I Am White, I Have Privilege, and I Can Acknowledge It


This article is about privilege, and yes, it is most certainly a commentary borne out of the last few days since George Zimmerman was found "not guilty" in the murder of Trayvon Martin.

But if you feel you (especially those who are white) are about to be attacked, I assure you that is not the case. Take a breath, grab a comfortable seat, and keep an open mind on what you're about to read.

For those unaware, "privilege" in a sociological context, describes the unearned benefit a person enjoys because of how the society in which they live is constructed and the biases that overall construction reflects.

It is important to note here that describing a person as "with privilege" is in no way an assessment of their "goodness" as a person. "Privilege" is not an indicator of a person’s value, but it is most certainly a fog that obscures one’s social and cultural outlook.

Take me for example: I am white, male, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied, tall, thin, blue-eyed, blonde of hair, and my accent, manner-of-speaking, and appearance are quite ordinary. I would blend in well in any country club or upscale private school.

None of these things make me a bad person, but all of these things make my life easier by themselves and when combined, most certainly improve my overall lot in life.

And although I only technically represent my own experience, I am confident that having all my privilege has helped me. From how I freely do ordinary things like shopping to how I interact with others without the sense I make them uncomfortable to not arousing police suspicion, I am constantly the beneficiary of white privilege.

What’s so hard is that privilege is a social and cultural blindness. It takes effort and practice to see how our own privilege benefits us while putting those without it at a disadvantage.

Having privilege doesn’t make someone a bad person but failing to acknowledge that privilege?when it is clearly highlighted to them?absolutely makes that person willfully ignorant.

And dismissing the concerns of those who are without privilege on the basis that they’re shrill or crazy or making excuses?also known as "gaslighting"?makes someone not only willfully ignorant but the very descriptors they vehemently detest: racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc.

As strange as this sounds, acknowledging my privilege has been liberating for me; it has made me a better person and better equipped to stand beside those who suffer prejudice, often in silence.

Of course, what many don’t tell you is that you will make mistakes. I still make mistakes from time to time, but since I’m aware of my privilege, I am able to stand back and see what those who are without privilege can see:

Despite whatever else happened that night, all other variables being the same, can you say with absolute certainty that I?with all my privilege?would have been followed (and reported to 911) by George Zimmerman? Would he have gotten out of his vehicle to do whatever he was doing in regards to me as he did in regards to Trayvon Martin?

Do you understand that white privilege can go beyond just the white community? That lighter-skinned members of a racial minority group have a history of demonstrating prejudice against darker-skinned members? That George Zimmerman, even being half-Latino, could exhibit white privilege in his reporting and pursuit of Trayvon Martin?

And this is important: Do you understand that this incident is only novel in its coverage, not in its frequency? That this happens, in various degrees, every day across the country, and that people of color, having gone through that lifetime pattern, cannot help but feel their personal, daily experiences with bigotry (re: white privilege) validates suspicion of racism in Zimmerman’s actions?

I'm not convinced racism wasn't at play when the sight of what appeared to be a hooded, 6’3 black man set off alarms in Zimmerman’s head during a fateful night in his all-too-enthusiastic tenure as a neighborhood watch person.

I'm not convinced racism wasn't at play when Zimmerman acted with astounding irresponsibility by getting out of his vehicle, let alone with a loaded handgun, regardless of whether or not it was concealed.

Maybe Zimmerman wasn't a vicious racist. Maybe?and I honestly have no idea on this?he voted for Obama or loved Oprah or Will Smith is his favorite actor or he has a black friend for whom he’d readily die. 

But do sentiments like these ever absolve someone on accusations of racism? I don't think so.

What is lost on so many, notably white Americans, is that you don’t have to demonstrate the obvious symptoms of racism to be a racist. We have set the bar so low for racial enlightenment, that merely refraining from saying the n-word in public or leaving your kids with a family of color when you go on a date with your spouse is enough to qualify as “not racist.”

We have become so obsessed with championing "color blindness" that we forgot that supposedly being "blind" to race doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I imagine myself in Zimmerman’s shoes and my acknowledgment of privilege whispering, "This guy is walking in plain sight towards those houses; what kind of thief does that? Am I suspicious because of his race? Should I maybe stay in my car and leave this to the police?"

How many innocent lives lost until we start talking?