Saturday, February 21, 2015

Let’s Talk About White Privilege or Un-earned Social Advantage

People are so offended when the word privilege is used, like I just accused them of holding their pinky finger in the air while they sip tea on the veranda. Put your pinky back down, it’s not like that.

By: Joel Gardner
Executive Director - Whitewashed USA

So to be a little more reader friendly, I will use the term “un-earned social advantage”. Most of the time when someone takes offense to being called privileged, they provide a list of hardships they and their family have been through, along with a list of all the sacrifices they have made, and hard work they have done to get what they have. Everyone can give these examples and should be congratulated, good job! But that’s not the privilege we are talking about. Before we get to the racial part, let me give you an example of the kind of advantage I mean: If I go to college, work hard, get a degree and apply for a job, I will have an earned social advantage over other people that have not put in the same effort and don’t have the same qualifications. Earned advantage is a privilege you get for working hard, and playing the game of life well. But let’s say that a woman with a similar background does the same thing I did, gets the same degree and applies for the same job. Because of the way our society works, I am twice as likely to get that job, even with identical qualifications*. Going a step further - if we both got that same job, I would likely get a %22 higher salary**, not because I was smarter or had a better degree, but just because I happen to be male. This is an un-earned social advantage that men have over women in our culture. It’s a privilege I have, before I even walk in the door.

Of course this example is just one tiny sliver of how our social system advantages men. But think about it –an employment system that was designed primarily by men, would be designed to help men be successful. Not because men hate women or because men are bad, but because we as humans are all naturally bias towards ourselves and others like us. This is because if someone is like you, it is easier to empathize with and relate to their needs. It’s also inevitable that a system you build, will be designed to help your kids succeed, because they are also like you. This is why social systems like our system of employment, which was designed by men like me, will be designed to help me succeed. This is un-earned social advantage; this is also called male privilege.

This is where race and racism come into the conversation, social systems that disadvantage people based on race were not designed by racists for the most part, they were designed to meet the needs of the people who designed them. We happen to live in a country where the social systems were designed by the white, straight, male, Christian, able bodied majority, so if you happen to have been dealt one or more of those cards, congratulations! You won the social lottery and there are thousands of tiny little advantages you have before you even walk in the door.

"Social systems that disadvantage people based on race were not designed by racists for the most part, they were designed to meet the needs of the people who designed them."

Of course every action creates an equal and opposite reaction to balance things out, and no system can create advantage without creating disadvantage at the same time. If you happen to be born with darker skin those thousands of little advantages are now un-earned disadvantages, only it’s different than male female bias. Men didn’t start off the historical relationship hating women, but unfortunately in this country white people started their history here by de-humanizing, owning, beating, working, and breeding black folks for financial gain. When that system was finally outlawed in 1863, white folks were so terrified that the black folks would rise up and start some kind of slavery revenge, that they carefully crafted laws and social systems that would keep black folks from gaining power through social advantages.

Some of these systems have slowly been reformed over the last 150 years, but there are still plenty of things that are just not right, and not right always leads to resentment and anger. Black folks are angry because they have born the burden of living under social systems that were not design by or for them for hundreds of years, and even though there have been vast improvements, they are not fixed yet.

If you happen to have lighter skin, here are just a few of the great bonus features you get from our society for free!

If you are white you can:
  1. Move into any nice neighborhood and not have to worry that you might be harassed because of your skin color.
  2. Go to the store and easily find a Band-aid that resembles your skin tone.
  3. Go shopping anytime and not have to worry about being followed or watched carefully by employees.
  4. Go to a history class and learn about people who look like you doing positive things to help humanity.
  5. Spend most of your time in the company of people from your race, even at work or school if you choose to.
  6. Turn on any media and see people of your race widely represented.
  7. Know that your children will be educated about the history of their race in a positive way in school.
  8. Go to the bank or write a check knowing that your skin color will not be counted against you financially.
  9. Never be asked to speak on behalf of all the people in your racial group.
  10. Remain oblivious to the language and customs of people of color around you without fearing social penalties.
  11. Criticize your government without being thought of as a terrorist or un-American.
  12. Ask for the person in charge and probably face someone of your own race.
  13. Be late for an appointment and be certain it will not reflect on your entire race.
  14. Ask for help from a police officer without fearing that your race might make it a negative or even dangerous interaction.
  15. Feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of life.
Now that I've pointed out a small sampling of daily advantages that people of color don’t get to experience, hopefully you too will begin to recognize the amount of un-earned social disadvantage that people of color do experience daily. To sit back and say it's not my problem is not only apathetic to others, but also no longer an acceptable option. You can help, by becoming more in tune with, and developing an awareness of how others experience the world. Question: If you had the ability to create changes that could repair and heal some of the damage our social structures have caused within minority communities, would you?

Minority communities, especially Blacks whose family introduction to this country was being pulled from those families one by one and sold on an auction block, have never experienced our society collectively reaching out in a loving manner to mend those injuries. One of the reasons I believe we've neglected to reach out, is that same fear of some sort of slavery revenge that generations of Americans have felt before. Isn't it time for us, the collective majority to let go of fear, step out, and step up? Fear is paralyzing, and I am ready to live life fully as a human family without dragging around those kinds of restrictions. No guilt needed, no apologies, just mind your privilege, run towards change, be brave, and open your mouth when you know a situation is just not OK. I believe in the saying "if they knew better, they'd do better". We do know better, we can do better! Right?

Additional reading - White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack – By Peggy McIntosh