For the past four years I have been running small groups on racial understanding and reconciliation (the genesis for my book, The Love Required of Us). A couple of years ago, I was working with a church and had sent an invitation to their lay leaders to join one of my groups. The invitation included an overview of the topics we would cover: one of which was white privilege as described by Peggy McIntosh. I was surprised when one of the invitees responded quite adamantly that I was pushing a neo-Marxist ideology and teaching false doctrine. Huh? My first response was to explain that Peggy McIntosh is a sociologist not a socialist (I thought he was speaking out of ignorance of the terms). Since then, however, I have heard lots of folks, especially in the church, express concern and even outrage over the concept of white privilege. So, I want to take some time to analyze what white privilege is.
First off, I use the term interchangeably with “white advantage.” I think “privilege” can be confusing because it can be misconstrued with having lots of money which isn’t the point at all. Because, of course, there are white people who live in poverty and people of color who have wealth. So, white privilege isn’t about having money. It is however about having a resource that translates into vastly different lived experiences for white people and people of color (which can sometimes have a fiscal impact as well). I’ll explain what that resource is, but I want to make a few more clarifications on what white privilege/advantage is not… In addition, white privilege/advantage does not mean that white people do not have to work hard, that they never struggle, or that they have never encountered unfairness or bigotry. Nor does it mean that they as individuals have used racial bigotry or discrimination for their financial gain.
This is actually how Peggy McIntosh (who is not a socialist but rather an antiracist activist and scholar) describes white advantage which she calls “white privilege.” She likens it to an invisible knapsack and says:
“As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage….I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”
McIntosh went on to create a list of advantages that she has as a white person. This list covers a wide range of circumstances and situations in which she as a white person is given the benefit of the doubt, affording her more freedom and agency as she goes about her daily living. Examples from this list are:
The point that McIntosh is making here is that while racism causes harm and destruction for people of color, it also creates advantages and power for white people. Think about it… racism in this country originated with slavery – a system whose purpose was not so much to harm Africans, but to create wealth and opportunity for white people (AND it wasn’t just southern slave owners who benefited from slavery – cotton was grown in the south but it was processed and manufactured in the north, thus benefitting the entire country).
But after slavery how did white people benefit from racism? Well…who benefits when post-Civil War, laws are passed or enforced in such a way that young black men are arrested for petty or nonexistent crimes and put to work through convict leasing? Who benefits when a GI bill is passed that provides loans for education and homes, but because of segregation and redlining can only be accessed by white people? Who benefits from the big business of a “prison-industrial complex” system in our country that incarcerates 1 in 17 white men and 1 in 3 black men? Who benefits from the examples on McIntosh’s list?
I want to be clear. Over the years of working with people, I’ve known lots of white folks with horrific stories – stories of abuse, loss, addiction, and pain. I don’t want to minimalize that. But, the thing is, that even the most disadvantaged white person in the United States still benefits from being white. They may face challenges, but it won’t be because of their skin color.
I have a white friend who once remarked that he doesn’t have white advantage because, unlike my husband who is an attorney, he goes to work in a shirt with his name on it. In other words he is a blue-collar worker. But what he isn’t seeing is that first of all as soon as he puts on a suit, he instantly gains credibility. He doesn’t even have to open his mouth, all eyes will turn to him as an authority. With that suit on, or even in just regular clothing, he can move anywhere in any space that is seen as normal, neutral, or good. His presence won’t be questioned if he walks (or jogs!) down the street in a suburban neighborhood. He can attend an art opening or a fund-raising gala without having anyone question his right to be there. He doesn’t have to think about his race or worry about how he represents his race. He doesn’t have to worry about his safety because of his race. He can expect that he will be treated fairly and given the benefit of the doubt when negotiating systems and institutions like health care, banking, housing, education, and law enforcement.
My own definition of white advantage is- knowing that I will be given the benefit of the doubt when interfacing with people, systems, and institutions. This means that the color of my skin positively impacts not only how society sees me but also what advantages and privileges society will grant me. This in turn greatly impacts my viable options.
I am going to conclude this with an illustration that my own sister once gave me. She said that she learned a long time ago that if she walks into a place like she owns it, she will get what she wants. When she does this, she is cashing in on one of Peggy McIntosh’s invisible checks.
