PJP Racism Series: On Privilege


Photo credit/ Autumn Bohner

To be sure, if we are to achieve equality and justice, we must have the strength and courage to call out privilege where it exists.

Sarah Kenehan, Ph.D. and Erin Sadlack, Ph.D., Guest Columnists

Eight minutes and 46 seconds is a long time. That’s how long Derek Chauvin knelt on the neck of 46-year-old George Floyd, who begged for his life, gasping, “I can’t breathe” over 20 times, calling out for his mama, and telling his children he loved them, before falling silent forever. Floyd was accused of using a $20 counterfeit bill to buy cigarettes at a convenience store.
Two months earlier, on March 13, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, an EMT, was shot eight times in her own home—where she had been sleeping—by police officers who entered on a no-knock warrant looking for another person accused of drug trafficking.
On Aug. 24, 2019, 23-year-old Elijah McClain, who used to play his violin for stray cats to calm them down, was walking on the sidewalk after buying an iced tea for his brother. Because he had a blood condition that made him get cold easily, he was wearing a ski cap, and someone called 911 to report him for suspicious behavior; he died after police officers responding put him in a chokehold.
On Aug. 23, 2020, police were called to a domestic complaint and 29-year-old Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times as he tried to open his car door, a car where three of his children sat in the back seat. He is likely now paralyzed for life from the waist down.
And on Aug. 25, 2020, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, shot three people protesting police violence, killing two of them. Still openly carrying his rifle, he walked by police cars even as bystanders cried out identifying him as the shooter. Rittenhouse wasn’t arrested until the next morning. But Kyle Rittenhouse had an advantage that George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and Jacob Blake did not: Kyle Rittenhouse is white.
Police Chief Daniel Miskinis defended the officers the next day, saying, “Clearly, they’re not seeing him as a suspect or a threat of any kind.” That is precisely the problem. Two days after shooting Jacob Blake from behind, the Kenosha police department could ignore a young white man carrying an assault rifle while people yelled, “That dude just shot someone.” This is white privilege at its very worst.

“Privilege” is one of those words that you don’t say in mixed company. This is not because there is anything intrinsically offensive or harmful about the word itself, but rather, it is so misunderstood in our culture and political discourse that it is often weaponized and purposefully misused to meet political ends and to to drive us further apart, when in fact most of us have in common a deep desire for fairness and equality in society.

So, what is privilege? Privilege is simply structures, processes, and norms that work to the advantage of one group and against another. It is unearned, undeserved, and is very often a function of some morally arbitrary characteristic about a person. There are all sorts of privilege, and each is worthy of discussion and analysis, but we will focus on white privilege here.

White privilege gives white people certain social, political, cultural, and economic advantages that are not afforded to non-white people. It results from literally hundreds of years of racist policies and practices that have shaped our culture and how we interact with one another within that culture.

White privilege is systemic, which means that it is embedded throughout our society and its institutions, including the criminal justice system, our education system, and our healthcare system, to name just a few. It is structural in that, whether we realize it or not, these very institutions have been built on and have perpetuated racist beliefs, ideals, and outcomes.

All of this means that in order to dismantle privilege and the racism it supports, it is not sufficient that we just remove an antiquated racist policy or appoint an anti-racist leader. Rather, we must examine and understand our racist institutional histories, and we have to look at the ways we do business within these institutions. Do our processes produce equitable results? Are we perpetuating racist ideas and stereotypes? Have we made it disproportionately difficult for non-white people to navigate these institutions and garner the resulting benefits?

Sometimes the answers to these questions will upset us or make us defensive. We may become so upset that we are tempted to reject the very idea of privilege. For these reasons, it’s really important to understand what privilege is not.

Privilege is not a description of how hard a person works. Let’s say we – as white women – received scholarships to college. We are, of course, privileged because of our white skin. This is not to say that we didn’t work hard to get those scholarships, but it does mean that we probably didn’t face as many obstacles getting to college as women of color with our same abilities and ambitions.

For instance, because we are white, we were more likely to attend well-funded primary schools, which means we had access to a wider range and greater diversity of academic and extracurricular resources and opportunities. Because we are white, we were more likely to have parents who attended college and so knew how to guide us through the application process and how to encourage us to access the resources available for us on campus, etc.

To be clear, acknowledging our privilege is not a dismissal of our hard-earned achievements– we worked very hard to get those scholarships and earn our degrees–nor does it ignore the extraordinary work and sacrifice of our families to send us to college. There are a lot of white families who scrimp and save for years to give their children access to higher education; acknowledging privilege does not devalue their struggles. But it does mean that we and other white students were lucky that we didn’t have even higher hurdles imposed by systemic racism on that already challenging academic path.

