When I was about 15, I was called “privileged” on a social media platform by numerous people because of a petty internet argument. My obvious reaction was to lash out and give the whole “I grew up in a mobile home, I've never had to not worry about money, and you have no foundation to call me privileged” shpiel. This isn’t an unlikely phenomenon, as the accusation of privilege tends to offend many who have not always lived the easiest, most privileged life.
If you’re a white person in America, chances are you’ve been called “privileged” at some point in your life. And if you’re like me, you’ve been offended by this comment. After all, when we think of privileged white kids, we probably think of white picket fences and huge brick houses, maybe a cleaning lady and a nanny dressing the children in expensive clothing paid for by the fortunes of their parents. We think of people who have never had to worry about money, or people who grew up in gated communities. Of course, all of these things do not apply to all white people, creating the idea that when we are called “privileged,” that person is stereotyping us simply because we are white. But recently, the words “white privilege” have taken on a whole new meaning to me. I look back on all of the times I’ve been called privileged and I start to realize that they were right all along. The term "privilege" in regards to race has a lot more to do with civil freedoms and the treatment of society than it does wealth or ease of living. Simply by being a white person in America, we unfairly receive liberties that not every U.S. citizen does. Our taking offense to this comment only furthers the gap of inequality that leads to our privilege. Our denying this privilege only perpetuates the race war plaguing our nation currently. It’s time to unpack our privilege.
We can start by addressing (and ending) #AllLivesMatter.
All lives matter. Nobody can argue with that. Every single individual life form has matter, and matters.
The issue with these three words is that those who utter them do not take into account that not all lives are treated like they matter in today’s society. The chanting of these three words, “All lives matter,” comes solely from the defensive nature of those in a position of privilege. As a white person, who has never been discriminated against because of my skin color, but who also does not discriminate against those of another skin color, it is easy to feel offended by accusations that all white people oppress other races. But as the majority of the U.S. population is, and has always been, white, it is ignorant to assume that we are not the ones with privilege. It is ignorant to defend your privilege by undermining the injustices that those without your privilege endure. At the end of the day, I, as a white female, have privilege. This is not to say that I am a snobby privileged white girl, but rather that I am born into my privilege and therefore experience less hatred associated with the color of my skin. We can’t dig our way out of privilege. We can’t refuse our privilege, because it is blatant for all of society to see that we are white. We can’t deny that we have privilege, because we experience instances of this privilege every day we live. At the end of the day we are privileged, because we can easily have a positive relationship with police, because we learn about our own race in middle and high school history, because we are represented by the media more than any other race, because we can leave our houses during times of distress over race in America without feeling unsafe. Most of all, we have the privilege to ignore the fact that we have privilege. But when we come face to face with it, there is no way to deny that we are privileged. There is, however, a way to use this privilege to acknowledge those without. But right now, many people are doing the exact opposite.
By chanting “All Lives Matter,” you are essentially telling the world that white lives have always mattered to this country as much as black lives (which is an obvious lie, dating all the way back to when our country was founded) and then trying to convince the world that we will always matter as much as black lives, which is an ignorant continuation of this lie meaning that we plan to change absolutely nothing about the way we see race and privilege. This is an issue, because obviously something needs to change.
One reason people use to validate their lack of white privilege is the fact that police enforcement has killed more white people per year than black people. However, “white people” are the majority in America, making most other races a minority. And when an alarming number of members of a specific minority are being killed by police officers, the percentage of that minority which has been killed by police enforcement increases much more quickly. So sure, there are many white people shot by cops every year, more than there are black individuals. But since the majority of people in America are white, we shouldn’t be surprised that more white people are killed. Some sort of ratio must be considered to make any valid point. So I’m going to give you an elementary school math analogy.
