Recently, Time magazine published a piece titled “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege” written by a student at Princeton. (Honestly, I’m baffled that they would even publish such trash but my increasing distrust of most major websites leads me to believe that it’s all about the clicks. They knew it would go viral as most things that are this outrageously disgusting tend to do.)
In response to the piece, Time also published a rebuttal written by another Princeton student, a young woman named Briana Payton. She writes that although her classmate “…is not responsible for white male dominance in society, he should at least recognize that this social hierarchy is not a mere coincidence, nor is it a testament to the power of hard work.”
This is what I have been teaching my youngest child who is 11 years old. I do not want her growing up with a blindness to the advantages she will have just because of the color of her skin, nor to the disadvantages others will have because of the color of theirs. One of the biggest obstacles to getting people to admit that they have white privilege is getting them to admit that it even exists. Some people simply do not see it because, by its very definition, not realizing that it exists is a sign that you have it. The one group of people who really need to be aware of it is the same group that is the most oblivious to its existence.
So in my efforts to educate my daughter, which has to be done at home because this isn’t the kind of stuff they’ll teach you at school, I have shared parts of Peggy McIntosh’s famous “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” with her. I have discussed it with her and I’ve tried to give her examples that she, at her age, will understand.
I have explained to her that, as a white person, she can walk into a store and take her time browsing and will often go unnoticed other than being briefly greeted by a friendly sales person depending on the store. But, I told her, if one of her friends with brown or black skin were to do the same, there is a chance that they will be followed or watched because it is assumed that they are going to steal something. She won’t experience this, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
I have explained to her that she can turn on the television and find shows that are filled with people who look like us. I had her name some of her favorite shows, past and present, and we discussed the characters. Most of them are about white kids and white families. Hannah Montana? White girl with white friends. iCarly? Same. Good Luck Charlie? White kids with mostly white friends. Kickin’ It? Mostly white, including the owner of a martial arts dojo. Wizards of Waverly Place? Well, the mom is Latina but the dad is white as are the rest of the main characters, outside of the Russo family. Then she pointed out the show Jessie. The title character is a young white woman who moves to New York and stumbles into a job as a nanny for a family that is obviously loosely-based on the Jolie-Pitt family. Mom and Dad are famous which explains their frequent absences. The group of children consists of a brown-skinned young man who is always getting into trouble, an Indian boy who is so stereotyped that it’s a wonder they don’t have him working at a convenience store, and a little black girl who is full of neck-rolling sass. [insert facepalm.jpg] And, of course, these kids are all adopted by the White Savior parents. (There’s also a white child who is steeped in stereotypes — a rich, spoiled, pretty blonde girl who isn’t very bright and only cares about shopping and her looks. She’s the biological child. Don’t even get me started on the gender stereotyping and misogyny on Disney shows.)
My daughter happened to be with me on one occasion where I witnessed some blatant racism happening. We live in an apartment complex that’s fairly diverse. One day we were in the complex office and the manager (who no longer works there, thankfully) was loudly berating an African woman. I had also seen her treat a Mexican man the same way. And yet she has never been anything but polite to me. Every time I went in there, it was always “Hi! How are you?” with a big smile. Her attitude towards me has always fallen somewhere between friendly and professional. But every single time I have witnessed her interactions with my brown-skinned or black-skinned neighbors, she was treating them like annoying children. The day that my daughter was with me at the office, we talked about it after we left. I made sure that she was aware that we were afforded a certain level of cordiality that was most likely based on our whiteness and I explained to her that what we saw was not an uncommon occurrence.
But here’s the part that the young Princeton man, and others like him, don’t seem to get. Privilege doesn’t mean “well-off” or “wealthy,” nor is it an accusation that you’ve never had to work for anything. And nobody is asking anyone to apologize for being white. Nobody is telling you that you should feel guilty about it. Just acknowledge that being white (and male, when that’s the case) gives you certain advantages. Just admit that hard work isn’t the only factor that contributes to one’s success. Just accept the reality that white people — especially men — will always have opportunities that others do not.
That’s all anyone is asking when they say, “Check your privilege.”
(This post was originally published on my personal blog at Aprilpalooza.com.)