Moreover, privilege is not a statement of a person’s own biases. “Privilege” is not synonymous with “racist.” In other words, in accepting that we have privilege because we are white, we are not also implicitly agreeing that we are racist people or that we support racist policies or ideas. White privilege is the result of racism, but all people with white privilege are not racist. Yet if we fail to acknowledge white privilege, then we are supporting structures of white supremacy that are intentionally and systematically racist, and so work against the ideals of equality and justice.

To be sure, if we are to achieve equality and justice, we must have the strength and courage to call out privilege where it exists. This isn’t easy, as those with privilege often have a difficult time seeing the structures that support it and understanding the necessarily unfair outcomes it generates. But we must recognize that the ability to ignore it is also a function of our privilege.

Indeed, in our society, a white person never has to think about skin color or the way that skin color influences how we are treated. Whiteness is a currency that allows a person to move through the world with relative safety and ease. Often race is the very first, and often most influential, characteristic by which we are all implicitly judged, to our benefit if we are white, to our detriment if we are not white.

Perhaps such judgements are most obvious in the case of Elijah McClain, but we must also recognize how much racism can affect the daily reality of people of color. For instance, many people of color regularly face white people’s assumptions that they don’t belong in a certain place or that they are dangerous.

In 2018, a Black graduate student at Yale took a nap in the common room of her dorm, and a white student called the police. A woman in Oakland called the police about Black people barbecuing at a public lake. Christian Cooper was bird watching in Central Park when he asked Amy Cooper to abide by the leash laws, and she called 911 saying a Black man was threatening her. Three Black people checking out of their Airbnb were reported as burglars because they were putting their suitcases into their car. People called the police because a 12-year-old Black boy was cutting a lawn and he stepped onto their property. Stacey Abrams describes how she won a poetry contest when she was in middle school, and when she went to pick up her prize, the contest administrator refused to believe she was the winner.

Such acts of racism have terrible consequences on people’s quality of life; in fact, a 2014 study published in the scholarly journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior showed that microaggressions can lead young people of color to have suicidal thoughts.

The pandemic provides further examples of the effects of systemic racism. The COVID Data Tracker notes that “Nationwide, Black people are dying at 2.4 times the rate of white people…we have lost at least 37,533 Black lives to COVID-19 to date.” Black and Latinx people are more likely to be essential workers but less likely to be able to get a loan rescuing their small businesses through the CARES Act and less likely to be able to claim their unemployment benefits. Even before the pandemic, unemployment among Black people was twice as high as for white people. The economic fallout from the virus has only exacerbated this problem.

Sometimes our privilege makes it harder for white people to understand the experiences of the unprivileged. We must not assume that our own privileged experiences are the norm and so we must resist narratives that start with “Maybe that person shouldn’t have challenged the police, dressed that way, been out after curfew, been confrontational, etc.,” and we should reject unsophisticated explanations that begin with “Not everything is about race.” A failure to do this tells our marginalized brothers and sisters that they are incapable of understanding their own experiences, and that therefore their reports of discrimination and fear are illegitimate.

Let us not forget that Kyle Rittenhouse could shoot three people and survive; Elijah McClain couldn’t walk down the street after buying an iced tea without being judged as a threat so dangerous that someone called the police to intervene. If you are tired of “hearing about race,” imagine having to think every day about whether or not it is safe to wear a hoodie while going to a convenience store.
The late civil rights activist John Lewis, who, knowing he was dying of cancer, published an essay in The New York Times earlier this summer passing the torch to us: “When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.” His call is to all of humanity, no matter our race, to listen to one another and join together to create a better world. Those of us with privilege have a responsibility to do our part in the fulfillment of his vision.
How do we do this? We can start by listening to Jacob Blake’s mother, Julia Jackson, who stood in front of the microphones in Wisconsin and called on everyone listening across the country “to take a moment and examine your heart.” This is hard to do. It makes us uncomfortable to think that sometimes we say and think racist things, or to acknowledge that we have benefitted from the privilege of being white. Indeed, it is natural to feel sad, angry, and defensive, but the loving mission of Christ and the core values of Marywood “honoring the uniqueness and dignity of each human person” call us to do this work.
We must do better. We must rid ourselves of the emotions that inspire fear, resentment, and retreat, and instead embrace those that inspire justice and love. We must act as allies. We must acknowledge that white voices and bodies have access to spaces, safety, and opportunities that others do not, and so we must use our presence in those spaces to advocate for fairness and equality.
We have to start in our own hearts, holding ourselves accountable, and doing the work, recognizing that our discomfort is a small cost when measured against the anguished legacy bequeathed to us in a nation built on a foundation of slavery, a foundation that will undermine our more perfect union for as long as we refuse to acknowledge and redress it.
What You Can Do:

Listen to and discuss Episode 550 “Three Miles” of This American Life podcast.
Donate or volunteer with the Black Scranton Project, a “local non-profit dedicated to archiving and celebrating the African-American heritage and culture of the Scranton Area.”