I grew up in a small town in southern mid-Michigan. Sometimes when I say this, people get the idea that I mean small comparatively to Las Vegas. I do not. I mean, actually small. The current population is less than 10,000; it was closer to 8,000 when I was young. The size, while sometimes stifling, was less of an issue than the flat out lack of diversity. It is over 90% white and, due to the overwhelming presence of German and Irish ancestry, pretty homogenous. While I remember being aware of my whiteness, and of the history of whites in America, I did not learn the term white privilege until college. The concept, then and now, made perfect sense to me. This, however, is not the case for everyone.
A quick Google search finds 1.7 million results for “White Privilege Myth,” a phrase, it’s worth noting, that was the first recommended search by the time I got to “white privi…” Some white people, it would seem, are quite mad about the idea that we get any special treatment. That anyone could refuse to acknowledge this baffles me.
More than 45% of our the current American population lived through a time when people of color were openly forced to risk their lives to go to school, to vote and just to walk down the street in some neighborhoods. As much as we’d like to think it was, it wasn’t long ago that racism was openly institutional.
Though efforts have been made since to bring America into a post-racial society, we are nowhere near there. A 2013 experiment conducted by four researchers in seven major U.S. cities involved submitting 9,400 fake resumes to companies in seven major cities (four each to 2,350 job openings). Using statistically popular names in each group, half the candidates received “typically white” names while the other half “typically black” ones. The results showed black candidates were, on average, 16% less likely to receive a job interview than white ones. Notably, the research went on to show that the gap was significantly larger in the case of positions that involved dealing with customers, “In other words, the problem isn’t that Joe Smith doesn’t want to hire young African-Americans, but that he is worried that if he hires a black sales associate, old Mrs. Jones may take her business elsewhere.”
But the job market is far from the only place that white Americans are given preference. In Dr. Francis E. Kendall’s paper “Understanding White Privilege,” she discusses how whites have advantages that most of us never even realize but are ever present in our society. They can be as seemly insignificant as access to hair care products and Band-Aids that match our skin tone, to something as pervasive as white history being taught as the entirety of history, to something as momentous as the fact that “…white people in the United States are two to ten times more likely to get a housing loan than people of color.” These privileges, she argues, are bestowed upon us whether we want them, or are aware of them, or not.
White privilege exists in every part of American society. While it may be uncomfortable to admit, I have a better chance of getting a job, a loan, even a makeup concealer, than my fellow citizens of color. Choosing to ignore these facts will not make them go away. Indeed, in my experience, ignoring problems only makes them worse. White people need to be honest about our advantages, and we need to talk about why we’re so scared to do so.
Refusing to see white privilege, pretending it does not exist, does not mean we’re above it, it means we’re complicit in it. And I, for one, would rather have the difficult conversations needed to create an open dialogue that will hopefully lead to significant changes in our society.