Thought Catalog

Deconstructing Whiteness And White Privilege

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I’ve been trying to write an article solely focused on White Privilege for months. There are a plethora of books and articles by people much more qualified than me to talk about these matters. There are many scholars dedicated to this subject matter. I am but an apprentice attempting to do so in a somewhat easy –to-read article in the digital space. But race is on the mind of the nation; it always is but evermore so this week. And I believe it is an opportune time to gain greater understanding of race relations and particularly the subject matter of Whiteness and White privilege.

I am a runner and for the past 6-8 weeks, I’d been training for half-marathon season as I call it, when I do longer races. Unfortunately, I’ve been struggling with some knee and feet injuries. I’ve had injuries before but nothing that I couldn’t shake off quickly. Now I’m questioning whether I should be running these races because of the biomechanics of my body and the recurring injuries. Most of the time, I don’t think about my knees or feet. I am aware that they are there but I do not walk around conscious of them. This is the privilege of someone who is able-bodied. Someone who is not able-bodied might think of their body and parts of their body more than someone who isn’t. And White privilege, though is intrinsically different, works somewhat of the same way. White people generally don’t go through the world thinking about being White. But the reality is non-White people, at least from time to time, do.

Sometimes when I have encountered people who are not able-bodied as myself, I feel a twang of insecurity. I don’t want to say the wrong thing or act the wrong way. But an able-body is the privilege that I have been given in a world that assumes able-bodies as a norm. Whiteness, even in a world where non-White persons have larger numbers, is the norm of the societies that most of us live in. And this is especially so in Western civilization; it is especially so in the United States.

That race is socially constructed is a sociological phenomenon. But social constructions are not without real consequences. And a real consequence of Whiteness and White privilege is that persons who are not considered White often have to justify their existence – in whole or in parts – in a way that White people often do not. An easy and not too uncommon example: The way I talk often complicates people’s perceptions of me. I have been told many times that, “I speak so well.” I consider myself a good orator but I know most of the time, the pseudo compliment is based on the lack of expectation that a person of my skin color and perhaps my national origin can speak the way I do. White people who speak as I do are seldom ever told that they are, “well-spoken.” They don’t need to be; it is assumed. And that is how privilege works.

Privilege infiltrates all areas of life and this isn’t always obvious to persons who experience privilege. There are of course blatant examples of White privilege such as the socio-economic discrepancies between members of different racial groups, which are representative of discrimination histories. Certain groups are born into more wealth which makes it more likely for those groups to maintain better opportunities for education, health, employment, and overall a better quality of life over others. But White privilege is also subtle and murky. It so ingrained into the fabric of much of Western civilization and the hegemony that it has perpetuated for centuries, that changes in law do not necessarily bring about de facto changes in society especially in subtle ways.

I remember once having a cut on my finger and putting a purple plaster on it. An acquaintance who is White commented on my purple plaster, saying she thought it was cool that I went with a fun color rather than a boring nude color like everyone else. Trying not to sound peeved, I explained to her that while I like purple, there are also no “nude” plasters for people of my skin color. I could see she was embarrassed because essentially what I had done is call a privilege out that she wasn’t even aware of. She then frankly told me, “I had never even considered it. Ever.”

And that’s what privilege is – not considering something because you don’t have to. When you have White privilege, you don’t have to consider many things; when you don’t have it, you do. You consider it when you walk into a store and you wonder if the sales people just so happen to be on the same route as you or they are indeed watching you because of the perception they have of people of your skin color. Note that sometimes these sales people need not be White either. You consider it when you’re in class and race issues have come up, and perhaps as the sole representative of a particular race in that class, you are essentially expected to speak on behalf of the people of that race. You consider it when you are watching television or reading a book or spending time on the Internet and being told that this is beautiful and that is wonderful; but all those beautiful and wonderful things are mostly represented by only one color of people. And you consider it when you raise the issue of race in any context and are accused of playing a supposed race card and of “making everything about race.”

The social reality is that Whiteness and White Privilege perpetuate because of subtleties and invisibilities. For example, pay particular attention to a conversation the next time you can, and notice which races get pointed out and which does not.  Another great example some classmates gave earlier this year too was the “Shit People Say” phenomenon. The video that started it all, “Shit Girls Say” didn’t need a racial qualifier like most other subsequent videos that parodied what girls of other races said. Even when Whiteness gets a racial qualifier, it is not without privilege. Consider the term, “White trash” and how it has to be linguistically specified that this person is “White” but also “trash.” Other races that may fall into similar socioeconomic backgrounds as poor White people don’t need the racial linguistic qualification. Language mirrors reality more than most of us are aware of. Even a term that is meant to be a pejorative for a racially privileged group, still ends up exposing privilege.

The purpose of understanding White privilege and Whiteness is not to point fingers or place blame on entire groups. The purpose is to understand how many of us, including those who are disadvantaged by the system are still complicit in that system. The purpose is to be more aware of our thoughts, words, and actions, and how they might contribute to a system that disadvantages entire groups of people. And for what? Because of a shade of color?

I have to go and get my knees checked out tomorrow for one final analysis to see whether I can run this half-marathon on Sunday. I’ve not been made aware of my privilege of being able-bodied in some time so this is good for me. It’s good to be reminded that I didn’t do anything to earn this privilege to be seen as healthy and capable by virtue of not having a physical disability. I didn’t earn the right to live in a world where being able-bodied is the assumption; the norm. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be more cognizant of my privilege. It doesn’t mean I can’t do my best to treat other bodies that are not like mine, as equal and worthy of a good quality of life. In the same way, I hope that White privilege will one day open up the eyes of many – those benefiting and those disadvantaged – to treat people, regardless of their shade of color as being equal and worthy of a good quality of life. And you begin in your own mind, in your own heart, and with your thoughts, words, and actions. Then, you start with your neighbor. Because that, more than any laws that will ever be put forth, is what will change the system. TC mark

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