I was fourteen years old when I first encountered racism as it was happening. I was too old to hang out at home all day, but too young to drive, so cruising the Fort Henry Mall in Kingsport, Tennessee was an acceptable compromise. It was back during the Golden Age of Hip Hop; Malcolm X, or X gear, was all the rage. My best friend and I were both hip-hop-heads and Michael Jordan fans. Basically, we were stereotypical white suburban kids desperately searching for an identity that was anything but what we were.Nike, Adidas, and Reebok were our brands. But like all slickly packaged, youth marketed products, they were expensive and my father steadfastly refused to buy most of them for me.
Once at the mall my friend and I made our way to the Foot Locker. It was the Mecca of style and cool, or at least it was for East Tennessee. We didn’t have the money to buy anything more than a cheaply priced meal at McDonald’s across the street, let alone a pair of Jordan’s, but it was a way to kill time between searches for pretty teenage girls we were too nervous to talk to.
We made a beeline for the fitted cap wall. Gazing up at the uniform magnificence of the display, we proceeded to wax devotedly about our favorite NBA players, and which rapper had worn which team cap in which music video. Soon I noticed that a salesperson hadn’t approached us with the obligatory, faux polite “Can I help you with anything?”
On the opposite end of the store, four young black men in their late teens, were looking over the shoe selection. What I picked up from the gist of their conversation was they’d just gotten paid, and were excitedly debating which pairs of shoes they wanted. To me their enthusiasm was infectious. I wanted to share in that excitement and be able to purchase my own “fresh kicks”.
I excitedly slapped my friend on the shoulder. “Yo! First thing I’mma buy is some Jordan’s when I get a job,” I said in my best, horribly clichéd hip hop slang.
Then I noticed why our presence had been missed. All three clerks, white males, had focused their entire attention on the black teens. One clerk had his arms folded across his chest, his back straight, as he glared. The other stood next to him, his hands in his pockets, his gaze fixed on his impassive face. Both were behind the register, in a box-like island kiosk which served as their barricade. The manager stood just outside the fortress with a look of annoyance on his face. No one moved to help the young black men. They just stared, keeping an unwavering vigilant eye on them.
The young black men kept talking as if the three store employees weren’t glaring at them. I could feel the tension from the clerks, and I wondered how the black teens didn’t know they were the target.
This was racism. It hit me like a hammer shattering a glass anvil. I’d been told racism was over from the authority figures in my life, outside of my parents, but here it was. Of course, those authority figures were mostly white and male.
I could tell by the look on my friend’s face that he recognized it for what it was and shook his head. “I bet we could just put on a hat and walk out before anyone notices,” I whispered half kidding. “We should, man,” he replied. Christian guilt ultimately won out and we left the Foot Locker swag free in search of pretty teenage girls to leer at, but I never forgot that incident. It was my first encounter with racism and white privilege though I wouldn’t put much stock into the later until I was well into adulthood.
I have White Privilege. I’ve had it for all of my life. White Privilege is being able to walk into a Foot Locker, without a dollar to your name, and salespeople treat you as if you belong there. Or they ignore you because you wouldn’t contemplate shoplifting a fitted Chicago Bulls Starter Cap. They’ll focus their attention on black men with money who enthusiastically want to spend it.
White Privilege is sitting in your vehicle in the parking lot of a convenience store, the subwoofer thumping, the speakers blasting Ice Cube’s The Predator at full volume with the windows rolled down. Because the most you’d get is a shake of the head from some incredulous older man. You won’t get shot. That thought won’t even cross your mind.
White Privilege is getting pulled over by the police passing through Hampton, Tennessee on your way back from a party in Boone, North Carolina. The officer might be a little tough on you, but it’ll be in the form of a stern, fatherly figure lecture. You’ll end up chatting about how you’re going to Marine Recruit Training in a month even though you’re still a little buzzed, and you’re eighteen years old.
However, if you happen to be black things are much different. You don’t get a lecture. You go to jail. You’d hate going through Hampton to get to Johnson City because chances are, you’re gonna get pulled over. You’ll be fucked with. If you get stopped it’s a certainty. You’ll be given a field sobriety test and your ID will be verified to make sure you don’t have any outstanding warrants. It’ll all be passed off as that officer “just doing his job”, and he technically is, but it’s different for you.
That’s the privilege Whiteness gives you in America. Because if you happen to be white you can wear the same clothes, have the same haircut, be the same height, same build, and be close to the same age to a black person, and it won’t matter. There’s still a key difference. You’re white, and he’s black. Your experience is day to his nightmare.
I could list statistics that back up the discrimination that minorities face in their daily lives in America. Everything from the wage gap, the lop-sided incarnation rates for minor drug offenses, access to higher education, but those are just abstracts. For those who haven’t realized what privilege affords them, statistics won’t matter. It’s why racism is continuously declared to be over, only to come back. As if saying it doesn’t exist will somehow make it go away.
What privilege gives you is freedom to be who you are. It might not seem special if you have it. It’s subtle and you won’t notice it until it’s pointed out to you. You still have bills. You still deal with bullshit. You still have a shit job. You might be held down by other forces, especially if you’re poor, but you don’t have to worry about how your race affects the perception of your actions. You don’t have to try extra hard to overcome the biases someone might have about you because you’re not white. You don’t have to possess, and reconcile what W. E. B. Du Bois dubbed “Double Consciousness“. History is your history. All the Presidents up until President Obama looked like you. You don’t have to worry if you’re acting “too ethnic”, or in certain respects not ethnic enough. Whiteness is superfluous because it’s understood to be the status quo.
When you’re white in America you’re given the freedom to be an individual without the connotations, and limitations of your race. In short you’re just a person, instead of a black person. That’s an important distinction, and it’s one that people who aren’t white desperately want to get rid of.
Recognizing White Privilege isn’t about losing something. It’s recognition of the inherent bias in our culture. It’s not about keeping people apart, but understanding how things look to those who don’t have it. It’s putting yourself in their shoes, to try and see the world from another perspective from your own. Without that understanding, lacking that perspective, progress towards true social equality becomes much more onerous.