You have a pile of 100 M&M’s, and your friend has a pile of 25. Another friend wants some M&M’s, and so she takes 30 from your pile of 100 and 20 from the pile of 25 (because she has to leave the other friend with something, at least). You are left with 70 M&M’s, and your friend is left with only 5. Insisting that #AllLivesMatter because more white people are killed each year by police than black people is the equivalent of complaining that your friend took 10 more M&M’s out of your pile than your friend’s, and then asking your friend to feel bad and give you 5 of her M&M’s to make it even. But you still have 70 M&M’s. Your friend made a much larger and more noticeable dent in the other pile of M&M’s than yours. They only took 10 more of yours than the other pile, but the other pile is still much more affected; in fact, it’s not even a pile anymore, but a sad looking gathering of 5 M&M’s. If this is unfair to anyone, it’s your friend: not you. And everyone thinks you look childish whining about it instead of just eating your damn 70 M&M’s.
This analogy and phenomenon is applicable in many other cases. For instance, there are more cis-gendered people than transgendered people killed each year because of hate crimes. After all, the large majority of people in America would consider themselves cis-gendered. However, a large population of hate crimes each year is committed against trans-gendered people. We would never discredit the discrimination against transgendered people by saying that more cis-gendered people are killed each year due to hate crimes, because we know how ridiculous that sounds. The LGBT community is more affected by their members being killed because their community is much smaller, and therefore the impact is much larger.
White Americans contribute to about 62 percent of the U.S. population. White Americans also contribute to 49 percent of U.S. citizens killed by police officers. However, African Americans contribute to about 13 percent of the U.S. population and 24 percent of U.S. citizens that are shot and killed by police officers. According to data collected by the Washington Post, this means that black Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be shot and killed by police officers than are white Americans. You can’t just take raw numbers and assume that they will prove away your privilege.
However, if we want to talk equal numbers, the number of unarmed white people shot by police officers is equal to the number of unarmed black people shot by police officers. But since there is about five times as many white people in America than black people, unarmed black Americans are five times more likely to be shot and killed by police officers. That’s math anyone can do. Get out your calculator before taking numbers, or anything for that matter, at face value.
Here’s the thing about those who deny white privilege: they don’t always realize they are doing it. Their denial often comes from white guilt. They will claim that they can’t help their privilege, because they were born into it. This is true; there’s no way around it and the fact that you are privileged is not your fault, but instead the fault of the society into which you were born. It only becomes your fault when you refuse to acknowledge the benefits that you receive because of your skin color. It is your fault if you are ignorant toward your inevitable privilege.
There will likely never be a day in our lifetime that white people do not experience some form of white privilege, especially if we continue to deny the fact that we have it. If we keep comparing our plights to those of black people in America, as if our struggles are equal and of the same magnitude, we will never be able to see and bridge the gap between white privilege and minority injustice. We need to stop complaining that they took more M&M’s from our pile, and instead offer some of ours to the smaller pile so that we can all eat our M&M’s happily and equally. By denying our privilege in order to defend ourselves from accusations of hatred and to avoid feelings of guilt, we are only taking more away from those without the same privilege.
My hope for you is that you embrace intersectionality and take a more nuanced view of your privilege. If you are a woman, you know discrimination. If you are a member of the LGBT community, you know discrimination. If you are physically handicapped, you know discrimination. But despite all that, if you are white, you know privilege. You know privilege the same way men, straight people, and completely able-bodied people know privilege. Instead of using this privilege to blissfully ignore the fact that you possess it, use it to raise awareness of the fact that it exists. Call out your racist friends, because temporarily hurting the feelings of those with privilege is worth giving them a lesson in equality. Explain why, though #AllLivesMatter might sound like it makes sense, it actually widens the gap between the races we are trying to unite. And lastly, pay attention to all the areas in which you experience privilege because of your skin color, and instead of feeling guilt, let it drive you to make a difference.
I am white, and I do not feel guilt due to my whiteness. However, I am privileged, and I do feel a civil duty to maintain awareness of that. The first step to making a change is unpacking your privilege.