Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person

(This was a much nicer camper setup than the one we had.)

(This was a much nicer camper setup than the one we had.)

Gina Crosley-Corcoran grew up in the type of poverty Americans like to pretend doesn’t exist, so it was hard for her to believe she had any privilege. 

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Years ago, some feminist on the internet told me I was “Privileged.”

“THE FUCK!?!?” I said.

I came from the kind of Poor that people don’t want to believe still exists in this country. Have you ever spent a frigid northern Illinois winter without heat or running water? I have. At twelve years old, were you making ramen noodles in a coffee maker with water you fetched from a public bathroom? I was. Have you ever lived in a camper year round and used a random relative’s apartment as your mailing address? We did. Did you attend so many different elementary schools that you can only remember a quarter of their names? Welcome to my childhood.

So when that feminist told me I had “white privilege,” I told her that my white skin didn’t do shit to prevent me from experiencing poverty. Then, like any good, educated feminist would, she directed me to Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 now-famous piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

After one reads McIntosh’s powerful essay, it’s impossible to deny that being born with white skin in America affords people certain unearned privileges in life that people of another skin color simple are not afforded. For example:

“I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”

“When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.”

“If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.”

“I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”

If you read through the rest of the list, you can see how white people and people of color experience the world in two very different ways. BUT LISTEN: This is not said to make white people feel guilty about their privilege. It’s not your fault you were born with white skin and experience these privileges. BUT, whether you realize it or not, you DO benefit from it, and it IS your fault if you don’t maintain awareness of that fact.

I do understand McIntosh’s essay may rub some people the wrong way. There are several points on the list that I felt spoke more to the author’s status as a Middle Class person than a White Person. For example:

“If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area, which I can afford and in which I would want to live.”

“I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.”

“I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.”

“If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.”

And there are so many more points in the essay where the word “race” could be substituted for the word “class” which would ultimately paint a very different picture. That is why I had such a hard time identifying with this essay for so long. When I first wrote about White Privilege years ago, I demanded to know why this White Woman felt that my experiences were the same as hers when no, my family most certainly could not rent housing “in an area which we could afford and want to live.”

And no, I couldn’t go shopping without fear in our low income neighborhoods.

The idea that any ol’ white person can find a publisher for a piece is most certainly a symptom of class privilege. Having come from a family of people who didn’t even graduate high school, who knew not a single academic or intellectual person, it would never occur to me to assume that I could be published. It is an absolute freak anomaly that I’m in graduate school considering not one person on either side of my family has a college degree. And it took me until my thirties to ever believe that someone from my stock could achieve such a thing. Poverty colors nearly everything about your perspective on opportunities for advancement in life. Middle class, educated people assume that anyone can achieve their goals if they work hard enough. Folks steeped in poverty rarely see a life past working at the gas station, making the rent on their trailer, and self-medicating with cigarettes and prescription drugs until they die of a heart attack. (I’ve just described one whole side of my family and the life I assumed I’d be living before I lucked out of it.)

…recognizing Privilege doesn’t mean suffering guilt or shame for your lot in life.

I, maybe more than most people, can completely understand why broke white folks get pissed when the word “Privilege” is thrown around. As a child, I was constantly discriminated against because of my poverty and those wounds still run very deep. But luckily my college education introduced me to a more nuanced concept of Privilege; the term Intersectionality. The concept of Intersectionality recognizes that people can be privileged in some ways and definitely not privileged in others. There are many different types of privilege, not just skin color privilege, that impact the way people can move through the world or are discriminated against. These are all things you are born into, not things you earned, that afford you opportunities others may not have. For example:

Citizenship – Simply being born in this country affords you certain privileges non-citizens will never access.

Class – Being born into a financially stable family can help guarantee your health, happiness, safety, education, intelligence, and future opportunities.

Sexual Orientation – By being born straight, every state in this country affords you privileges that non-straight folks have to fight the Supreme Court for.

Sex – By being born male, you can assume that you can walk through a parking garage without worrying you’ll be raped and that a defense attorney will then blame it on what you were wearing.

