*The graphic above documents different forms of privilege/power in American society; everything is on a spectrum in which the opposites are reflected through the origin (Anglophones in the upper right corner are the opposite of English as a second language in the lower left corner). In this country we generally default to looking favorably upon the categories above the line and not so favorably at the things below the line. I would argue that 8 of the 14 categories are related in some way to white Americans.
- Caucasians are have “white” skin so they therefore are less affected by racism.
- Caucasians are assumed to be of European in origin and therefore benefit from Eurocentrism.
- Caucasians are assumed to be credentialed and literate and so are less affected by elitism. There have been studies that random resumes with typically European names like Brian will garner more callbacks for potential jobs than an identical resume with names like Leroy – forget about it if your name is Qasim.
- American beauty standards are based on white beauty so Caucasian people are less affected by the politics of appearance. Google attractive person/celebrity and review the results.
- Caucasians are more likely to be assumed to be middle or upper socio-economic class and are therefore less likely to be affected by class bias.
- Caucasians in the United States, for the most part, speak standard English and are therefore not affected by any language bias.
- Caucasian complexions are generally lighter than non-Caucasian complexions so they benefit from colorism more than they do not.
- Caucasians are assumed to be adherents to some form of the Christian faith and so are infrequently subjected to religious oppression.
At this point I’m not arguing that any of this is good or bad, merely that these general biases exist. You may disagree. If so, then you needn’t read any further and we can agree to disagree. On the other hand if you do agree that the graphic identifies biases in American society, then it’s worth noting the effects of these biases. Furthermore I’m not arguing that all of these biases are wrong. It makes perfect sense to want a credentialed literate person to be my lawyer, the issue becomes in the assumption that some people are inherently more literate than others. Also, I’m not arguing that only Caucasian people benefit from these biases. I am sure my appearance and my ability to speak standard English helped me in my past.
I don’t claim to be a psychologist. But psychologists have argued (and I tend to agree) that being subjected to the same imagery and message over time would have an effect. For instance, if the only time someone hears about Muslims is in relation to an attack on Americans they will probably begin associating Muslims with violence. If every time someone looks up beauty they find pictures of Caucasian people they would start to value lighter skin versus darker skin. In this way these biases get reproduced in the next generation of decision makers and eventually turn into policy initiatives or preferences among modelling agencies about who to hire and expectations among the public about who to see in our advertisements and entertainment. Of course there are many statistics and studies that suggest a difference in how African Americans are policed versus Caucasian Americans.
At this point I am arguing that some of these biases are bad.
So do you feel attacked yet? I hope not. I’ve tried to express my position without highlighting any individuals or specific decisions. Institutional racism is a concept I did not believe when I initially heard it (in college 20 years ago). But it is the most likely explanation for the screenshot of the burglary stories. Either the individual reporter or editor was racist and wanted to show that African Americans are criminals while Caucasians are not even though both groups got arrested for the same crime. Or there are methods and procedures that someone might not even notice they are following that perpetuate the idea that African Americans are criminals while Caucasians are not even though both groups got arrested for the same crime. By the way, I’m open to suggestions if you have another explanation.
Negative reactions to this information is common and understandable. In my past if someone started talking about people from the Bronx, I listened a bit closer to see what kind of box the person was constructing to put me in. But I have recognized this and now remind myself they may not be referring to me. Similarly if someone starts talking about white privilege it is natural as a Caucasian American to believe they are referencing you and begin feeling negative toward them. Still it is important to recognize that these biases in American society are not your work and you therefore should not feel attacked when someone references their existence. In reaction to discussions of white privilege many people will point out the struggles that they endured growing up (and/or struggles of family members). Given those hardships it may be difficult to perceive that any advantages were given to you. But for every story of perseverance for which those individuals deserve all the credit in the world there is another story of people who were not given the same chance. Those who might congratulate themselves or their family for being able to persist in getting out of communist held countries in after World War II are ignoring the fact that in the same relative time period (1930s for Jews and Ethiopians versus 1940s and 1950s for those fleeing communism), the United States did not accept Jewish refugees or commit to helping Ethiopia repel Italian invaders. I do not chalk all this up to white privilege but I do believe it is a factor in why the United States helped (deserving) Eastern Europeans fleeing from danger but not Jews nor Ethiopians.
The fact that you cannot perceive the effects of white privilege on your life doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Before anyone articulated germ theory and before we could see microscopic organisms with microscopes, the fact remained that bacteria and viruses were the things that caused sickness. But even assuming that white privilege has never been a factor in your life, it would be an unreasonable leap in logic that white privilege has never been a factor in anyone’s life.
I don’t know how people have phrased this information in that past argument that made you want to walk away. I would argue that white privilege is one of many factors that influence how a person’s life turns out in the United States. It isn’t the only factor (you identified class – which I agree is another, probably more important factor); it isn’t impossible to overcome (I started out as a poor kid in the Bronx whose mother was on government assistance) but I do believe it exists. And ultimately I’m not asking any Caucasian people to deny their identity or develop a negative self-image. I’m asking them to acknowledge that being white in our country is an advantage.
(No I’m not advocating the abuse the but the kernel of this joke rings true to me)
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.