Privilege is hard to see for those who have it. It is impossible to ignore for those who don’t have it. I am an anti-racism trainer in America; I get message after message from white people asking me to explain privilege. Many get it. Many refuse to see it. Many are wrestling with the “what do I do” with their privilege.
I am reluctant to answer these messages because there have been so many great responses written that answer the questions already: What is white privilege? How do I add to it?
How do I answer it differently? Why are these excellent responses not good enough? Why did they not understand it years ago when they were asked to unpack the White Knapsack? Why didn’t they hear the author of I, RACIST? How am I going to say this so that they finally understand and hear me?
I have started this article over and over again, and each time I come back to one basic principle. The cold hard fact of the matter is that white privilege is simply the privilege to enjoy the benefit of the doubt. It is the root system supporting the privilege tree. Whites get to be human.
Whites are automatically assumed to be good. Whites are assumed to be smart. Whites are assumed to be right. White privilege means you are immediately perceived to be an individual who is always the best version of humanity. You are Dr. Jekyll first. Every system you interact with will treat you with gloved hands. Every person you meet will see your humanity first. Every day you will be allowed to be a free and clear version of you. You will be given the benefit of the doubt. Because you are white, you can be trusted and assumed good based solely on your white skin.
You don’t have to worry about being shot in your home through your kitchen window. You can eat ice cream on your couch without wondering if you locked the door. If your toddler grabs a dollar toy at the store, you will not be ordered to the ground at gunpoint while holding your baby. If you walk into an interview you will not be expected to prove you ‘belong,’ because they know, just by looking at you, that you do. You are fully human, with all of those rights given and only taken once you violate a societal norm.
People of color are not given the benefit of the doubt. People of color are automatically seen as dangerous until they prove otherwise. People of color are Mr. Hyde first. People of color are seen as stupid until they articulate they are worthy through their speech and mannerisms. People of color interact with a world that views them as the worst version of humanity. People of color simply don’t get the benefit of the doubt.
I work in the criminal justice field and witness firsthand one facet of this new adaptation. Our justice system is a penal-based system impersonating a restorative one. Most cases are drug offenses or crimes committed to support a drug habit. The population affected by drugs is shifting from brown bodies to white souls. In the Eighties, when crack cocaine was destroying the African-American community, the solution was to lock them up. This devastated communities by affecting unity, family structure, and economic stability. Drug users, sellers, and their families faced harsh sentencing, a lack of rehabilitation options, and the stigma associated with crime.
Now, we are shifting to a balanced view. We are considering drug use both a public health and criminal epidemic. The only difference between now and then is the drastic increase in the number of whites using drugs. Courts are beginning to help defendants through recovery programs instead of jail time. When it was a “crack problem in the hood,” it was not an important issue to address. Oppression makes it so you lose the right to be an individual, a human being. You lose the right to have your problems matter. Your community doesn’t matter as much as a white community.
In every normal situation, you can find privilege or oppression at play based on those involved in the incident. As a working mom, I bring my daughter to training and speaking engagements all the time. I always explain to her my expectation that she is to be seen not heard. To sit down and not interrupt the meeting. I will never forget one training where she acted like any other kid. She wouldn’t stop interrupting me and she kept walking through the circle of people. She was playing loudly in the room and finally, I lost it. I packed my stuff and left abruptly from the event.
My friend ran after me and said, “Sunny she is fine. You can stay. She isn’t bothering anyone.” I told her, “She can’t act like this in public. She has to learn this lesson sooner rather than later. People will judge her and me based on her perceived unruliness. It’s not the same for me as it is for you as a white person.”
Our system of privilege and oppression makes the lesson my child must learn a lot different than a white child. She must do her best, even at 5, to convince people she isn’t Mr. Hyde because they will not see her as Dr. Jekyll until she proves it. And let’s face it, she may not even get a chance to prove it. She may just be shot through the window of her home. Her life may be seen as totally inconsequential in the face of another person’s assumptions, borne from the color of her skin.
Privilege is the benefit of the doubt. White Privilege is being assumed the best version of yourself and of humanity. You get the benefit of the doubt and until you do something to undermine your perceived goodness you are treated as a person. You can move freely in the world, in a car, and in your home. You get to be human first. That is the basis of privilege: to be seen, to be heard, and to be valued as a human. Unless and until you do something to show your Mr. Hyde, you will always be Dr. Jekyll. When will we start to end privilege and give everyone the benefit of the doubt?
A Black Feminist
Co-Founder of Dimensions of Isms
Kenyona “Sunny” Matthews is a motivational speaker focusing on issues of diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism. She is a University of Akron School of Law graduate who focused on civil liberties. She earned her bachelor’s from Guilford College majoring in Political Science, Philosophy, and African American Studies. She was an active college student helping to start an Anti-Racism team at Guilford College, responsible for organizing city-wide diversity/inclusion events, and dev
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