50 Shades of White Privilege: #1 Birth and #2 Education

by Stephen Cobb on June 25, 2016

[Update: I originally published this post in October of 2014 when public discussion of “White Privilege” surfaced in mainstream media and it became clear to me that some white people did not understand the concept. I am republishing this article now because of a tweet about Black Lives Matter that I sent out earlier in the day: “If your response to Black Lives Matter is All Lives Matter then you are definitely missing the point and probably white”. Several hashtags and phrases appeared in response to that tweet:

  1. we are all given the same start
  2. #nooneowesyoushit
  3. #iearnedmine 

I think my original article demolishes #1 and I am pretty sure #2 is a red herring. To point out the many ways in which our society acts as if black lives matter less than white lives is not to say that anyone is owed anything, except for a level playing field, equal respect, equal access to justice, capital, healthcare, and so on.

As for #3, how can I put this? I did earn the money in my bank account, but being white meant that throughout my career more doors were opened wider, and less obstacles were placed in my path, than if I had been black. I got mortgages and loans more easily. I got better medical care than if I were black. And I never got stopped or harassed for driving or walking while black. To put it simply, every successful black man that I know had to work a lot harder to get ahead than I did. So here is what I wrote in 2014, republished with a promise to continue the originally promised series of posts as soon as I have finished my dissertation.]

Original article:

White privilege exists. I know because I’m white and I have benefited from that simple fact every day of my life. After six decades of living, I can say with confidence that my life has been easier than it would have been if I was not white. White privilege exists in America and Britain, Canada, Australia, and pretty much anywhere else dominated by white people. And when white privilege goes unacknowledged, it presents — certainly in my experience — a serious barrier to achieving racial harmony.

Why write about white privilege?

I have benefited from white privilege in so many ways, some positive, others non-negative, that I thought I would list them. By articulating my experience of these different shades of white privilege, my hope is to enlighten — pun not intended, but I rather like it — some of the remaining “white privilege deniers” out there. And if other white folks can articulate their experiences of privilege to their white friends and relatives and colleagues, then maybe we will stand a chance of achieving some sort of racial harmony, for one thing is quite clear: racial harmony is still a promised land, a place in human history that has been glimpsed but not yet attained.

What is white privilege?

Before I get to my Shades of White Privilege list, I wanted to offer a few notes about how the term white privilege is being using in the second decade of the 21st century. I find it interesting to track #WhitePrivilege in Twitter. And there is an interesting definition in Wikipedia — I know it’s not a primary academic source, but it can be a useful starting point. Right now the Wikipedia definition says:

White privilege (or white skin privilege) is a term for societal privileges that benefit white people beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people in the same social, political, or economic circumstances. [October 19, 2014]

The footnote to this definition lists a variety of other definitions of white privilege that are sourced and worth checking. Two notable articles that help explain the concept are “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh, and “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person…” The latter is particularly helpful in getting past the idea that white privilege does not apply to white people who have experienced hardship and prejudice.

For example, although I generally think of myself as having lived a charmed life, I have experienced being flat broke on a number of occasions. At one point I was homeless as well. But I have no doubt that getting through those tough times was a lot easier for me than it would have been for a person of color. I think it is important to acknowledge that reality, rather than fall for the fantasy we too often hear from our fellow white Americans: “If I can work my way out of tough times, so can they.”

For me, white privilege embodies two concepts:

  1. despite the many advances toward equality over the last 50 years, being born white still makes life easier [in America, Britain, and many other countries] than if you are born non-white;
  2. we need to change that.

I begin my look at the shades of white privilege with #1 Birth.

White Privilege Shade #1 Birth

I was born white in a very white time and place: Britain in the 1950s. At that point in time there were about 50 million people living in Britain and more than 99.99% of them were white. So how could I experience white privilege? Were my parents rich? Not in British terms. But I was born in a very comfortable and well-built home that had electricity and indoor plumbing. I was delivered into the world by a well-equipped midwife and pronounced healthy shortly thereafter by a well-educated doctor who made house calls. The fact is, although my family was not rich by British standards, Britain was rich by world standards.

How did Britain get to be rich? Was it through industry and innovation? Well, there was a lot of that, but where did the capital come from? Two hundred years of systematic theft on a global scale, enterprises such as:

  • relentlessly plundering lands that belonged to non-white people,
  • stripping them of their natural resources,
  • relocating millions of those non-white people for cash and other remuneration, and
  • exploiting those non-white people for cheap labor.

Sure, my dad was a hard working man and my parents maintained a modest lifestyle to make the most of his earnings, but like generations of British people before them, they were experiencing a more comfortable lifestyle than 90% of the rest of the planet, thanks to what the country of their birth, and mine, had taken from others, people who were not white like them. (Before you ask, let me assure you my parents don’t disagree with this version of events.)

White Privilege Shade #2 Education

As a beneficiary of Britain’s global plunder-fueled affluence in the twentieth century, I got a free education from the age of five all the way through to university. The educational facilities were excellent. There was free milk. School lunches were free until I was 11. At times I had to work hard and compete for scholarship funds but I did not lack for educational resources, or emotional and psychological support. We lived in a quiet neighborhood where every adult who wanted to work was able to do so. We had a comfortable lifestyle. The thought that my efforts to succeed might at any point be thwarted by racial prejudice never entered my mind. Indeed, thanks to white privilege, race has never ever hindered my progress in life.

Just in case you’re thinking “that was long ago and far away and things are different today,” consider this: “Top universities turn out black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering graduates at twice the rate that leading technology companies hire them.” That’s a quote from a recent USA Today analysis which revealed that even in America today, where tech graduates are very highly sought after, black and brown tech graduates are less sought after than white.

More Shades to Come

I want to get the ball rolling with this little project, so I am going to publish Shades 1 and 2 right now. The next post will start with White Privilege Shade #3: Immigration (how easy was it for a penniless white guy to emigrate to America). However, before I hit the Publish button I want to say a few words about prejudice.

Being white doesn’t mean you won’t ever experience prejudice, but I think some white people who have experienced prejudice take that to mean they are not beneficiaries of white privilege. So let me be clear, white-on-white prejudice does not take away white privilege.

For example, the year that I was six we lived in a very white town in Canada where I was picked upon and roughed up for being English. Oddly enough I decided to go back to Canada as a postgraduate teaching assistant, but after a year the university cut funding to foreign graduates in favor of Canadian students and I never got to finish that degree. Decades later I’ve put that all behind me and can honestly say that some of my best friends these days are Canadians. More important, none of those experiences did anything to diminish my white privilege (although they did give me a small taste of what non-white people may feel when they are subject to racial prejudice).

 

* That’s me in the picture, King Henry VIII School rugby team, 1968. I played second row in the “Under 15” squad. The school was named after its founder and dates back to 1545, the same year that Francis Drake, one of the first English slave traders, was born.
 

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Robin G. White December 14, 2014 at 10:34 am

THIS, my friend, is exactly how to be an excellent ally. Thank you, for always being that even when you are not asked to, especially because you are not asked to. I admire that about you. You are awesome.

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