Reflections On My White Privilege
Before beginning this introspective article, I want to clarify its parameters. I will be talking about white privilege. Not all white people are privileged, and not all privileged people are white. But, for this article, I’ll be referring to those fitting into both categories of being white and being privileged.
White privilege (WP) is described as “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” (McIntosh 2006, 95). It is a way of life granted to people who are white (by skin color) and privileged (by class). It is a set of circumstances and characteristics given to you, as a white person of privilege, by society, as a result of centuries of racism and colonial domination. It puts you at the top of the power hierarchy in humanity (WP men being at the very top).
Related Article: “ADDING A SOUTH AFRICAN PERSPECTIVE TO PHOTOGRAPHY: INTERVIEW WITH GARETH PON“
White privilege is visible from everyday conversations to the overarching power systems that govern nations. As described by Michel Foucault, the ruling powers establish a ‘regime of truth’ (1975), determining what the truths are and who gets to validate them. This power allows the powerful to naturalize certain human-constructed truths (1975), infusing the population with the belief that no matter how flawed, the current reality is normal and that there is no interest in changing it.
In a recent article about his childhood, Trevor Noah describes the way his mother raised him in South Africa:
When I look back, I realize she raised me like a white kid — not white culturally, but in the sense of believing that the world was my oyster, that I should speak up for myself, that my ideas and thoughts and decisions mattered.
This quote in particular made me realize that my view of the world and my interaction with it has been entirely through a WP lens. I have been brought up to believe that I can achieve anything I set my mind to and that my voice truly matters. I am not saying that the voice of millions of WP individuals does not matter; on the contrary, they matter a lot. They hold a lot of power. Take the US elections, for example. Yet, as WP individuals we see ourselves in a way that the majority cannot. We take the privilege given to us at birth for granted. We don’t even think about it most of the time. We work hard to achieve our life goals but forget that we started the race 10 steps ahead.
IN THE PHOTO: Disney’s famous “When You Wish Upon a Star,’ followed by the subsequent lyrics “makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you,” will never sound the same when you realize that it makes all the difference who you are. PHOTO CREDIT: Marc Levin
White privilege is a phenomenon that has successfully been exported to all corners of the world. Even outside of the West, white people of privilege have more advantages than the rest. I experienced this myself as a WP expatriate living in South Africa. I had access to top-quality health services, education and housing that few South Africans have access to.
What has not been equally exported, however, is the ownership of concepts. For example, the West owns the concept of democracy. Yet, the West does not own the concept of genocide. Muslims own the word terrorism but when a white person of privilege commits the same act he/she is considered mentally unstable. There seems to be a very selective affiliation with these kinds of concepts.
On a more individual level, if you are a white person of privilege, you are dissociated with the idea of being an immigrant. You can easily access visa and travel documentation and upon moving abroad become an expatriate. Non-WP people face barriers to accessing visa and travel documentation and, upon moving to the West, are considered immigrants. When Westerners go abroad, there isn’t a strong need to assimilate in the new culture. They can just recreate their own community and remain in a bubble of privileged comfort. Children will go to international schools to continue their education in their own language and acquire qualifications recognized in their home countries. On the other hand, when a non-Westerner moves to the West, they are expected to assimilate with the host country, being required to learn the new language and in some cases change the way they dress.
From my observations, the main way WP plays out is in the form of racism. There’s a difference between individual acts of racism (making a comment at someone wearing a hijab) and institutionalized racism (Jim Crow laws). One emerging trend challenging institutionalized racism is affirmative action. This is a type of policy that prioritizes disadvantaged groups in situations like job applications, university applications, etcetera. Many WP people dislike these policies, the main reason being that despite being more qualified they are losing their spot to a disadvantaged person. It revolves around meritocracy and a feeling of injustice. Yet, if you’re upset about race getting in the way of meritocracy, don’t stop there. Get out on the streets and protest that qualified black people are not getting jobs just because they’re black. Get out on the streets and protest that black people get harsher prison sentences just because they’re black. Get out on the streets and protest that black people cannot as easily buy a house or take out a loan, simply because they are black.
Your silence is a luxury.
– Jamila Woods
White privilege is the most blindingly apparent in the development/aid world. I myself have been guilty of indulging in the white savior complex. Here’s the thing about white people of privilege: we create institutionalized problems in developing countries (through Structural Adjustment Programs, for example) and then want to roll up our sleeves to fix all of the consequences. Of course, I know white people of privilege working in developing countries who are doing brilliant work, because they are highly aware of their WP and remain conscious of it in every interaction they have with their host community. Equally, the work of individuals in emergency relief settings during natural disasters or human conflict is invaluable. Yet, most of the well-intentioned WP global citizens want to go work in Africa, South America or South East Asia, without having ever volunteered in their home community. They forget that they can find poverty and injustice in their own city if they just go to the right neighborhood. There remains a deep desire to help the Global South. If you really want to have an impact, consider this: a more powerful way to contribute to the world is through your own spheres of influence. If you are white and privileged, going to a rural African community may not have very high impacts – it can actually sometimes cause more harm than good. Working in your spheres of influence, though, to educate people back home about their misconceptions and how they can help out in their own communities would be far more impactful, and would reduce some of the damage caused by the $100+ billion development industry.
Feeling guilty about white privilege is a normal reaction, alongside denial and an anger at being accused of something that is a product of past generations and that you’re not even aware you engage in today. Remember that just because you are white and privileged, it does not mean that your problems are not valid or important. Guilt about WP is an important feeling, but not one that should be dwelled on. It is a burden that needs to be unpacked with your fellow white privilege friends. It is not the role of the historically oppressed to soothe your self-reproachment and anxieties. Seek that in your own community and then move past it. Guilt is the first step, but it has to transform into action. You cannot take responsibility for decades of domination, but you can take responsibility for your generation’s actions.
IN THE PHOTO: In the photo: Leaders of the Virginia Civil Rights Movement found at the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial. Photo credit: Ron Cogswell.
This article has looked at how white privilege plays out in different forms: ownership of concepts, expatriates, immigrants, cultural assimilation, the white savior complex, anger at affirmative action policy, guilt. There are many, many more areas to unpack and discuss, including interracial relationships, Eurocentric school curricula, and WP people having the power to question and define non-WP people’s identities.
If you weren’t already, you are now aware of your white privilege. So, where do we go from here? We introspect. We start conversations. We refuse to be bystanders to institutionalized racism. We engage in meaningful conversations and take a moment to just listen. Don’t feel pity and guilt when you learn about how white privilege has been and continues to be destructive; gain respect for people who are on the receiving end of that every single day. Don’t feel like you need to save non-white non-privileged people from the injustice, because it’s us that need saving. Save yourself from being a part of this system. Save yourself from the inhumane rationalization of intolerance. Save yourself from normalizing discriminatory thinking. White privilege is not a right but a responsibility. Be someone who steps up and faces their position, refusing to take it for granted and instead, taking advantage of it to make a change.
Recommended Reading: “POST-APARTHEID INEQUALITY IN SOUTH AFRICA“