White privilege is a term that has been around for quite a while but current events have brought it roaring back. White privilege means that white people, either directly or indirectly, have benefitted from the systematic minimization of black people and other minorities. Whites in this country have the freedom to move around, buy things, work, play and speak freely (even argumentatively) without fear of retribution that black people do not enjoy. Just like the coronavirus, cancer, or heart disease, white privilege can’t easily be seen, but it is there.
You may say that, “No, I have not done that. I have nothing against minorities.” But I say that if you simply go on with your tidy life and pity those “other” people because you think you are smarter or have worked harder than them to reach your middle-class place in society, then you should think again.
Consider this: Do you look back fondly on your childhood? Did your school seem to have everything it needed? Did you have the opportunity to go to college if you wanted whether you followed that path or not? Did you have some help from friends or family to land that first job? Did the ability to go to college or trade school lead to that first job? Did you have help qualifying for that mortgage you needed to buy your first home? Did a policeman give you a break on that stupid thing you did as a teenager? If you get pulled over for speeding, do you feel confident nothing bad will happen?
If you answered yes to most of these, or even just some of these, then you are the beneficiary of white privilege. How do I know? Because most black people cannot answer yes to any of these questions. And because they can’t, it weighs down their lives in ways whites can’t begin to imagine. One black friend told me it’s like pulling along a 10-pound weight everywhere you go with no chance of getting rid of it.
Growing up in rural western Maryland, I didn’t get to know many black people until I began my career in publishing and associations in the early 80’s. I’ve mostly worked in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. areas (60 percent and 50 percent black respectively). Plus, I’ve also spent a considerable amount of time in most major U.S. cities. Because of my work situation, I got to know many black people. In fact, as I think about it, I’ve worked side by side with many more black people than whites over the years.
After a steep learning curve, I can say without hesitation that my black work colleagues turned out to be some of my favorites. They had the same work concerns as you or I. The same desire to do well and make a solid contribution. One thing they had that I didn’t have was the deeply ingrained need to always be “on.” They couldn’t afford to coast during a meeting or turn work in late. No, that would be professional suicide and only the whites could get away with that. I shake my head now because I remember not being prepared for some meetings and turning work in late. Nothing bad ever happened to me, and more importantly, I never had to worry that something bad would happen to me. That peace of mind at work is white privilege.
My black colleagues had many personal concerns that I was not privy to. More than once I overheard their anguished complaints over the safety of their children, the lack of resources in their schools, the lack of jobs for their friends, not feeling safe when taking a walk in their own neighborhood or driving while black in the wrong neighborhood. Things I take for granted. It’s easy to blow this off as exaggeration, but as I grew to learn, they were not exaggerating. Even so, they considered themselves the lucky ones. Their neighbor, with just as much talent as them, couldn’t find a decent job or get their kids into a better school. None of them wanted a hand out or even a hand up as the saying goes. They simply wanted white folks to just give them a chance. That is white privilege, too — the lack of undue personal obstacles in your way.
I learned this lesson, but it bothers me that many can’t or won’t. Those that remain sheltered in their overwhelmingly white communities will never be able to learn this first-hand. They’ll have to work harder to educate themselves, but I don’t see a lot of evidence of that. You have to understand the concept of white privilege before you can begin to understand Black Lives Matter.