I finally understand what white privilege is, after not understanding for a long time. I always justified it by saying, to my wife, mostly, that I had no control of my skin color at birth and so how could I be privileged when compared to a black person. On the other hand, do I have to think about my skin color and how society will respond to it when I leave the house? Other than have to put sunblock on my very light white skin, I did not have to think about my skin color when in society or how people will respond to it. That, in a few words, is white privilege. It doesn’t make me a racist but it does make me much more aware of how a black person feels when he or she leaves his or her house in America. Whether it be the police, the grocery store, the bank, the gym, a school, or even a sporting event blacks know they will often be judged by the color of their skin and not their character or personality or achievements. Whites may not have an easy life financially, emotionally, or physically, but, other than sunblock, they do not have to worry about their skin color and how people will react to them because of it. That is white privilege.
And that is not acceptable in a multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, democratic, supposedly free, society. The plaque on the Statue of Liberty invites all to our shores. We have and do represent a hope for the downtrodden and dispossessed of the world. We offer to all, as the Declaration of Independence says, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. There are no conditions or footnotes attached to Jefferson’s words.
Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan is a euphemism for making America White and Christian again…and have all others “go back to where they came from.” It’s a dangerous and heartless message that reeks of intolerance, division, and hatred. It represents values that are un-American. And white privilege tacitly supports this message, along with racism itself. Trump has extended this support via a big welcome sign to white supremacists who have honed their racist views to a sharp edge. Like Trump, their aggression seems spawned by fear and paranoia of some image of minorities taking some aspect of life away from them.
Such an attitude has been around in the U.S. for a long, long time. Along with African slaves, there were Native Americans, “redskins”, who were considered less than human beings and a threat to the well being of whites. In the process of stealing their ancestral lands, they were subjugated, harassed, bullied, herded, attacked, and vilified. They were cursed, hunted, hung, tortured, and murdered. They were driven from their lands, rounded up and put on reservations, deceived by phony treaties, starved, drugged, and dragged into submission. But they resisted until they were disarmed, demoralized, and subdued and left to their own devices. Africans were shipped en masse to work the plantations of the South, providing slave labor, and big profits, for rich landowners and farmers. The first slave ships arrived in 1619 at the British colony of Virginia. Men, women and children were sold right off the ship, displayed and inspected as each person was goods in an outdoor market. If they resisted, they were whipped until they complied. They were literally beaten into submission, and were systematically removed from their families and communities, once a source of security and protection and love. They were not considered full human beings when compared to Caucasians. They were assumed of lower intelligence and undeserving of an education.
This lasted officially until 1863 when Lincoln freed all slaves from captivity. The Civil War was still raging so the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t take full effect until the South’s surrender in 1865 and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was enacted. But in many operational ways we are still fighting that War, for black Americans are still stigmatized by the majority of our population. As 14 year old African American Aiden Sykes told his devoted father Albert in Jackson, Mississippi recently, “Being black is one of the best things and one of the most beautiful things you could ever be,” Aidan said, “but it’s like you always have a target on your back.” And that target is defined not by the content of Aiden’s character but by the color of his skin, as it was in the days of slavery.
A white person, a Jewish person, a Moslem, even an Asian (although these days that’s gotten harder with Trump’s stigmatizing blaming actions), does not have the same burden. You can sometimes identify a Jew by a last name or a Moslem by a head covering or an Asian or Native American by their unique facial characteristics, but none of those are as readily identifiable as a black person whether they be born in America or Nigeria or wherever. And in America, no other minority besides blacks had had whiplashes on their backs and were branded less than human even in the original Constitution.
A white person, a Jew, a Moslem, an atheist, even a white ex-convict can walk out of his or her house to run an errand to the market and not give their skin color a single thought, not a single thread of fear that they could be attacked or arrested or cursed because of their skin color during that innocent trip. That is White Privilege. They could apply to a job or an apartment or to a country club or to a fraternal organization and know that their skin color will not be a factor in their acceptance or denial. That is White Privilege. They can walk into a bank or retail store or a federal office building and not have to give one iota of thought about how someone might react to the color of their skin and treat them accordingly. That is White Privilege. A black friend of my wife’s told her that when he goes into a convenience store he never feels comfortable browsing around too long as he might be suspected of stealing something so he often buys something small to avert suspicion. Whites don’t have such thoughts. And that is White Privilege.
