Saturday, August 24, 2013

On Spending White Privilege

White people often get very agitated upon encountering a discussion about white privilege. It's invisible and unrecognized--and can create a good deal of discomfort in those who do recognize it (or who are forced to recognize it). Too much of our shared dialogue about privilege suggests it's a bad thing--something that white people should feel guilty about. Something that should be avoided at all costs.

...and that's a serious problem. We can't avoid white privilege. It isn't privilege that we've earned. It's senseless to feel guilty about something we have no control over.

However, white privilege isn't something we can ignore. 

White privilege is something that has been given to us by a civilization that has systematically favored white people over all others for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. White people can silently reap the benefits of this unearned privilege or make a choice to spend that privilege wisely.

A friend on twitter passed this clip along in which a women shows the easy and elegant way one person choosing to spend their privilege wisely can change the world.

A white person spending their privilege can help everyone be treated with equality, dignity, and respect. Nobody loses. Everybody wins.

Try it. You might even like it. Be a big spender


  1. I have to respectfully disagree that every white person is granted privilege at birth. Growing up in poverty, I was always either ignored or treated with suspicion. Teenage pregnancy and marriage led me to request gov't assistance (primarily Medicaid). This was denied, and I was told that remaining funds that year were reserved for minorities. Wanted go go to college, but didnt qualify for most financial assistance, but did get enough to allow me to take one class/semester until I could enroll in nursing school. Worked hard and graduated alongside many whose college was completely paid for due to a program focused on increasing the number of minority nurses. I'm not mad at the assistance anybody received, but I do get mad when my own hurdles are said to be automatically made easier because of the color of my skin. Sorry for the long post. Thanks for listening.

    1. There is a difference here depending on perspective. On one the ground perspective, personal experience, is often different than a mile high perspective of a population as a whole. Neither perspective is less valid, and yet it is important to not use a personal experience to understand the experience of a group as a whole.

      It is an accurate statement that whites, as a population, have gained an enormous amount of privilege. Any review of population level statistics clearly indicates that.

      Even when it comes to issues of poverty, there is privilege. There are myriad institutional systems that make it easier for whites (as a population) to get jobs, education, and opportunities. There are myriad institutional systems that make it more difficult (if not impossible) for people of color to get ahead.

      None of this is to say that poverty and class are not important issues -- they aren't, however, issues that make white privilege disappear.

    2. Vanessa - when I teach on multicultural issues, I really make an effort to debunk exactly the myth you mention here, that somehow - being white means life is automatically easier for you. There is too much evidence against that notion and is certainly not the meaning of the term. In fact, I wish the term could be changed because it elicits exactly the reaction you share here. No, the term simply means that regardless of your very real difficulties, if you had been in the same situation as that described in this video, you would have had the same power to influence the response of those in the store, simply by speaking as a white person. It's that kind of position that offers a perfect example of the term. I hate that the very real pain, hurdles and obstacles white persons have experienced feel minimized by the term and overshadow the very (wonderful) principle this video articulates...

    3. Hi Andrea,

      Thanks for taking the time to stop and comment.

      I think when talking about racism, and in particular talking about institutionalized racism and white privilege, we need to feel uncomfortable. Racism is embedded in our very institutions and every day actions that we take for granted--becoming aware of that is going to make people feel uncomfortable, defensive, and often hostile. I don't think that's something to be avoided or obscured. It's an important part of learning about racism, taking responsibility for our own behaviors, and changing our own hearts, minds, and behaviors.

      While individual white people are poor, and experience pains, hurdles, and obstacles, it is a categorically different experience than institutionalized racism and white privilege. The system is set up for white people, as a whole, to succeed while people of color, as a whole, are set up to fail.

      The original comment makes an error in that the author takes an individual level of analysis (this happened to me) and used to in comparison to a population level of analysis (racism that is institutionalized and directed toward an entire population). These are just simply not comparable -- they are different conversations and obfuscates the conversation about racism and makes it about something else.

      Racism isn't polite and comfortable. Talking about racism isn't polite and comfortable. It shouldn't be. As Dr. Martin Luther King suggested, the point here is to "awaken a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation."

      I encourage people to experience their moral shame about racism--whether it be direct acts of racism, participation in racist institutions, or participation in a racist society--directly. It does no good for any of us to try to be polite, be nice, or assist others in avoiding experiencing the shame of racism.