Many white Americans bristle at the notion of white privilege. This is perhaps especially true in regions like ours, where we look around and have a hard time seeing how we could be the special ones, granted all of the advantages and opportunities of a privileged class.
As a college professor in Appalachia, I see plenty of white students who work tirelessly for years, sometimes juggling multiple jobs and raising children, to step onto the stage at graduation, the first person in their family to earn a college degree. Is this white privilege?
Yes and no. Clearly, the students described above didn’t have anything handed to them and faced a variety of challenges in trying to achieve their goal of graduating from college. But race wasn’t one of those challenges.
In many ways, rural, largely white, Appalachian communities with underfunded schools, lack of access to health services and limited job opportunities face a similar set of circumstances as some majority-Black communities in low-income urban areas. But, again, there is one important difference: race.
So why set aside race as a special category, when admittedly, people of all colors, from all walks of life face obstacles and maybe even, generally speaking, have to work hard to get a degree, to land a good job and to make money to support their families? I think this gets at why some of us, as white Americans, reject the premise of privilege, feeling as if it degrades or dismisses our hard work.
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t. It is possible to feel like you work hard for what you have and to acknowledge that working hard, in itself, reflects opportunity and access. I worked hard in college and graduate school, because I had the privilege of those opportunities based on my socioeconomic background; my family situation and financial support from my parents; the quality of my public school; and, woven throughout those things, my race.
The concept of privilege draws attention to important disparities when it comes to the meaningfulness, potential and promise of our hard work. And it hopefully makes us aware of how prejudices and biases, sometimes unconscious, throw up barriers to people of color — barriers that, in some cases, never go away.
After all, the color of a person’s skin doesn’t change with academic or economic success.
A respected Black surgeon will still have to teach her son, from an early age, exactly what to do with his hands and how to speak in order to appear as nonthreatening as possible if he ever gets pulled over by a police officer. She will have to comfort him as he gets home from school, having been bullied by a group of kids that called him the n-word. She will have to explain the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Aubrey and Rayshard Brooks.
What if, instead of feeling defensive over what we see as the implications of white privilege, we imagine what it would be like to be in the shoes of that Black mother? Instead of rejecting the realities of racism, taking it as a personal affront, we should listen to the experiences of our neighbors of color, acknowledging that, just because I, as a white American, don’t experience something, that doesn’t mean it’s not real.
We all participate in social structures that afford privilege to white people — because they were made by white men, based on a belief in the superiority and value of white lives. White lives have always mattered. Most of us didn’t create these structures and didn’t ask for privilege. But that doesn’t change the fact that white Americans have privilege and benefit from it. The systems and institutions that govern our country — the legal system, the educational system, voting, housing — have sought to keep Black Americans segregated, disadvantaged, imprisoned and unable to threaten white privilege.
This isn’t a thing of the past. Disadvantage tends to be cumulative.
I don’t think many of us would self-identify as racist. And most us, perhaps especially in economically disadvantaged regions, don’t exactly feel like we’re living the high life, enjoying unearned privileges while rolling around in piles of money. There are very real structural problems that disenfranchise white Americans in our region, not just Black Americans.
That said, white Americans everywhere, regardless of socioeconomic status, have the obligation to stand in solidarity with Black Americans against racism and against a system that has historically and undeniably privileged one race over others. Movement forward relies on white Americans, as racism and racist structures that privilege whiteness is our problem, and demands our participation in working toward solutions.