Yesterday, this website posted an article by Cathy Reisenwitz entitled “This Is White Privilege.” In it, Ms. Reisenwitz discussed the problematic areas of any given town (hers, in this case was Washington DC) that are more historically prone to poverty and crime. The poverty in these areas is a vicious cycle, and she is right to decry the laws that perpetuate poverty, and in effect, the extreme measures to which those in poverty turn when they cannot afford an alternative. I commend the fact that she is fighting these laws, and admit that she is more well-versed than I am in the mind-boggling number of laws that perpetuate the poverty she saw on the walk from the metro to her prospective apartment.
But that is not white privilege.
I agree that laws that exploit the downward cycle of poverty are unjust, and that it’s ridiculous to ever expect anyone to succeed in an environment that is only ever mired in litigation and prejudice. But white privilege runs deeper than that.
White privilege lies in Miley Cyrus’ ability to appropriate twerking and black bodies in her music videos and performances. White privilege allows her to joke that she won’t be performing the dance anymore on Saturday Night Live because she found out that other white people were doing it, too. White privilege is the reason why the joke in Mean Girls about Cady Heron being from South Africa works.
White privilege is never having to worry about people following you in a store, either physically or with their eyes. It is in being looked to as the authority on such matters as rights and justice, because your voice somehow holds more weight because people are more apt to listen to you. It is in what makes Britney Spears an adorable bumpkin and not a dirty bum when she goes barefoot in a gas station bathroom. It is in the ability for a white girl to become affronted that somebody might make fun of her preference of seasonally spiced coffee beverages. It is turning on the television and always being able to find at least one actor to which you might be able to strive, or at least relate. It is being able to spend $350 on a belt at Barney’s without fearing that people will accuse you of shoplifting. It is never experiencing firsthand the kind of racism that still lies in the undercurrent of modern society. It is in Julianne Hough trying to feign innocence that blackface could ever be an acceptable Halloween costume. (It’s not.) It is in not fully comprehending the severity and sadness in the message that was sent by the Trayvon Martin verdict, and, even more troubling, turning the tragedy into a Halloween costume.
It is in Ms. Reisenwitz’ ability to send her “yuppie white ass […] right back to fucking Virginia” when she realizes the neighborhood she’s looking at is less than safe and less than desirable. And it is in her misuse of the phrase “white privilege” when she discusses the legal and fiscal inequalities that mire down the urban poor, who are predominantly people of color. And, as one commenter pointed out, “tons of white people live in squalor – namely in tiny rural farming communities in middle America. Urban squalor is where you typically see non-whites.” The commenter also ”fully acknowledge[d] white privilege in the ability to get OUT of said squalor,” but were right in their analysis that poverty and crime can and do affect everyone.
White privilege is hearing how my brother, who is tall and muscular and covered in tattoos and apparently serves as some sort of threat, has been stopped by the police again for walking home from the Los Angeles metro at night. It is in knowing that he is more likely to be pulled over in the car he owns than I would if I were to drive the exact same car. And he is a better driver than I am.
But my brother and I are biracial. I often pass for white, and he does not. I have therefore benefitted from years of white privilege that was unearned and makes me feel awkward. He is more likely to be stereotyped and profiled and followed and stopped.
And white privilege was in the old woman I stood behind at the home goods store last night who demanded that a black cashier stop engaging in small talk with a woman whose purchases she was ringing up. It was in her obvious discomfort when the other customer, another black woman, told her there was nothing wrong with the small talk that was occurring while the transaction was taking place, and that not talking would not make the cashier’s service go any faster. It was in their heated verbal exchange, which escalated to a matter of race very quickly. It was in the old woman’s face when she turned to me and asked if I could believe the kind of disrespect and poor service that was being provided to her, and in her utter revulsion when it dawned on her that the girl to whom she looked for support was not white. Well, not entirely white. She physically backed away from me.
And white privilege existed in the fact that she never had to worry about the security guard being called, or that she might be thrown out of the store for being unruly. I’ve seen people of color who have been ejected from stores and bars and classrooms for lesser offenses. White privilege was in her belief that she hadn’t done anything out of line, that her demand should have been appeased immediately.
That is white privilege. It is not a blanket statement that is interchangeable with an argument of class, though the two intersect frequently. And while it is fueled by the class war and fuels the class war in return, the way to change it lies less in legislature and more in our own personal opinions of what defines equality and personhood.