White privilege can be a concept that, as sociologically valid as it clearly is, is very vague. It’s called an “invisible knapsack” for a reason: People with white (and male and heterosexual and American and…) privilege don’t notice it, but its effects can be perceived. Another analogy I’ve heard from Scott Meyer of Basic Instructions (regarding luck more than privilege but still in the context of class privilege) is that it’s like a big ugly mustache: The people who have it can see it, and the people who don’t can’t see anything else past it. The knapsack is not so invisible to others.
So let me offer an example.
As I’m starting to engage in activism and writing, speaking and interacting with others, I am of course encountering barriers. Everyone does. Some people disagree, some people are too angry to listen, and there’s simply the wall of apathy that has to be surpassed.
My own writing style tends to be conversational. I like to include slang, I like to sometimes include expletives, I reference movies and video games. I’ve found this approach makes the writing more personable and engaging.
Now, let’s say I was black.
Would I have a reasonable expectation that people would tolerate me as I developed my erudition?
Would I have a reasonable expectation that I would not be mocked for my usage of slang?
For white people to pay attention to people of color, they often must hear the message from truly great orators: Dr. King, Barack Obama, etc.
Tim Wise has pointed out that very few people, white or black, are like Obama. Whether you agree or disagree with his politics (and I happen to criticize Obama from a left perspective), he is clearly an incredibly intelligent, erudite, confident individual. And while George W. Bush may have come across as a simpleton and was simply not a very good orator, in interpersonal dynamics he demonstrated that he was quite charming and witty. Most people who survive the gauntlet of being elected President are fairly special people. They’re certainly not the median.
How much more would I have to censor myself, censor the references I make, if I were black?
It’d be an additional barrier to my success and to me doing the work I am passionate about. And it might also be such a barrier if I was a woman, too. I’d constantly have to make sure I was precisely navigating that line between assertiveness and calm, such that I came off neither as a doormat nor a bitch.
Now, let’s say that white me has a 30% chance of facing a challenge so serious it makes me give up or delay my work.
Would black me, or woman me, have a 40% chance? A 50% chance?
I don’t know.
But what I do know is that the probability would be higher.
This is not a reason for me to be ashamed. It’s not a reason for me to doubt the hard work that I, or anyone else, put in. But it is a reason for empathy, which is the theme of Radical Empathy, a book I am working on.
Maybe the best example I’ve heard is an example from White Like Me.
Tim refers to a very hard-working, self-made businessman. This guy really did embody the Horatio Alger dream; he really did work from almost nothing.
And there was a point where this man was accused of rape in the South.
Now, while this man did of course endure some serious risks and threats as a result, if he were a black man he may have been dead or beaten to within an inch of his life.
So what I take this privilege idea as is a reason for me to work that much harder. I face less barriers, so I should be working harder to compensate.
And I recognize, when I interact with others, that they may not have had the advantages I have had, and so I try to cut them some slack. And that’s true if they are black, or struggled with depression or trauma, or if they just drew a short straw in the genetic lottery and got an illness.
I think we all can do the same, no matter our privileges.