The term “white privilege” has appeared frequently in our streets, news reports, and commentaries. If we are white, this term can make us feel angry or guilty – or some strange combination of the two.
This is especially true when we are told that white privilege is not simply prejudice, but rather something that is built into the social, political, and economic structures of our society.
We don’t like being called racist, since most of us white people really do not think or feel that we look down upon those of different cultures or skin colors. And we become puzzled by terms like “structural racism.” We just do not see this as true.
Ah, but that is just the point!
If I am painting my porch and wear my paint-stained, rumpled clothes when I go to the bank to get some extra cash to buy supper, the teller might joke about my appearance but will not judge me as a lesser person nor be apprehensive or fearful. This might not be the case if I were an African American or a person of Latin American heritage dressed the same way.
Think about it! My whiteness protects me. I have been stopped by the police for speeding more than once, for example, but have always been spoken to calmly, and I never feared that I might be shot if I reached into my pocket to get my wallet with my driver’s license.
Many years ago, I helped a stranded African-American student with a dead car battery. We took his battery to a local battery shop (now gone) to be charged. When the student asked the proprietor for a receipt, the man turned on him angrily and accused the young man of not trusting him. Since there were dozens of batteries scattered around the shop waiting attention, I thought the request was reasonable.
Of course, the student was from St. Louis, where receipts in such cases were more common. It was a tense moment. And it was an example of structural racism; how dare this young black man suggest that he deserved a receipt! It was an affront. Would a white student have been treated with the same anger? Probably not.
White privilege means that the structures and social norms of our society are defined by white people, who can take for granted that people will not be suspicious of us because of our skin color. People of color simply cannot take that for granted.
Protesters throughout America are asking that we recognize white privilege and try to dismantle it. This will be very difficult.
In the first place, even though white privilege threatens to disturb our society and our democratic republic, it is not something that can easily be outlawed. It is not just a political problem.
Privilege is about power, and those who have it never surrender without a fight. History suggests there will always be those with power and those without.
Secondly, white privilege, like the racism or color consciousness that undergirds it, is a moral issue. As such the behavior it allows can only be addressed indirectly by our political system, with laws against police brutality and reforms in our justice system.
It is not, however, only a personal moral issue. In the words of my favorite spiritual guru, the Franciscan Richard Rohr, it must be seen “as a matter of justice and truth and not just a matter of me being generous and charitable.”
That may be why we see so many protesters chanting “No Justice; No Peace.”
Rohr believes that we have to change our minds and hearts, and that only great love or great suffering allows us to do that. Tough, but at least we have a choice. If we don’t start loving, our children and grandchildren may face great suffering.
Within a generation, those of European descent will be a minority in the USA. At that point, human nature being what it is, white privilege may be replaced by color privilege.
If we think seriously about that, it might be a bit easier for us white folks to help create the society that today’s protesters want to see.
Written by Ken Wolf. Ken is a retired History Professor in Murray, whose hobbies include reading books on politics, religion, and spirituality, and continuing to hope that humans will soon begin to show that they are nicer than they appear at first glance.