Ability – By being born able bodied, you probably don’t have to plan your life around handicap access, braille, or other special needs.

Gender – By being born cisgendered, you aren’t worried that the restroom or locker room you use will invoke public outrage.

♦◊♦

As you can see, belonging to one or more category of Privilege, especially being a Straight White Middle Class Able-Bodied Male, can be like winning a lottery you didn’t even know you were playing. But this is not to imply that any form of privilege is exactly the same as another or that people lacking in one area of privilege understand what it’s like to be lacking in other areas. Race discrimination is not equal to Sex Discrimination and so forth.

And listen, recognizing Privilege doesn’t mean suffering guilt or shame for your lot in life. Nobody’s saying that Straight White Middle Class Able-Bodied Males are all a bunch of assholes who don’t work hard for what they have. Recognizing Privilege simply means being aware that some people have to work much harder just to experience the things you take for granted (if they ever can experience them at all.)

I know now that I AM Privileged in many ways. I am Privileged as a natural born white citizen. I am privileged as a cis-gendered woman. I am privileged as an able-bodied person. I am privileged that my first language is also our national language, and that I was born with an intellect and ambition that pulled me out of the poverty I was otherwise destined for. I was privileged to be able to marry my way “up” by partnering with a Privileged middle-class educated male who fully expected me to earn a college degree.

There are a million ways I experience Privilege, and some that I certainly don’t. But thankfully, Intersectionality allows us to examine these varying dimensions and degrees of discrimination while raising awareness of the results of multiple systems of oppression at work.

Tell me, are you a White Person made uncomfortable by the term “White Privilege?” Does a more nuanced approach help you see your own Privilege more clearly?

 

Originally appeared at TheFeministBreeder.com, photo and content courtesy of the author.

Follow Gina on Facebook and Twitter @feministbreeder

 

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About Gina Crosley-Corcoran

Gina Crosley-Corcoran is the author and advocate behind TheFeministBreeder.com and contributing author to the recently released anthology "The Good Mother Myth" (Seal Press, 2014). Gina is also a doula, speaker, and Master of Public Heath candidate. She lives in Chicagoland with her husband and three small children.

Follow Gina on Facebook and Twitter @feministbreeder

Comments

  1. Black people get audited by the IRS cause they’re black? How does the IRS know?

    • Zip code.

    • The problem is that criminal tax preparers proliferate in low-income neighborhoods. Essentially, you get audited because you only knew/were only able to afford (or perhaps in some cases deliberately chose) a tax preparer who drives around in a van in city neighborhoods promising a “rapid refund” and then secures it through tax fraud with your name/income/data. Then everyone whose taxes that person prepared gets audited. (This might be a case where once again the problem adheres more to class than race, but I wouldn’t be surprised if these these tax preparers actually target poor people of color, under the assumption that they are low-information taxpayers.)

  2. wellokaythen says:

    White privilege does exist as some general tendencies and some specific effects.

    However, one problem with the analysis is that “white” is very much a moving target. In some bureaucratic systems like Equal Opportunity forms, census questionnaires, etc., “white” in America includes Arab Americans, Lebanese Americans, Turkish Americans, and Eastern Europeans. It’s hard to make a claim that Arab Americans enjoy the same level of “privilege” in society that WASP’s do. In the weeks after 9/11, some Italian Americans were kicked off of airline flights because they looked too swarthy.

    The categories are porous and have no objective definitions. Someone said above that no one can stop being white. That’s not entirely true. Over the past few centuries, some groups of people have “become white,” like Irish Americans, so it stands to reason that some people could stop being white. It has to do with the ways that today’s generation puts people in boxes. In 30 years, the categories may be very different. You could actually be expelled from the ranks of white people, the way that Native American tribal organizations can cancel your membership no matter what you look like, which means you stop having a legal status as a Native American.)

    I’m not saying it would be easy to stop being white, but people transition from being male to being female, and sex categories have way more biological reality behind them than racial categories, so why can’t you change your race? Tell people you aren’t white anymore, and if they challenge you, ask them how they intend to prove it.

