Argument #4: The concept of “white privilege” is unjust because it blames white people today for atrocities, such as slavery or segregation, that were set up generations ago and that they had no hand in creating. It also suggests that white people today should feel guilty for racism even if they are not racists themselves.
Response: Some people probably do use the term “white privilege” in this way (the conversation is developing at such a rapid pace that such terminology is developing new shades of meaning at an accelerated rate). However, the term is helpful in describing a real phenomenon—one that I’ve personally witnessed taking place. Bear with me, and I’ll define it first, then share a personal story to illustrate what I mean.
“White privilege” refers to the phenomenon in which white people receive certain societal benefits that they did not earn—benefits they receive by default simply for being white.
To be clear, I do not feel guilty for being born white. I was created that way, and it’s no more a sin to be born white than it is to be born a member of any other race.
However, I do recognize that some people—and some institutions—will respond to me differently because I am white. I do not, for example, get followed around department stores by loss-prevention officers because I look like “the kind of person who might steal something.” My Black friends do have that happen to them.
This is where the term “privilege” gets sticky, because it can be understood to mean I have a benefit that I shouldn’t have—i.e., that we should both be followed around the store. Actually, however, what I’m receiving is the benefit of the doubt—the default assumption that I’m going to be honest until I do or say something to undermine that assumption.
What the concept of privilege actually suggests is that we should both get the benefit of the doubt. It is not a privilege because I shouldn’t have it; it is a privilege because I have it and other people just as honest as I am do not have it. The term, in this context, calls attention to an unjust and illogical disparity in expectations.
Now, how should I respond? Should I feel guilty for the racism informing the tendencies of loss-prevention officers to target customers other than me for surveillance?
I shouldn’t feel the guilt of being individually culpable for what other people do. After all, I didn’t ask the loss-prevention officers to follow other people around. However, I should feel guilty if I recognize the larger problem at work here—both individual and systemic racism—and do nothing about it.
I can’t fix it single-handedly, but I can speak up. I can vote. I can teach texts in my classroom that confront these issues. I can say something when a white friend tells a racist joke. I can listen to my friends of color when they share their experiences and allow myself to be guided by their insight. If I don’t, I’m part of the problem and share the guilt of perpetuating it (even though I didn’t personally cause it).
I might also feel other emotions, such as anger, which is a proper response to injustice. This is, in fact, exactly what I felt when I visited the local social security office to get an updated card after my wedding thirteen years ago.
My sister, a Korean-American adopted at three-months-old and naturalized as an American citizen in early childhood, had gotten married to her husband in the same ceremony. She, being more on top of things than I was, had already gone to the office to get her card. She had taken the required documents listed on the website—birth certificate, current social security card, a photo ID, etc. When she arrived at the office and showed her papers, however, they demanded more: they wanted to see other papers, records, etc. that were not officially required when she already had a valid social security card.
I remember them demanding that she make several trips to their office—I even remember hearing that they wanted to make her take a test in American history (because all real Americans apparently know their history so well). Finally, she got the card.
Having heard about all the hoops they had made her jump through, I was nervous about going to get my card. I double-checked that I had everything—birth certificate, social security card, photo ID, etc.
When I got to the window, I handed over my current card and said I was there to get an updated card with my new name. The woman behind the counter handed it to me without even asking to see my driver’s license.
When I got back to my car, I called my sister and ranted about what racist jerks ran the social security office and how outraged I was on her behalf. I probably felt a little self-righteous, if I’m honest, for my outrage, and I do believe I was right to feel the outrage. I shouldn’t have felt so righteous, though.
A more righteous person would have walked back inside and asked to speak to the employee’s supervisor. Maybe I wasn’t a racist, but I didn’t do anything to challenge racism when it hit me in the face, and so, notwithstanding my righteous anger, I failed to do the right thing because I don’t like confrontations.
I hope and pray that, given the injustices on national news these days, I will do the right thing the next time I get a chance to. It’s why I’m writing this essay-length note, knowing full well that my Marxist friends (if they take the time to read it) will not appreciate my objections to their philosophy and that some of my Christian friends (if they take the time to read it) will see me as selling out.
I want to do the right thing this time, though, and so I’m doing my best to add to a difficult conversation. I welcome any and all honest responses, whether they agree with me or not. There are important questions being raised about issues that directly and/or indirectly affect my brothers and sisters in Christ—and my friends of other faiths and no faith who share similar concerns about justice.
So I’ll end my long reflections by saying, on or off social media, let’s talk.