Two recent homicide trials in the United States, involving a white teenager in Wisconsin and 3 white men in Georgia, have led me to once again reflect upon the term “White Privilege”. The basics of the respective cases are these: during anti-racist protests in August 2020, the white teenager in question (Kyle Rittenhouse) shot three protestors – 2 fatally – and minutes later he walked to the police line with an AK-15 rifle across his shoulder unperturbed, was allowed to leave the scene and handed himself in to his local police about an hour later.
Five months earlier, in February 2020 an unarmed 25 year old black jogger (Ahmaud Arbery) was running through a white neighbourhood, he was followed by three white men in two pick-up trucks, who suspected him of unspecified wrong doing and he was killed by three shots to his stomach fired by one of those men (Travis McMichael). No one was arrested for this shooting until 74 days later when a video immerged of the chase and killing was made public.
It is useful to begin by stating what “White Privilege” is not. Many poor white people living in poverty would recoil at the very idea that they are “privileged”. Privilege It is not just about money or wealth, the social strata into which you were born, being raised in a single-parent family, the recipient of free school meals, or the education of your parents. These are straw men, erected for diversionary purposes or just misunderstanding.
Compared to people of colour, it is about being given the benefit of doubt, it is about not having to work twice as hard to be seen as equal, where respect is not something that you have to actively work for, it is given even when it is not earned or warranted, having your views respected and heard even if those views are at times unhelpful. In other words, white skin colour protects against many forms of discrimination and, according to the author Mikki Kendall, just being white means you are almost randomly assigned a head start.
So “White Privilege” is the intangible privilege that white people don’t even know they have. They feel no need to “fit in” or have to prove themselves over and over again. As a result, they have an advantage. They are not burdened with the extra work of performing for the majority demographic. Privilege is about having advantages that others do not. It is also not having suffered certain hardships or disadvantages and where hardships are encountered, the barriers are fewer. This is easier to accept when acknowledging that most people have at least one privileged identity.
However, the concept of privilege doesn’t have to be offensive. The word “privilege” may appear antagonistic, but the dictionary definition is actually more subtle. It’s “a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.” Having privilege doesn’t mean you are a bad person. It just means that the playing field is tilted in your favour in most Western societies.
In contrast, Black people have to earn respect, fight to be heard, automatically viewed as untrustworthy, a threat for just being who you are – e.g. ‘big and Black’ (the reason put forward for the treatment and eventual murder of George Floyd) or ‘loud’ (my raucous laugh), except perhaps when they entertain (and not always) – remember the consequences for England’s Black footballers who missed penalties in the UEFA Euro 2020 final?
Privilege can be shared. But only by someone who has it. Privilege cannot be willed into existence by someone who lacks it. We have multiple identities and will have at least one privileged identity, no matter your ethnicity. Therefore, most of us have a privilege that can be used for the benefit of others. Within the context of “Allyship”, privilege can be used positively to drive inclusion but first it has to be acknowledged.
Dr Vivienne Connell-Hall (PhD)
Sociologist and Visiting Lecturer