It’s Not “White Privilege;” it’s Black Disenfranchisement

The phrase “white privilege” can embody a few different concepts, depending on who you ask. White Americans who grew up poor and worked their way into a successful business weren’t “privileged;” they started with nothing and worked hard to succeed.

White Americans who trust their police force haven’t been given special “privileges” for doing so, but it’s also dismissive and short-sighted to stop there and adhere so strongly to what the “definition” is that we lose sight of the “meat” of the problem. The word “privileged” suggests special, positive treatment (which can happen too, but which is certainly not inherent in having white skin). Privilege levels are also debatable based on one’s perceptions, biases, and world outlook. Instead, more precisely speaking:

It’s not “privilege” not to be killed for using a fake $20 bill. It’s normal.

It’s not “privilege” not to live in fear walking down the street. It’s normal.

It’s not “privilege” not needing to teach your kids about racism. It’s normal.

It’s not “privilege” not to be arrested or jailed for doing nothing wrong. It’s normal.

It’s not “privilege” that people don’t call the cops on you for talking to them. It’s normal.

It’s not “privilege” to have an opportunity to defend yourself when you’re accused of criminal activity; it’s normal.

It’s not “privilege” to have the opportunity to work hard and succeed for it. It’s normal.

It’s not “privilege” that people aren’t afraid of the way your skin looks. It’s normal.

It’s not “privilege” that you’re invited to a job interview because your name is “Bill Smith” which white Americans view as a strong, hard-working name. It’s normal.

It’s not “privilege” that you don’t have to wonder or worry about whether the reason you didn’t get a job or an interview may have been because of your name or your race. It’s normal.

I don’t know who coined the phrase “white privilege,” but I can’t help but wonder whether it’s driven by the fact that black Americans’ realities are so regularly defined by the color of their skin, that they spend their lives handling these extra challenges and thus perceive it as “normal” of sorts.

It’s not that they don’t understand that their disadvantages are wrong or problematic, or “not normal,” but I can imagine we’ve all had situations where we re-enter a world of relief after having faced a major challenge, and then felt “lucky” for it, as if it were a privilege. I absolutely have.

For example, I used to work full time, attend graduate school full time (including an hour drive to school), volunteer in lead/majorly time consuming non-profit board leadership roles, and take care of family members who were sick. I felt so overwhelmed all the time and thought that it was the feeling that people have when they work hard. When that phase of my life passed (I moved, changed jobs, stopped going to school), I eventually just worked every day then came home to relax. I felt so lucky to have so much free time on my hands, and had to remind myself that that’s what most people do all the time — that I didn’t have to feel guilty about not being productive enough a when I relax after work. I had truly not experienced the feeling of not being exceptionally busy at all times, in so many years that I had forgotten it. To be clear, the fact that all I had to do now was work 40-hour weeks and spend the rest of my time paying bills and doing chores — was such a relief to me that it felt like “privilege.”

As a second example, I also didn’t think it was wrong or problematic when I grew up with occasional bursts of severe, sharp, stabbing, paralyzing pain in my uterus. I thought that it’s just something that happens to women on occasion, as a result of menstruation. I eventually realized that I had a medical problem with ovarian cysts bursting, and since I’d lived struggling with a painful experience my whole adult/teenage life, I felt “privileged” thereafter to have the pain disappear after treating it with medication. I felt so lucky to be pain free, even though this is actually what life was supposed to feel like in the first place. Yet, I felt privileged for it.

To this day, I feel generally “privileged” to have a roof over my head, food, not to have cancer or major illnesses, not to live in a country where chemical bombs are dropped on me, and to have all my limbs, my vision, hearing, and to generally be healthy. However, these things are also normal. It’s actually more accurately gratitude that I feel — not a sense of privilege.

While my examples aren’t as severe as death by racism and police brutality, I hope it demonstrates a state of mind that people can have when facing a challenge for their entire lives, as if it’s normal, or an otherwise “normalized” way of life. For black Americans who are forced into normalizing the challenges that they face, it makes sense that they long for normalcy — or privilege — or gratitude — or whatever. Any of it.

The problem with black disadvantage is, no matter how hard African American men and women work, and no matter what they do to be successful or become “heard” or a truly valued part of society, they always face disadvantages that much more rarely exist for white Americans.

I’m not here trying to speak for African American sentiments because I am not black, but I perceive “privilege” as an easier way to communicate what it “just has to feel like” not being persistently disenfranchised throughout your entire life as well as the lives of your ancestors, and what will be the lives of your children. I’m hoping that my description of what white privilege means to me, can at least help others (namely white America) to look at “white privilege” in a way that’s both accurate, illustrative, and also not demoralizing or insulting to those to whom it’s addressed; it’s not meant to be.

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