May 25

Whiteness and “Check Your Privilege”

In Brief—The currently popular phrase, “Check your privilege,” suggests that whiteness confers advantages not enjoyed by people of color who are most often disadvantaged by the difference in skin color.


 The Advantages of Whiteness—

They called me “Whitey.” It stung but it influenced my life’s philosophy. I experienced what it was like to be “The Other.” It was a long time ago when I was one of very few Anglos in a school where most students were Hispanic. They were the majority while I was one of only three in the class whose skin was of a lighter hue than my classmates. Does it mean that they are clannish and tribal like the rest of humanity? Yes, but it also reveals what it is like in a society long identified with “whiteness” and the privilege that goes with it. For our purposes, American society.

By now, many of you have read about the Princeton freshman, Tal Fortgang, who recently wrote an essay that expressed resentment over the expression of fellow students that suggested his efforts and that of his grandparents and parents weighed little in the scheme of things. He has naturally been embraced by the Right Wing while in my view as well as that of many others, he has missed the clear but sometimes obscured point that “Check your privilege” means that whiteness confers advantages that are not given to those of a different skin color, notably people with black and brown and, to a lesser degree, yellow skins. As far as I can see, it has nothing to do with individual or family efforts or respect for education, but everything to do with structural racism that exists today and has existed since the nation’s founding.

Years of respected research have shown that Black and Hispanic children are far more likely to attend public schools that receive significantly less money than schools in wealthy areas; that college graduates of color not only make significantly less on graduation than comparably-educated white men, they make less throughout their careers; that accused defendants of color receive tougher sentences than white defendants with the same charges, and so on at all levels. Recall that more than a hundred thousand people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated during WWII despite a total absence of evidence of disloyalty and based solely on being “The Other.”

A cursory glance through the daily press shows that discrimination against people of color exists in education, law enforcement, the courts, the workplace and generally throughout American society. To ignore the implications is to hide one’s basic, often subconscious, assumptions and biases.

Since many reading this are of the white hue, readers are challenged to examine their own assumptions. You may be surprised at what you find. Check your privilege.


Skip to comment form

  1. Don, as you know I spend most of my time in South Africa. 20 years after Mandela was elected president a version of Apartheid is still in place in the small town where we live. Examples: at the only grocery black people must check their packs and parcels before entering the store. No such requirement exists for me. An employee of ours is stopped and questioned walking on the road where we both live as to who he is and where he is going even though he has lived here, on this road, his whole life. Other examples abound. Here, where black people make up 90% of the population, whites still control the economy and make the rules. A butcher we know who works in another town applied for a job at the local grocery here. He was told that they couldn’t afford him because they could hire three black butchers for what it would take to hire him. The examples go on and on.

      • Don Bay on May 26, 2014 at 16:49

      Whoa! I’m shocked that apartheid conditions still exist in South Africa so long after Mandela led the country out of that dark era. I understand that Mandela had to make a pact with the devil to keep S.A. from slipping into the chaos that has afflicted Zimbabwe and too many other African countries, but that blacks are subjected to such oppressive and demeaning conditions after twenty years warps my mind. It only emphasizes the intent of this piece: that white skin confers advantages that people of darker hues don’t enjoy. That said, such conditions go well beyond oppressive and demeaning. Can any society long exist under such conditions before it leads to an explosion?

      Do you get any sense that this will disappear or will it only become more entrenched? If there’s any message to be taken away from what you describe, I doesn’t bode well for the future of the USA when whites will become more and more the minority.

    • kathyswizards on May 25, 2014 at 17:33

    My husband and I discuss this topic from time to time. When discussing the inequities he’s faced as a Hispanic man, we discover that I, as a woman, have faced many of the same inequities.

      • Don Bay on May 26, 2014 at 17:10

      You have told me about experiences of discrimination Bob has dealt with in places like Arizona and elsewhere than New Mexico where the majority are of Hispanic or Native American descent, but that you have experienced some of the same discrimination says that females have yet to achieve the same status as males despite the gains that have been made. Though I have written about the forms of discrimination faced by females, your comment suggests that the subject is ripe for discussion again…and again.

      Bob’s experiences illustrate that in far too many places and instances white skin confers advantages not enjoyed by those of a darker hue. That is disgraceful and needs to end, but as long as humans are clannish and tribal, the discrimination will not end. A good friend once said to me that she looked forward to the day when all of humankind would be coffee colored. Good thought, but I fear that such will never happen.

