I bristled the first time I heard the term white privilege. The insinuation that the successes that I've enjoyed somehow were the result of an unfair advantage because of my skin color offended me. I've busted my ass to get where I've gotten, and I've endured unenviable hardships that included, among others, substance abuse, domestic violence, and cancer. Despite these and worse challenges, indeed perhaps because of them, I've built a life of my own making - a life that I'm proud of. The suggestion that I had benefitted from some invisible advantage repulsed me.
Above all I'm a meritocratist. In the core of my soul I believe that merit matters, and the surest way to be successful is to earn your keep. I pity people, poor or rich, who are handed or inherit things they don't earn. Will, grit, and courage are far more attractive to me than entitlement or victimhood. If I've overcome my hardships, you can overcome yours. Life is unjust, get over it. Given my strong belief in the merits of merit, I initially viewed the term white privilege as a term that dismissed my achievements while providing a cover for the underachievement some nonwhites may have experienced.
[noun: priv-uh-lij, priv-lig]
A right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most: the privileges of the very rich. Dictionary.com
I am smart enough to know that I don't know enough about racism. In the last few years especially, it has become clear to me that something is very, very wrong with race relations in the United States. The names and stories have exploded across the mediasphere: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Stories of violent injustice spilled over into rage on the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore. Then, this past summer, nine churchgoers were gunned down during a prayer service by a 21-year-old Confederate-flag-waving redneck punk who wanted to ignite a race war. From the founding of our country, to the Civil War, to the Civil Rights movement, to today, racism, as H. Rap Brown might have said, is as American as cherry pie.
Watching all of these events troubled me deeply. It seemed naïve and dangerously counterproductive for white people to explain away some of these tragedies as rare occurrences largely due to black people's unwillingness to capitulate to mostly-white law enforcement. There had to be more to the story than the tired meme of uppity blacks.
All of this opened up a willingness for me to want to at least understand what black people meant by the term white privilege. I decided to ask Laura, a colleague of mine who I knew wouldn't condemn me for asking the question, "So what is white privilege? Give me a simple example that can help me understand it more."
"Okay," she said, "what color is a Band-Aid?"
"Skin colored", I quickly replied.
"Whose skin?" she said.
Point taken. It was such a quick and simple example. Band-Aids, for many years, were marketed as "flesh-colored." But the only flesh that it looked like were white people. Pantyhose are made the same way. Now, in and of itself, those examples don't explain white privilege, but they do provide quick, easy-to-comprehend examples of where the preferences of the dominant white society superseded the preferences of nonwhites. You can find a bunch more here.
The Band-Aid example may seem somewhat innocuous. But, according to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, unconscious bias are at work in the workplace too, and absolutely impact hiring rates among blacks. "Studies show that job applicants with 'black-sounding names' are less likely to get callbacks than those with 'white-sounding names' ... and organizations which consider themselves highly meritocratic can actually show more bias."
In one study, thousands of resumes were sent to employers with job openings. Each resume was exactly the same, except some used stereotypical African-American names such as "Jamal", while others used white names like "Brendan." Strikingly, the white-sounding names were selected for callbacks over 50% more than the black-sounding names. It takes very little effort to find scores of similar studies. Racial bias is real, provable, and has devastatingly negative consequences to the black community.
A black buddy of mine suggested that I check out #crimingwhilewhite on Twitter. There is story after story - submitted mostly by white people - about situations where white people were let go while committing a crime. I can relate. Back in the 1970s, when I was 17-years-old, two cops caught me and a friend smoking a joint on a park bench in Larchmont, NY, where I grew up. They took the joint - and nine others we had between us - and smooshed them in the dirt. After giving us a good talking-to and a stern warning, they sent us on our way.
At the time, Larchmont, NY was lily-white. If it had been two black dudes smoking that spliff, they most likely would have ended up in jail. There's no way in hell that they would have been let go. I got off because the cops could tell I was a "good kid" - and what made me "good" was the color of my skin.
If you're white it is instructive to ask your black friends about examples of bias or bigotry that they've experienced. A dear friend of mine, a successful businessman who happens to be black, told me that when he was in college at Florida State University he called an apartment complex inquiring about open units and was told there were none available. Ten minutes later, he called back using his best "white voice". The same person answered the phone, except this time there were "many" units available. I'm sure the person who answered the phone would have claimed to be a "Christian". I'm also sure they didn't act like one.
Just as I once was a good kid, these days I aim to be a good man. I want to be on the side of right. I have no desire to be a conscious or unconscious contributor to our country's very deep and very real race problems. Yes, I have earned many things on my own. Black or white, you have too. But if you're white, you've also enjoyed invisible advantages that many non-whites have not. Our merit has been enhanced ... with positive white biases and negative black ones. Goodness, first and foremost, starts with honesty. Getting honest about white privilege is a great place for good people to start.
Bill Treasurer is the founder of Giant Leap Consulting, a courage-building company (www.couragebuilding.com). He is the author of Courage Goes to Work, an international bestselling book that introduces the concept of courage-building, and Courageous Leadership: A Program for Using Courage to Transform the Workplace, a corporate training toolkit that organizations can use to build workplace courage. His latest book, Leaders Open Doors, focuses on how leaders create growth through opportunity. Bill has led courage-building workshops for, among others, NASA, Accenture, CNN, PNC Bank, SPANX, Hugo Boss, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. More info here: www.BillTreasurer.com.