    (By the way, shouldn’t more precisely be “non-Hispanic white” privilege?)

    When you add up the massive aggregate of exceptions to the rule, the theory starts to look a little frazzled. That doesn’t mean that it has no truth, but it’s not nearly as comprehensive as many of its true believers seem to think.

    Meanwhile, white privilege theorists better hurry. Among young people, the number of people who refuse to identify as a particular race is growing by leaps and bounds. More and more teenagers today think the categories are so archaic and stupid that they’re opting out of using them. At many colleges and universities, the fastest growing ethnic/racial category is “none of the above” or “choose not to answer.”

    • If I understand you correctly, you may be missing the point. White privilege isn’t about how a person self-identifies or fits into official bureaucratic categories, it’s about how the rules, laws, customs, traditions, economies and habits of a geographical area can negatively impact people of colour, those that are visibly different from the white majority.

  3. One of the greatest privileges I’ve enjoyed is not having been taught that I can’t make it in this world because some other group is holding me down.

    • wellokaythen says:

      Yes, you have privilege because you are not hindered by the paranoia that another race is holding you back. I’m not sure how to give up that privilege except by becoming more paranoid. I’ll be hanging on to the privilege of not worrying about privilege. I won’t give that up.

    • Anonymous says:

      Evan, We are not “taught” that one group is holding another down. We see it happening. Call a spade a spade and move on. I personally know a realtor who did not let a large family of colour rent a house in my neighborhood. The house stayed empty for two years. I have countless personal examples. I hold no grudges or whine. Ignorance exists. Deal with it.

  4. The problem with the notion of privilege is that it is applied unilaterally. To say that males are privileged acknowledges that there are benefits to being male and drawbacks to being female, but denies the existence of benefits to being female, and drawbacks to being male (consider a history of military conscription spanning millennia). In most cases it is inaccurate to say that “group X is privileged over group Y”, it would be better to say that “In general, group X is privileged over group Y in situation Z”.

  5. You get what you get and you don’t get upset. Anything else is bullhockey.

    I grew up “white” and I must have lost my privileges because the Govt cut funding for TAP and Pelll so I couldn’t finish my undergraduate degree, and, at 51 years old am still struggling to pay the bills.

    On the other hand, a friend of mine got a full scholarship under a program designed specifically for his ethnicity. I’m not going to say I’m jealous because he’s got his own issues…

    ‘We cannot blame the white people any longer.’ ~Dr.. William Henry ‘Bill’ Cosby, Jr., Ed..D.

    • I am not sure I get your point. The problem seems to be that some expect privileges to exist linearly, when in fact, they bob and weave like a hyperactive boxer. The exist in some situations and disappear in others. Few have privileges in all circumstances.

      Since black people weren’t free to enjoy or pursue enjoyment of their franchise; voting rights, getting good jobs and voting for representation, which means access to funds, until 1965,I’d say that white males who did had quite a head start. being the descendants of free white people rather than slaves is quite a privilege.

  6. Sewindo T. says:

    I have a friend, white, who grew up in Rhodesia in the early 1970’s. Did his skin-color give him privileged there (when his dirt-poor father and mother were killed for being white)?

    To take a specific scenario, such as black and white America and derive a ‘general truth’ from that example (too small subset) and apply that general truth universally is a fallacy (Hasty Generalization).

    White people in N. America is privileged because that is the dominant culture. In most ‘free dominant cultures’ the dominant culture is privileged. Cultures were the dominant culture is not privileged are often called ‘tyrannies’.

    It is privileged to be Arabic in Saudi Arabia for example (or Vietnamese in Vietnam), but if Arabs in Saudi Arabia were ‘disadvantaged’ instead, clearly some type of tranny would be in place. It is also a fallacy to suggest that just because a dominant culture that that dominant culture doesn’t experience hardship. (For example a white male in Vancouver Canada is disadvantaged trying to get an engineering job because many of those jobs are looking for ‘visible minorities’ yet white is the visible minority (by a wide margin) in Math/Science at typical British Columbia Universities (provincial statistics))

    White’s who spend time worry about ‘white privilege’ should try spending time in a nation with a minority white demographic or none-at-all. This would at least cultivate a balanced perspective.