  2. Birds of a feather flock together.
    That is as true now as it ever has been. And, I fear, will always be true.
    As primitive as it may sound, we are, in fact, tribal. And those tribes which have conquered, suppressed, or enslaved another tribe, will always feel superior and ‘better than’.
    Many theories from the ignorant past as to genetic superiority still manifest as true among many who, it might be said, have never evolved themselves. And even among those of us who claim to be enlightened thinkers, there still remains a tiny glow from the embers of fear, mistrust, and suspicion for those not of our tribe.
    You’re white, alone, walking down a dark U.S. street. A black man is walking towards you. A vast majority, when pressed, might admit discomfort at this scenario. But if it’s a member of your own tribe coming towards you……not so much.
    I fear that this problem will NEVER go away. And a society that is structured to suppress and deny will guarantee that it does not.

      • Don Bay on May 26, 2014 at 17:30

      Unfortunately, I agree with you. As Charles Blow implied in today’s New York Times, everybody has been infected, to a greater or lesser degree, with the virus of tribalism. Though Blow discusses it in different terms, I believe it boils down to tribalism and clannishness. Based on what I have read, the evidence reveals that it goes well beyond racial differences. The human animal, having evolved from lower life forms, has carried those traits forward for millions of years. What we need to do is work on diminishing the tribal tendency as much as possible. Many today have achieved that, but too many still have not. Still, we must work on it.

    • Linda on May 28, 2014 at 04:11

    I have an African American friend who moved to South Africa with her husband years ago. Two of her kids were accepted into Howard University. She sat down with both of them to discuss their behavior as blacks in the U.S. as opposed to being upper class blacks in S. A. She told them they can expect to be stopped by authorities and how to speak to them. Her kids thought she was being too cautious and didn’t understand the dynamnics, but being a black woman raised in Los Angeles she was dead serious.

    It brought to mind a moment in my past, the day the curfew was lifted in Los Angeles after the Watt’s Riots. I was a cheerleader in high school in Los Angeles. Coming from a school that was a third white, a third black and a third Asian, that was also the make-up of our cheerleading team. We were politically saavy about the politics of high school. The Culver High cheerleaders asked us to do an exchange of routines on their campus. They had permission from the principal who told them if we could hop the fence we could practice on their field. At that time, Culver High was predominately white.

    During our practice, we were suddenly surrounded by cops in full riot gear, weapons drawn and aimed walking towards us. The girl next to me was black. She walked over to me and told me she was scared. I was scared, too, but not in the same way or degree. I could feel her fear. She thought they would shoot her. It was a moment I will never forget. It was the moment when I began to understand how different life was for her — for blacks — in comparison to mine, even as another minority. A resident next to the high school saw us climb the fence and called the cops saying there were black kids jumping the fence into the school. Understand there were two blacks, two Asians, and EIGHT white teenaged girls who jumped that fence but the call was that there were blacks jumping the fence into the high school.

      • Don Bay on May 28, 2014 at 11:15

      This is a perfect illustration of the point of the “Whiteness” blog piece. It certainly appears that time has not changed the ugly dynamics of skin color discrimination. The problem now is that racial prejudice has to some degree gone underground in that some people will deny being prejudiced even when confronted with the evidence that they are indeed harboring bias. Barack Obama has unfortunately allowed the blatant racists in society to feel emboldened. Irresponsible talk show hosts have only added to this witch’s brew.

      The Watts riots arose by virtue of the frustrations of the black community at the treatment they have received and continue to receive in America. Now we are witness to the ugliness spreading to those with Hispanic roots. Those of Asian heritage suffered greatly in the past but are less targeted currently. With China flexing its muscles, I don’t expect that to last, by the way. The ignorant (meaning lacking information) whites in America feel threatened by visible demographic changes. Couple this with badly trained police, simmering racism and a broken judicial system and you see the makings of justifiable anger erupting across the nation.

      Please note in my reply to Dave’s comment that I believe all (well, almost all humans) harbor at least some spark of prejudice deep inside. It’s what we do with that, the recognition of that irrationality, that separates the bigots from the rational and honest among us. Those of us harboring that spark and recognizing it must do all we can to diminish or eliminate it entirely.

      I must add, though it is too late now, a simple phone call to the Taft school administration would have avoided what you have described. Still, the incident added greatly to your life’s philosophy, so despite the negativity of the situation (particularly for the black girls involved), there was a positive outcome for at least one present that day.

Comments have been disabled.