The concepts of “White privilege” and Black pride” are often misunderstood. This is my attempt to make sense of it all. Not because I think it’s my job to do so. But because I’m tired of seeing conversations about race stalled because simple concepts get in the way.
It’s easy to think about privilege in economic terms because that’s how it has been taught. We think about privilege as simply having what others don’t, ownership. It’s about what you can do with the means of which you have. It’s about opportunity and exposure and the lack of barriers to get to it all. It’s about access and the lack of rejection. It’s “want and have”, not “need but go without”.
I grew up in a four-bedroom, three bathroom house in the suburbs of Washington, DC. We had two backyards and two back porches. My father was an executive for a telecommunications company and my mother stayed home to raise my brother and I. When she did work part-time jobs, it was moreso out of boredom at home once my brother and I enrolled in school.
I went on a foreign exchange trip when I was 15, attended a private university where tuition was around $48,000 per year. Grew up in neighborhoods with their own pools and tennis courts. Lived in a neighborhood where most of the kids went to private school. Was a Girl Scout and flailed in ballet and gymnastics. Ate out three times a week.
All of these aspects scream privilege and I recognize that as such.
But I’m not White.
I was also asked if my family lived in the wrong neighborhood. “Do other Black people live here?” Asked if I grew up with a father when my Mom would chaperone me on field trips. Had a brother who was followed by police while walking home from school. Not to keep him safe but to supposedly keep the neighborhood safe from him. “Are you lost?” “You sure we’re in the right neighborhood?”
Asked about hip hop and rap music by inquisitive White kids who watched MTV. “Did you grow up in the ‘hood?” Yelled at by a teacher for wearing a bandana to tie up my hair because it was “gang-affiliated” but when fellow White students did so, it was “style.” Assumed that I was here in college to “make a quota”. Watched my father shudder when police would drive past our house.
The surprise on people’s faces when I tell them about my life growing up.
Where’s the privilege in that?
I’m Black. My life growing up, the school I attended, the money my parents acquired; all of those aspects of economic privilege don’t matter. When people look at me, they make assumptions about how I walk, how I talk, what I can’t do and what I might do to them. People assume that I don’t belong, people become exclusionary once they meet me. I’m always the “Black” girl. I’m conflated with every other Black women that works in my office because “we all look alike”. I assumed to be angry, assumed to be sexually promiscuous.
I’m not given the grace to show people who I am. They swear they know me before I can even tell them about myself.
For a lot of Black folks, that can be deadly. Assumptions get people killed. By police. For no reason at all.
Again, where’s the privilege in that? There isn’t any.
That’s why White privilege is a concept. It’s not saying that White folks aren’t poor. It’s not saying that White folks don’t find themselves with the short end of the stick. It’s not saying that White folks are never judged by others because of where they come from.
What White privilege says that is White people are never assumed to be poor but just “living within their means.” That short end of the stick? Bad luck. That judgement about where they come from happens after being able to tell someone exactly where they are from.
A White person isn’t seen as a threat until they make themselves out to be. I’m a threat before I promise to do anything to you.
These microagressions, ideas and stereotypes are so strong that walking into majority or all-White spaces can be too much. I didn’t like being the only Black kids on my street. I didn’t like being the only Black Girl Scout in my troop or the only Black woman taking high-level communication courses in college.
I’m the only not just because of the opportunity that I was given. But because of the opportunity that other Blacks were refused. By the public school systems that were denied adequate materials set this up to happen. The purposeful exclusion of Black people from college and universities. I’m one of few because of racism.
That racism toward me leads to the privilege of being White. Being White doesn’t keep you from doing anything. Your means may but your race doesn’t. My race has and still does.
So you have to understand why Black folks congregate like we do. Why we speak about Blackness as a collective, why we take pride in being the first to do something or in what we accomplish in pop culture.
Because, at one point, our personhood never existed. At one point, our presence was banished from our being.
We couldn’t vote. We couldn’t go to college. We couldn’t join the military. We couldn’t play sports. We couldn’t move into certain neighborhoods. We couldn’t sit wherever we wanted to. We couldn’t eat at counters. We couldn’t drink from the same water fountain. We couldn’t own property.
We were once property.
So what else could we do but do it ourselves. We built schools, stores. We cultivated the neighborhoods that we were redlined into, making them safe spaces for families. We started our own businesses, our own daycares and hospitals. We had no choice but to unify against the oppressions of the day and refused to be shackled by the hatred and bigotry that refused to see us as people.
We didn’t self-segregate out of bias. We did it out of survival.
And we still do.
But that bothers people. Because the feeling that it gives off is that we don’t want for others to be involved. That isn’t the case at all.
We were forced into being segregational because people separated us. My parents didn’t choose to just hang out with Black people out of choice. It was out of necessity.
So Black Lives Matter isn’t exclusitory. It’s survival. Because who else is going to look out for us but us? History tells us the answer to that.