A black person, on the other hand, must always think about the color of their skin and how society will react to it in America. So their pursuit of happiness, security, and opportunity is limited. Whether subtlely or overtly, they are discriminated against and denied the right to be treated and regarded as any other person in our society. That’s what our country promises all our residents.
So, what can we do to counteract white privilege, and reverse the harm it does to our society in perpetuating racism? I believe the keyword in kindness. No law can reverse white privilege. No request can reverse it. No proclamation can reverse it. No admonition can reverse it. Not even more education can reverse it. It is systemic in our society. But through kindness, one can see another as they would like themselves to be seen. Yes, a variation of the Golden Rule, the greatest of all social/emotional equalizers that has been around since the time humans started to reason and think things through. It’s been around since humans started to care for one another instead of exploit and be susupicious of each other. I don’t know when that started exactly but we saw it when the Samaritan stopped to help another. We saw it when Jesus challenged those without sin to throw the first stone at a prostitute. We see it when animals are rescued from abuse and neglect. We see it in the Jewish Talmud which says that to help one person is to help the whole world. I’ve seen it in Brazil where blacks and whites walk down the street arm in arm. I’ve seen it on the streets of America where a man takes a homeless veteran into a restaurant, buys him lunch and sits and chats with him as they both eat.
Kindness, even more so than love, conquers all. Love is too loaded with innuendo and nuance in this country to be useful in overcoming white privilege. Only kindness, from the heart, without the head, without the intellect, without pity, without the condescending element of doing good, without mercy, without piety, without religion, without sanctimoniousness, without effrontery, without ostentatiousness, without pride, without reciprocity, without narcissism, without deception, without self-absorption, without ambition, without self-aggrandizement, without regret, without self-consciousness, without motive, will break the chains of White Privilege and set our country–all of our country and its peoples–free.
Well said my brother. Well said. One thing I do know is that you have always exhibited that kindness. If there were more of you in this world it would be a better place. Keep writing and stay well. I love you.
Stephen Altschuler says
Appreciate that, Hank…alot. Just happy I’ve got a few marbles left to put some thoughts together on some important issues.
Love you, dear Brother.
Steve, love to have a conversation about white privilege. It’s not about skin color per se. that is just a shorthand way of identify a much deeper complexity. It’s also about the world one is a born into. Yes, many caucasians see a negro as inferior. But many Asians see caucasians as inferior. And many negroes see Caucasian’s as inferior. But that does not relegate the Caucasian to a lower place in society unless one is in an Asian or negro dominated society. White privilege is at least partially – and in my view predominantly – about control that comes with dominating a society. Control of wealth, of politics, of society in general. I have friends who are “black” and we sometimes talk about white privilege and how it has affected them. To the person it’s about access.
But keep writing Steve. You write well and have many insights that are worth sharing.
I hope you and Ruth are well.
Stephen Altschuler says
Right. Let’s talk more about it, Buzzy. I understand your point culturally, i.e. the world one is born into. But my piece here relates only to the U.S. and how racism and white privilege developed here. Though skin color is primary, whites have put additional overlays onto African Americans such as intelligence, poverty, propensity to commit crimes, etc. But I do think skin color is primary. When a white person in this country walks down a street at night and sees a black man approaching, the emotion is mostly fear. He is responding to skin color in a conditioned way based on hundreds of years of indoctrination. In other cultures, it is as you say. In Africa, there may be black privilege. In Mexico, brown privilege, etc. But my focus is the U.S., with its unique history around black people.
Thanks for commenting, Cousin. Ruth and I are doing well as Washington gradually opens up. We celebrated our anniversary last night at our favorite sit-down restaurant for the first time since the shutdown started!