  7. yes, a more nuanced discussion would help me immensely.

    Thank you so much for what you’re doing with class in this piece. Class is important, and we do not put enough thought into it in the U.S.

    FWIW, i do not feel guilty about my white male privilege. That would be like feeling guilty about the color of my hair, since I was born this way and all. But neither do I accept any grief from people who look at my whiteness and masculinity and attach privileges to me which I don’t benefit from. Like wealth. I do not benefit from wealth, and it offends the hell out of me when people look at me and put that on me.

  8. It’s not skin color, it’s culture

    “There are some black and Hispanic groups in America that far outperform some white and Asian groups. Immigrants from many West Indian and African countries, such as Jamaica, Ghana, and Haiti, are climbing America’s higher education ladder, but perhaps the most prominent are Nigerians. Nigerians make up less than 1 percent of the black population in the United States, yet in 2013 nearly one-quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry; over a fourth of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, as compared with only about 11 percent of whites.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/26/opinion/sunday/what-drives-success.html?pagewanted=all

  9. “Nobody’s saying that Straight White Middle Class Able-Bodied Males are all a bunch of assholes who don’t work hard for what they have.”

    But that’s exactly what I hear. Phrases like “cis-scum”. Sweeping generalizations about white men like we’re such a uniform group.

    What I hear is essentially this: “I hate ageists, people who judge others by sexual orientation, racists, and sexists. Those old straight white men are jerks!”

    I understand that’s not the INTENT, nor the PHILOSOPHY, but it certainly seems to be the PRACTICE.

    The most optimistic thing I had ever seen regarding this sort of thing: A black man went to a nearly all-black barbershop pretending to be a racist, saying things like “those white people are keeping us down. I don’t have to give them haircuts. They aren’t sitting in MY chair”

    One by one, the surrounding black customers were standing up to this sort of talk. “How does this make you any better?” “Why can’t you treat him as a brother, rather than a race?” “You think because we are kept down that it means THIS MAN is keeping you down?” The whole theme was “equality and partnership”, not specifically “black empowerment”, which is what makes me much more comfortable talking about racial issues.

    You don’t see as much of this kind of cross-talk error-correction in feminism. Black rights is called, neutrally, “civil rights”, while gender rights is called “feminism”. Social issues are often turned into women-exclusive gender issues.

    (Worried about being raped in the parking lot? It’s certainly horrible and gender biased, but also compare how often it actually happens. Compare this to, say, being mugged in the parking lot, which happens much more often, and mostly towards men. If women have to constantly live in fear of being raped in public on the way to work, men should wear kevlar and carry automatic weapons for other kinds of assault. DATING and SEX are where this story flips.)

    Luckily, there are people like “Miss Representation” who talk about men and boys in “The Mask You Live In”. Not everyone’s favorite narrative, but we have to encourage the progress, rather than nitpick its imperfections. Most feminist-related groups I’ve been in wouldn’t dare talk about the male perspective like that.

  10. carolyons says:

    Great article. People tend to base their perception on silly anecdotes rather than reality. Census data in the US shows that minorities and women (and especially minority women) are the poorest in the country. I saw this great study regarding upward mobility that you might enjoy reading. It’s lengthy but worth the read and the researchers created a cool interactive map online. http://obs.rc.fas.harvard.edu/chetty/mobility_geo.pdf.

  11. I grew up privileged. I was born into a family that loved me. My parents were married before I came along and are still married, more than half a century later. They raised me to be a Christian. I had grandparents of strong faith and honor who taught me and my brothers and cousins a great deal about how to live our lives. My parents worked hard to provide us with a good house, food on the table and a few possessions, although we were by no means wealthy. Their support and our own hard work enabled us to get college degrees and start our own careers and families. The values of loyalty and faith, hard work and discipline, personal integrity and accountability that we learned from our parents and grandparents have served us well. There have been potholes in the road and not all the choices I’ve made have been smart ones, but by and large I have achieved a measure of success and fulfillment with which I’m satisfied.
    Now, notice I have not said whether I am male or female, what my ethnicity is, or even what gender I have chosen to sleep with. We were raised to believe that those things didn’t really matter. Evidently to other people they matter a great deal.

