I stumbled upon a webpage recently entitled, "Ask the White Guy." In the referenced post, he states "The concept of white privilege confuses and frustrates many white people, especially people who don’t perceive themselves as being in a position of power (a recent comment started with “I grew up in a trailer park”)" I agree with him.
I have had many conversations with white friends who struggled with the concept of white privilege. They have been quick to point out the fact that they are not rich, that they haven't been hired at a job simply because they're white, and more. I like the way Peggy McIntosh describe white privilege as "an invisible backpack." White people walk out the door every day with this invisible backpack on their shoulders. Most are not even aware it is there. They have carried it for so long, they no longer feel its weight, they've forgotten entirely that it is there. It is an old friend with which they are comfortable. This backpack allows them to shop (or browse) in a department store without being followed out of a fear of them shoplifting. Because of the backpack, when they are not hired for a job for which they applied, there is no wondering if the reason was because of their race. The sons of white people are not automatically deemed dangerous and suspicious for they, too, wear an invisible backpack. Some white people may say, "I've been followed in a store" or, one of my favorites, "I grew up poor, I didn't grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth." People who think this way lose sight of the fact that the backpack is invisible. Invisible is defined as unseen, not perceptible by the eye. In that vein, the fact that the backpack is invisible does not, in any way, negate its presence.
Now, let's consider the experiences of those who lack this invisible backpack (mainly people of color). It occurs to me that a good place to start would be what many people of color consider when naming their children. I suspect this is most common in black families. There is for many a, in my opinion well-founded, fear that a name that is too "ethnic" sounding will cause problems and roadblocks in the child's life. For example, when a recruiter considers a resume and the applicant's name is Jamal, Shaniqua, Ahmed or even Ebony, the recruiter can reasonably guess that the applicant is non-white. The reaction is similar when the applicant's name is Jose, Jesus, or Armando, especially if the surname is Perez, Gonzales, Hernandez or Sanchez. The recruiter often makes certain assumptions about the applicant prior to even interviewing the applicant. While the assumption may not be something as ignorant as "I bet this person can dance and likes rap music," there is a perception by many whites that black people and other people of color are inherently inferior, both in terms of intellect and education. This unconscious racism may cause the applicant's resume to undergo a higher level of scrutiny in an effort to find some reason to exclude the applicant. And, the resume often ends up in "File 13", a euphemism for the trash can.
I know there are those who, upon reading these words, will say something to the effect of, "here we go again. Not all white people are racist." Still others will call this playing the race card, a phrase I despise and will dismantle in another post. Racism is not always blatant, conscious, or perhaps even intended. Often, racism is so embedded into a psyche that a person seemingly forgets that it is there. For some reason (racism?) the black race is usually considered to be monolithic. Though this presumption may not be spoken, there is a belief that all black people think, act, and oh yes, eat the same (they all eat watermelon and fried chicken).
Continuing our journey into the experiences of black people who, unfortunately, do not have access to the invisible backpack, let's contrast some experiences with those of white people who wear the backpack. Very few, if any, white people fear that something happened, or didn't happen, to them because of their race. The only exception I can think of would be the rare times a white person applies for a job at a black-owned firm. Most black parents give what is called "the talk" to their black sons. This talk instructs the son how to behave when (not if) they are confronted by a white person, especially law enforcement. Notice I said "when," not "if." Trayvon Martin's father no doubt had this talk with Trayvon and his older brother. Perhaps Trayvon forgot or felt safe because he was within his own neighborhood. This forgetting or false sense of comfort cost Trayvon his life. Both of my sons are fine, upstanding, college-educated young men. Both have been pulled over numerous times by the police, for superfluous reasons. My younger son was out one night with a group of friends. My son was the only black man in the group. When they left the club at 2:30 in the morning, my son (and his friends) crossed in the middle of the block going to their cars. Out of nowhere, blue and red lights began flashing and a police car pulled up on my son. Dressed in non-baggy khakis and a polo shirt, my son (remembering "the talk") immediately stopped walking. The policeman told him he had "jay-walked." Despite the fact that he was walking, he was asked for his driver's license. After running his credentials through the system, my son was given a ticket for jaywalking. None of his white and Hispanic friends (who crossed with him) were ticketed. This citation (a $200 citation) was considered a moving violation and my son fought it for months, not wanting this walking violation to affect his driving record.
