The Thing About White Privilege

In my world, travel is easy, jobs are plentiful, and the police are on my side. It would be easy for me to think this is how it is for everyone. It's not. Fact: I am privileged in this country just because I'm white.
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A few weeks ago I wrote an article about sexual harassment. I was struck by a comment by one of my male friends after reading it: "I've never really thought about this kind of thing before, but I've been asking my women friends, and every single one of them has stories. One even kinda has a stalker, and I had no idea. It's like this whole other world exists that I knew nothing about."

Technically, he and I live in the same world. We shop at the same grocery stores. We take the same subways. We walk the same streets.

Yet I live with a kind of fear and danger on a daily (and nightly) basis that simply doesn't exist for him. He doesn't carry his keys between his fingers to stave off potential attackers in parking garages. He hasn't had a man take his penis out and masturbate while staring at him at a bus stop. His friends don't ask him to text to let them know he got home safely.

That world is invisible to him. I've spent my entire life dealing with something he just... doesn't.

It's not the only invisible world.

I'm a young white woman in America. By definition, I live in a different world than black or brown people. I'm not worried about the way my name sounds or whether my picture shows up in a resume search. People don't stop me at the airport because of what I'm wearing or cross the street to avoid me at night because they're scared of me. I'm not afraid when a cop pulls me over (which, by the way, only happens when I'm actually doing something worthy of being pulled over for).

In my world, travel is easy, jobs are plentiful, and the police are on my side. It would be easy for me to think this is how it is for everyone.

It's not.

Fact: I am privileged in this country just because I'm white.The thing about white privilege is the same as that of male privilege: When you're privileged, the other world is invisible to you. You literally can't see it. You aren't pulled over and harassed by cops, so you think no one is. You don't worry about how your name sounds on a resume, so you think it doesn't matter. But just because you don't see it doesn't mean it isn't happening.

The unrest sweeping the country isn't just about Ferguson. It's about that invisible world. It's an accumulation of the pain and rage and outrage over the Mike Brown and Eric Garner-like incidents that occur all over this country every single day. It's about the things those of us in the majority simply don't experience.

Truthfully, I often feel helpless when it comes to race relations in America. I feel ashamed when I think about a grand jury reviewing the evidence of a cop who shot an unarmed person six times -- six times! -- and moved not to have the case go to trial (not to convict -- simply to go to trial). I feel nauseous when I watch the tape of Eric Garner getting asphyxiated by police with a chokehold that is literally illegal. He was killed by a group of human beings who are supposed to protect people, and then another grand jury failed to indict (again, not to convict, simply to go to trial). All I can think is, "How could they possibly do that?"

Maybe because of white privilege. Maybe because when it's not happening to you, it's easy to think it's "not that bad." Maybe because it's simpler for those (white) people on those grand juries to continue ignoring the invisible world that has suddenly become visible and thrown screaming in their faces.

I don't know.

I do know that a first step is getting real about the difference between being black versus white in America. And just like with sexual harassment, if we think this "issue" is limited to the street, we're misguided:

  • Job applicants with white sounding names are 50 percent more likely to receive a callback for a job interview than applicants with black-sounding names, even when all job-related qualifications and credentials are the same.
  • White men with a criminal record are more likely to get a callback for an interview than black male job applicants who don't have a criminal record, even when all requisite qualifications, demeanor and communication styles are the same.
  • White women are far more likely than black women to be hired for work through temporary agencies, even when the black women have more experience and are more qualified.

That middle stat in particular blows me away. You're more likely to get an interview if you're a white male criminal than a black male citizen.

I think for white people, the reason white privilege is uncomfortable is that we don't want to think of ourselves as racist, or benefitting from the effects of it. But it's easy to be biased without even realizing it, and the stakes are too high for us to ignore the fact that we are part of the fabric of this country in which we live. The fact is, progress happens faster when those of us who are advantaged acknowledge that, then fight like hell alongside everyone else to get to the day when we're not.

So let's all be mindful of our biases, particularly those of us in the privileged majority. Especially for those in a hiring capacity, whether a recruiter, the leader of a startup, or a restaurant manager -- be conscious. Consider your tendencies. Stay aware. Because the new hires and promotions of today are the managers, CEOs and role models of tomorrow. We can all be part of a virtuous cycle.

Racism and police brutality are not the "fault" of all white people just as male sexual harassment of women is not the "fault" of all men. However, it is our collective responsibility -- and opportunity -- to change things. We're only going to "solve" women's rights by working with women and men, and we're only going to get to equality for all races by having all races participate.

In other words, it's not a "black" or "white" or "brown" problem. It's our problem.

I'll be bringing my privileged ass with me as we work to fix it.

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