The Bundy’s are not arrested because they are white. You can get a job quicker if you are white.” While I agreed that race did play a part in all of these situations, I felt that white privilege was too simple for the complex problem of race. It was too neat and quick of an explanation.
I first started hearing “white privilege” when I involved myself in activism and anti-racism studies a couple of years ago. When I would listen to white people speak of past racist acts or growing up in America, many facets would be attributed to white privilege. “I got this because of my privilege….” Or when Twitter was ablaze with the topic #crimingwhilewhite, many users pointed out their white privilege as to why they did not get arrested for the same incidents African Americans would. I would be stunned at not only the casual use of the word, but how some whites felt proud of admitting that they possessed it, like it absolved them. It seemed white privilege became the cool way to talk about racism. More hashtags followed and pop culture embraced the phrase. Macklemore made a dope song about it in an attempt to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Native American people added it to their vocabulary. It was done – white privilege was the way we all communicated about white supremacy. Yet when I would attempt to say the phrase, something didn’t feel right. It felt fake. It didn’t accurately describe what people that looked like me went through all of our lives.
The definition of racism that I like to use goes as follows: A global system designed to disenfranchise, discriminate, and harm people of color while maintaining a hierarchy that has white people at the top. Before I understood that racism was a system, I pictured it as a white man spouting racial slurs, skin heads, the KKK, and corrupt police. I didn’t realize that it encompassed education, finance, housing, the justice system, and politics. I couldn’t imagine that it was this gargantuan being that influenced everything in life. When I learned that racism was systemic and not personalized, it not only changed the way I looked at racism, but the language I used when discussing it. As a writer I realized words have meaning, power, and how you use words matters.
At best white privilege is an incomplete definition of racism. At worst, white privilege is a distortion of racism, a watered down term that is designed to confuse Black and other non-white people into thinking that racism is all about stuff that white people get. White privilege doesn’t reveal how White people get their status and how they keep it. White privilege doesn’t talk about the brutal history that non-white people have had to endure to survive. White privilege doesn’t take into account the physical, mental, and emotional abuse that non-white people deal with on a daily basis. White privilege doesn’t explain that the current justice, educational, political, and economic system was not built for non-white people to thrive. I believe the term has been popularized because there are many people that do not have an accurate understanding of what racism is.
I can see how white privilege is an easy non-offensive term to use. Most talks about racism between white people and non-white people revolve around not trying to be offensive, no hurt feelings, and having a “safe space” that we can talk about the issue. “There shall be no white tears fallen” when we have this discussion. When white privilege and other vacuous terms like “white fragility” are used, it doesn’t completely challenge the system. White privilege doesn’t say, “White people, your system has brutalized, disenfranchised, murdered, and completely discriminated against POC since eternity.” No, it says, “Well you won’t get pulled over because you are white” and “You will have a better chance in buying a house or getting a job because you are Caucasian.”
I guess I should be thankful for the term “White privilege.” It is starting to get people to talk about race right? People are starting to become more race conscious. We are having “The Conversation” right? Well, what if we are having the wrong conversation? When we talk about race, we should talk about everything – slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Japanese Internment camps, the lynching of Black and Latino bodies, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, abuse of the undocumented worker, and the unarmed killings of Black men by the police. No stone should be left unturned. This should be the most brutally honest conversation you will ever have. I find many Black and Latino folks don’t use the terms racism/white supremacy because they make people uneasy. They don’t want to come off as the “Confrontational Negro” or the “Angry Brown person.” We try and avoid “white tears” that may come during talking about the subject. Talking about race should be extremely uncomfortable. It should make people mad, angry, sad, and question everything they know and/or thought they knew. That’s what a real conversation on race should do. That’s how we begin to truly dismantle the system of racism. Saying white privilege does not.