So, the question is... What checks or tools might you have in your invisible knapsack?
After the Breonna Taylor ruling in which a grand jury ruled against charging the police officers who shot her with murder or manslaughter, a white friend of mine expressed genuine confusion over why some folks saw this as a horrible miscarriage of justice.
At the outset I want to be clear that this man is working on dismantling his internalized racism. In light of that fact, I want to respect his question and give it a considered response; you can’t learn anything if no one is willing to teach you, especially when it comes to us white folks understanding racism.
He stated that he totally understood that there are great inequities in the legal system and that there needs to be reform when it comes to things like no-knock warrants. He just didn’t understand how a decision that seemed to be based on the rule of law could be unjust.
Here is his question…
I do wonder why people think that exonerating two of the officers was a miscarriage of justice. The officers were being shot at. Should they not return fire?
There are a couple of important points to be understood here. The first is that while people want to think that the law equals justice, often that is not the case: making something lawful doesn’t necessarily make it just. For example, slavery was legal, but it wasn’t just. The 1876 Supreme Court “separate but equal” decision was lawful, but it wasn’t just. In fact, looking back on this country’s racial history, we see that from the beginning there were many laws that actually created and perpetuated huge injustices. Therefore, while it may have been technically lawful for the officers to shoot, doing so under the circumstances in which they did was not just.
The second important point is that when the rule of law generally works in your favor, you don’t have to question whether or not it is just. For white folks, we are often given the benefit of the doubt when we interact with law enforcement and the legal system. As a white woman, if I am pulled over for a traffic violation, the officer who interacts with me may give me a ticket but is very unlikely to question my right to be where I am, search my car, arrest me, or harm me in any way unless I do something “suspicious.” The result is that I can assume that law enforcement and the legal system will deal with me fairly. But what if my presence and skin color alone are seen as suspicious?
For my white friend who has never had to negotiate a legal system that treats people like him unjustly, it seemed that the officers were justified in shooting Breonna Taylor because they had been fired upon first. That was his perspective - his white perspective. But therein lies the problem.
When it comes down to it, much of it is about personal perspective. As white people, we have an expectation that the legal system will treat us fairly and generally our experience bears that out. However, that is untrue of many (perhaps even most) people of color for whom there is not only a history of mistreatment by the legal system, but personal experience as well.
Let me give an illustration of this… Recently, I saw this question posed on Facebook, “When you are pulled over by the police, what is the first thing they say to you?” For me the answer is “Do you know why I pulled you over?” and, “Can I see your license and registration?” That response was true for most of the white people who responded - particularly the white women. However, the responses from people of color were more often, “Where are you going / where are you coming from?” “Is this your car?” and even, “Do you have a criminal record?” These questions clearly do not give the driver the benefit of the doubt and indicate a raised the level of suspicion.
These responses reminded me of when I was pulled over several years ago and my oldest son, who is black and was about 15 at the time, was in the car with me. The officer asked us where we were coming from and where we were going. It struck me because that is the only time I’ve been asked those questions. To be honest I was taken aback and offended – because I am used to being treated fairly by law enforcement and without suspicion. The only thing that was different when I was pulled over that time, was my black son’s presence, which was enough to raise suspicion.
Going back to my friend’s question and understanding why people felt that the Breonna Taylor decision was a miscarriage of justice, we need to engage in an exercise of empathy.
For white folks to better understand, we need to lean into the problem by placing ourselves in the narrative. Keeping in mind that that law enforcement isn’t as objective as we would like to think, take time to consider… What if that had been me? What if I had dated someone in college who turned out to be dealing drugs out of their dorm room? (I use this illustration because those of us who went to college know that a lot of drugs pass through dorm rooms - a fact which no one seems to question or be willing to criminalize.) What if I were in bed late at night and someone broke down my front door and came into my home? If I had a gun (in California we have an aversion to guns, but Kentucky is different), would I shoot? If I shot in what I believed to be self-defense, should the person who came in be allowed to kill me even if that person turned out to be law enforcement?
Hopefully, this exercise can help us see how even if the actions of the officers were technically within the scope of the law, the result of their actions was unjust. By putting ourselves into the narrative we can begin to see how those two things can diverge.