Explaining White Privilege

Every time we have bad weather and there is a chance that we might experience a tornado, I ask The Cuban the same question while watching the news report on dangerous areas: “What’s the difference between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning again?” Then, he explains it to me, I nod my head because, yeah, I forgot and now that makes sense. The problem is that I do it every single time. For the life of me, it just doesn’t stick in my head. Tornado season for us in the Midwest where we live starts in March and goes until it warms up enough for the threat to lessen. It makes sense for me to be able to differentiate so that I don’t run to the basement and grab the radio on the way down. In the off chance that you’re as dense as I am on the issue, let me clear it up: a Tornado Watch means that conditions are favorable for a tornado to occur. There’s large hail, damaging winds, and a tornado is possible. A Tornado Warning means that it’s touched the ground and there’s a tornado happening right now. (Now that I’ve written that all down, maybe I can remember it. We’ll see come next March.)


I bring up the issue of something that always confuses me because I’ve been participating in a lot of conversations about what White Privilege is. There are three categories of conversations I’m having:

1. What is it anyway? What does White Privilege look like?

2. There’s no such thing. Stop lying.

3. White Privilege is a horrible thing and we need to own it because it happens.

Let’s be honest: when I see version #2 happening I back out when there’s no hope of actually having a discussion of it. But versions #1 and #3 are where all the great discussion is happening anyway and it leads to discussion of Civil Rights laws and the meritocracy mythology and what’s it’s like to live in the skin of a Black or Brown person in the United States. More than anything, I’ve been referring back to and sharing the article (written first as a Facebook post) by the drummer of The Roots, Questlove. What he presents in his essay is a great picture of how fear manifests itself in racism and the hurt that follows such encounters. It also proves, to some newly informed and aware of American racism, that many people experience America differently and the worlds in which they live haven’t collided this hard since I can remember.

White Privilege works like that and very much resembles a destructive tornado. It comes out of nowhere when there appears to be safe blue skies right beforehand. It means you have to take cover and protect yourself. It shows us how some people take shelter while others run right out to find it. It’s not helpful to simply make an analogous parallel, so I’m going to give three things that are not helpful in the conversation assuming you want to have one about White Privilege.

1. Stop saying you’re colorblind. If anything, this video about the controversy surrounding the Cheerios commercial that shows how kids reacted when learning there was a controversy has been helpful in aiding the discussion. Here’s the thing: no, you’re not colorblind. Plus, people of color are fine with you seeing that color. There are some physical differences and that’s never more apparent when I’m with someone pointing out a person in a crowd to me who uses color as a qualifier. If it’s a White Person they might say, “The guy in the striped blue-and-white shirt and cargo shorts.” but if it’s a Black Person I usually hear, “There. The Black lady over there.” Personally, the best place to see this in action for me is in the drugstore aisle. There are “natural” shades that White women can easily access, but colors that fit my skin tone are harder to come by and sometimes entirely absent. When you look at bandages sold in the store do you never stop to consider that “flesh-colored” only fits one group of people?

2. Discussing White Privilege based on the meritocracy system. Many people who are successful in their career or who have attained a degree or even live in a gorgeous house will tell you that they worked hard to get what they have. That’s fine, and I’m not denying that at all. However, when a system has been put in place with legislation and laws and bias we have to give that credit, too. Two things have happened in the United States that lead us here and they are de jure segregation and de facto segregation. The first kind, de jure segregation was sanctioned by laws that kept segregation alive in housing and education issues like Brown v. Board of Education. It took the Supreme Court to strike these unfair laws down. De facto segregation means “in fact” and is the practice of following the letter of the law but not the spirit. Charging some people more money for services, refusing access to things like grocery stores or health services by virtue of making them far away from certain neighborhoods, and things like redlining (discriminatory practices of mortgage discrimination) are often discussed as things that happen as “fact” because many people and corporations still do it. If practices are put in place, whether lawful or not, they prevent people from getting careers, obtaining degrees, or living where they want. So what you have may have been worked hard for, but not everyone even had the chance to start working for it. Meritocracy is a myth we’ve been sold that prevents us from having the deeper conversations that lead to the historical events that brought us here. Know your history or repeat it, right?

3. Making everything a comparison. Just because you don’t see White Privilege doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Discussing things in terms of what Black Americans have GAINED over the time that they’ve been in this country (which began as a kidnapping) and pointing to all the successful examples of Black people doesn’t negate that it’s been a struggle to get where we are. Pointing out to someone that your Black neighbor went to college on a scholarship and is now a medical doctor even though you only went to a state school to become an office manager isn’t the answer to all of these problems. Taking one situation with which you’re familiar and using it as the measuring stick for all the rest of them just shows how basic your understanding is of the issues of White Privilege as a whole.

Until we see White Privilege as a real and true thing then we’re living in a world full of Tornado Watches. Conditions are favorable, but we all can’t see the twister from where we are. A White Privilege Tornado Watch means “it’s happening somewhere, but I can’t see it, so I’m safe”. The problem with living like that is that there’s a large portion of the population living in Tornado Warnings where it’s happening and NOW and it’s dangerous.

Photo credit to Vincent Villamón
Read more from Kelly at her personal blog, Mocha Momma Untold Stories Are Sometimes Secrets

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