    • My mother spoke similarly of how far hard work would take us. She pointed out the privileges that we don’t have and what we have to overcome in comparison to some others, but her focus wasn’t on what we couldn’t do or how society inhibits/inhibited us, it was on how I need to improve myself to achieve it.

  12. As an older working poor white male I’d have to agree with the majority of this article. Worked with a friend 3 years ago, he’s black and younger, in his early ’30’s, and kinda dapper, a charmer. I needed to go to my bank, which was located inside a Walmart and the branch of which didn’t open until 10 am. We got there at about 9:20 and I’d been there many times by myself, construction shop clothes, never hassled. That day we found that, “May I Help You” really means May I Watch Your Every Move Because You Are Suspect; it was uncanny, employees popped up from the strangest places, asking if we needed help. At least 3 different times. I understand these political concepts but had never been, well, followed, for having a black friend.

  13. Yay, more white liberal self hating post-colonial guilt.I was beginning to think we’d ran out of that stuff. I guess not!

  14. Height. For a man, being tall provides privilege in most if not all societies.

    I am not tall.
    So, does pointing out the existence of “tall privilege” help me?
    Perhaps but I don’t see how.

  15. ogwriter says:

    @Steve When exactly did issues like colonialism get resolved and to whose satisfaction? The reality is most Americans, of whatever color, do not know much about colonialism. Even after colonialism ended European countries continued to rape Africa. Which is similar to what happened to blacks in the south after slavery ended, they were punished by whites for 100 years. I don’t understand ,why was it sooooo wrong for Hitler to do exactly what America, Spain, the English, the French and so many others had done for hundreds of years, for the EXACT same reasons. What all of these groups had in common was bigotry. Colonialism fueled by bigotry has shaped the world we live in today. When was that fixed? When were these groups compensated for their injuries and sufferings? How in the hell does anyone expect these groups of thugs who did these things to be respected? Case in point. Commodore Perry used extortion-the threat of war -to force Japan to trade with us. Pure and simple extortion. Yet, in our history books, his bullying is congratulated. We were willing to kill people who offered no threat to us, for not trading with us. And yes, we thought we were superior to them. We taught them a lesson too. That in order to compete, they had to be like all of the white colonial powers. Hello Pearl Harbor. Hello colonization of China. Hello atom bomb. Bigotry is lethal and has controlled the world for too long. Nothing has been fixed ..

  16. I am really starting to research intersectionalities and finding that privilege is not really an ascriptive trait such as male or white, but about a combination of things that affect one;s local position.

  17. The Yellow Dragon says:

    Hey idiots, if you hadn’t noticed yet, more and more people are willing to help others to make their lives easier and better. Race, gender, sex, no matter, every social group get better. I like when you said that you don’t want white people to feel guilty about themselves, when you insensitives creeps are telling white people, especially white, straight guys to feel ”privilegied”, trying to ”put them in their places” instead of treating everyone equally and do wonders. ”Privilegied” or not, people help others, and you better do this yourselves instead of being failures at life. What, you think that if white people crush themselves that everyone will be equal? Get real, posers. All is this doing to do is create more tensions, and rightly so. Oh, and if someone is stupid enough to resort something stupid like ”Hurr, durr, white male complaing, hurr, hurr”, then you’ll prove yourself to others that you think that ”white males” opinion’s value is less important that others instead of as important, defeating your point as treating people equally, no matter the sex or the race.

  18. It is true that there are privileges for many in this world, I certainly don’t look at it that way, but that’s how the world works. I believe each person can be different in their own way and make something out of themselves, that can defeat the purpose of privilege because it can show others something different.

  19. This article is fantastic, it describes it well. As a straight, white, cis, able-bodied, middle class male I know it’s certainly like I’ve won a lottery I didn’t even know I was in.

Trackbacks

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  2. […] Gina Crosley-Corcoran, Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person […]

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