For the most part, white people can wear their hair in any style they choose, excepting probably, some strange colors. Yet, black people have to consider whether wearing their hair in a natural style will affect their chances at employment. Even in 2015, afros and other natural hairstyles make some people "uncomfortable." Lacking the backpack, housing in some neighborhoods is still not available to blacks. There is a fear, often unspoken but often spoken, that property values will go down if blacks, or other people of color, move into a neighborhood. The better schools are in the better neighborhoods, which are often unavailable to blacks. Though the Fair Housing Act of 1968 ostensibly made "redlining" illegal, redlining still exists. While blacks and other minorities may not be denied outright mortgage loans, they are often steered to higher-priced loans.
The lack of the backpack has long accounted for the disparity in wages of whites versus people of color. The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly available government data from 2009. Whites rarely, if ever, suspect that their black counterpart is earning more. Most blacks have accepted as fact their white counterpart is paid more.
As an anecdotal tale, I will relate the story of a young man I will call Granville. Granville has a masters degree in engineering. He works for the largest employer in his city with about ten people reporting to him. With the exception of one man, who I will call Robert, he wrote performance reviews and recommended salary increases for the people working under him. Each year, his boss told him, "oh, I'll do Robert's review." Robert, was a white man with only a high school education. When a friend of Granville's left the company, she told Granville that Robert made $10,000 more a year than Granville. Oh, incidentally, Robert complained privately to his friends that Granville "was an affirmative action hire." Did I mention that Granville graduated high school and undergraduate school summa cum laude? Did I fail to mention that Granville attended one of the best high schools in his city and both his undergraduate and graduate degrees were from an Ivy League School?
What many white people fail to understand, fail to get, is that this legacy of racism and white privilege is the backpack that blacks have carried on their backs, in their psyche for generations. It is not a matter of walking around with a racial so-called chip on their shoulders. It's a matter of accepting what has always been and will most likely continue for generations to come. There is a weightiness to this. It is a heavy burden that is ever-present and tiring. Imagine that each day, every day of every year, someone placed a heavy sack on your shoulders with which you had to walk out the door and carry with you throughout your day. It didn't matter whether you were going to work, the grocery store, the airport or a restaurant, the sack was there, weighing you down.
Undoubtedly, there will be those who will say, "it's not that bad," "you're too sensitive about being black," "things are better than they used to be," and a perennial favorite, "I'm not like that, I have black friends." It is, in my opinion, impossible for a white person to truly understand what it would be like to walk in the shoes of a black person. Even the ones who tried, such as the man who colored himself black for an experiment, were able to "go back to being white" at the end of the day.
Factor into this, the indisputable fact that this country made its wealth by the free, unpaid labor of its black slaves. When slavery finally ended, the newly freed slaves were told essentially "go be free." People who had been enslaved for centuries were turned out, literally, on the road to fend for themselves, penniless, landless and many with families scattered across the state and often in other states. These were people whose native tongues, customs and religions were beaten out of them. These were people whose family units were largely destroyed and scattered. Yet, even then, they were looked down upon, beaten, lynched and thought to be less than 100% human.
There are generational, hidden, invisible scars that cover the black race. That is not to say that black are sitting on some kind of "pity pot," crying woe is me. Rather they have learned how to cope and live with the system that exists. Is it any wonder that some have checked out of the "legit" life and chosen other ways to survive? Is it any wonder that many black men have left their families because of an inability to "be a man" because of the system that oppresses them? A system that destroyed their family unit centuries before? What has centuries of racism and its accompanying white privilege done to the psyche of the black man? Why are we, in 2015, still celebrating the first "black person to ......?"
New Symposium: Kathryn Gines on Beauvoir
1 year ago