No one likes to accept or talk about the reality of racism that exists in the United States today. Many find it especially uncomfortable to acknowledge the existence of white privilege. This concept is brushed off by those who believe that it is a form of reverse racism practiced by people of color, as though we seek revenge for the years of oppressive racism practiced by white people. However, for the millions of people of color living in the United States, white privilege is just the modern version of racism, riding the coattails of Jim Crow and segregation laws.
The best way to combat an issue like racism is to open a dialogue between the oppressed and the oppressors. However, one of the most common responses to a person of color telling a white person to “check their privilege” are the inaccurate claims that this person of color is being racist, that the white person is the victim of reverse racism, or that everyone is equal and this whole issue of white privilege is just something made up by radicals to divide people even further. These sort of statements only engender hurt feelings on both sides. On the one hand, you have people of color who have been systematically oppressed and delegated as second-class citizens for the majority of their history in the United States. In the grand scheme of the nation’s history, the Civil Rights act was passed very recently; to a large extent, systematic racism still exists in this country. On the other hand, you have white people -- the oppressors of everyone else in the United States -- who still deny that they have done anything wrong, and today, won’t recognize that their 200-odd years of being the dominant group of people has given them quite a lot of benefits, socially, politically, and economically.
Let’s break this down. The definition of racism (according to the Random House Dictionary) is “a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.” I am a person of color who lives in the United States, so I would be part of the oppressed group. Therefore, I cannot be racist against white people in America. I do not benefit at all from the social and political systems in the U.S.; if anything, I have a disadvantage by being of Indian descent (as opposed to being of European descent).
White privilege is defined by Mount Holyoke College as "a set of advantages and/or immunities that white people benefit from on a daily basis beyond those common to all others." It's having the ability to be seen as the norm in the United States, and having people of color be seen as "other."
Keeping these definitions in mind, not recognizing one's white privilege must be seen as a serious issue that affects everyone in the country. Whether or not you are actively racist against people of color, you (as a white person) have an advantage over people of color, from the minute you are born. These advantages are the products of a racist system which has always favored white people over people of color. So when someone is talking about privilege, they’re talking about the unrecognized benefits of living in a society where the system has always favored you, and is just now beginning to recognize the validity of the lives of people who are not white.
White privilege is when white people aged 18-25 using marijuana more than black people of the same age group in a single year are arrested for possession less often than their black counterparts.
White privilege is also never having to explain where you’re from. Like, really from. It’s assumed that you celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter in the American (and Christian) sense. It’s being seen as a normal person in society, a majority. If we’re being honest, it’s being able to appropriate other cultures, whether that be a Native American headdress, dreadlocks, bindis, henna, or kimonos, without any repercussions or fallout. White privilege is going through life without really being punished as harshly as others for your mistakes.
Sure, one could argue (however invalidly) that in some ways, people of color have a kind of privilege. Affirmative action, for example, meant that colleges and universities that were not too racially diverse had to have a quota for people of color, specifically Black and Latino people. This has led to many a white person feeling like they’re being cheated out of a spot at a university just because of their skin color. This is not privilege, however. This is people of color finally being given equal opportunities as their white peers. If private institutions had more equal admissions policies in the 1970s and 1980s, they would not have been forced to set aside seats in each class for people of color.
So what can you do if someone tells you to check your privilege, or even brings up white privilege in conversation? Listen. As a white person, you cannot comment on the experiences of people of color, especially those regarding race. It makes the most sense that those who have been the victims of the racist attitudes in our society are the ones who should initiate the education and dialogue about fixing said attitudes. For centuries, white people have systematically oppressed people of color and forced them to be second-class citizens. Checking your white privilege and understanding how being white has given you unseen advantages throughout your life is the best way to understand what people of color are talking about when we say we want to begin the end of racism.
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