The notion of white privilege challenges many of us wit ou’s deeply. It seems that no greater offense can be levelled at us than an accusation of white privilege.
I heard a definition of privilege that came originally from one of my gurus Dr. Brene Brown. I found it useful. She says that privilege is simply the degree to which we have choice. As a rule, white people through history have had varying degrees of greater choice/freedom/access – whatever words you wish to use. Put simply, we have had greater choice in terms of where we can “live, move and have our being”.
I find it difficult to deny that this is true – however unpalatable I may find it. I just don’t want to think of my skin colour privileging me over other human beings. But it does. I know that because I was white I could move anywhere during apartheid. I could go to the beach. I could visit any restaurant I wanted to. I could walk freely into any place of worship. I could be up late at night in any area. I could go to any night club or bar I wished to. I could vote. And all of this was done with no fear of being arrested and jailed without reason, beaten-up, tortured or even killed. This freedom to choose is the basis of all my privilege. At this point it has nothing to do with money or hard work. It just is what it is because I am white.
Then I had the choice to study what and where I liked, I could walk into any job interview, I could command a decent living wage – all these choices, because I was white. I naturally got paid more because I had had access to better education and because white people generally get paid better. I could buy any shampoo or soap I wanted because most products were made for white people. I could even put on a Band-Aid that blended nicely with my skin tone!
By the way, nothing has changed materially since the demise of apartheid/colonialism here or anywhere else in the world. White people still have many more choices than most black people. Because white privilege is systemic in the exact same way as racism is.
So, what am I meant to do with this knowledge? I think my main task is to acknowledge that I have – and still do have – many more choices than most black people. When I do this, I can begin to heal – myself and the world around me. I can let go of the need to defend myself as a white person – telling people how hard I worked and the struggles I had to “make it”; I can stop telling people how tough my parents or grandparents had it. I can begin fresh new conversations that are at their core humble and enquiring. I can start to play a meaningful part in addressing the deep-seated imbalances of our world.
A black woman and another of my gurus once said this to me: “Justin, enjoy your privilege, but use it to help others less privileged.”
What a challenge!