White Privilege Explained
“Get Ready. Get set . . . Go.”
On cue, I dove into the water and began flailing my arms and legs the way my 16 year-old swim instructor had taught me. I kicked and splashed as fast and as hard as I could. All the way to the bottom of the pool. When I stubbed my toe on the cement, I tucked my legs and stood up. As I pushed off of the bottom of the pool, I came up coughing and spitting out chlorinated water. I wiped the water from my eyes and saw that the rest of the class was half way across the pool. I was nine years old and for the third year in a row, I completed Red Cross swim lessons without being able to swim.
My father shook his head in disappointment.
“How come those girls, who are younger than you, can swim and you can’t?” he asked without really expecting an answer. I could feel my cheeks redden. What was wrong with me, I wondered? I had conquered my fear of the water. Why couldn’t I swim like the other kids? Many years passed before I learned the answer. In the meantime, I was finally able to swim at age twelve, when I jumped too far from a dock into water too deep to stand up in.
The answer to my swimming problem was simply buoyancy. A scientific principle discovered by Archimedes thousands of years ago. At nine, I was 47 inches tall and weighed 50 pounds. I had not an ounce of fat on me. Bone and muscle are more dense than water so I sank. Fat and fat cells are less dense than water. The girls, whose biological design includes more of these items, floated. A hidden force held them up so they could swim. I lacked that supporting force, so I sank. It had nothing to do with my effort or talent. The same is true of “white privilege.”
The existence of “white privilege” has been denied or minimized by almost exclusively white people (who else?). Exhibit A is Bill O’Reilly on his show, The No Spin Zone. As a white (actually, I’m more of a salmon color) person myself, I can never really understand what it’s like to be black in America. Or Hispanic or Asian for that matter. Just like I can’t understand child birth or sexual harassment in the same way women do. But I can make an attempt to understand other people’s perspectives. And the first step in that process is moving out of Egypt.
Metaphors are how we gain an understanding of that which is hard to understand. My struggles in learning to swim are a good metaphor in the “white privilege” argument. My parents and my swim instructor did not understand the concept of buoyancy. My father had a GED and never studied physics. My mother had a high school diploma, but in the 1940s women were discouraged from taking math and science classes. My swim instructor was himself in high school, but had not taken physics yet since he was only sixteen. None of them understood the fundamental principle that made it easier for girls to swim than boys. So they blamed failure on my lack of effort.
What Mr. O’Reilly et al. fail to understand is that even though minorities can succeed in this country, they lack support that many whites have and don’t realize. Minorities often have extra obstacles to overcome. I sympathize with the discomfort over the term “white privilege.” I think it fails to capture the entirety of the problem. I prefer the more complex idea of socio-economic privilege. On the other hand, I don’t have to worry about me or my children getting pulled over by police or followed in a store because of the color of our skin. Nor do I have to worry that my job / housing / loan application will get rejected because my name sounds too ethnic.
For those who continue to deny the role of privilege in success, I have a few questions. Did you have enough to eat from the time you were born until you left home? If you did, then your brain had the necessary building blocks to develop normally. Did someone in your home encourage you to pursue education and did teachers and your school support those ambitions? If so, you had the proper environment to exercise and strengthen your brain. Did you feel safe in your neighborhood and at school? Or did you have to dodge bullets and step over dead bodies in the street? Safety and security are crucial to brain development. Children who are exposed to street violence have been shown to suffer from PTSD. PTSD stunts brain development and blocks the ability to form and pursue long-term goals.
I could go on, but is it really necessary? You either get the point or you are still “in de Nile.” People can overcome the obstacles I just mentioned. But it is difficult and rare. Most of us, who have had socio-economic advantages, do not even realize how much easier we had it growing up. Like buoyancy, we have been supported by forces we fail to acknowledge, let alone understand. It is easier and more pleasing to attribute our success to our own god-given talent and hard work. And we replace the phrase “less fortunate” with laziness and “welfare queens.” Which absolves us from doing anything about the problems. That is the real issue with denying “white privilege” or “male privilege” or socio-economic privilege. If we ignore the problem, if we declare that racism and sexism are not real, or even worse that racism against whites is a serious issue, then we don’t have to act.
Nobody is asking us to lose our buoyancy even if we could. Those privileges are often extended without our asking for or even knowing they are being granted. But when other people are drowning, we can at least acknowledge their difficulty instead of blaming them because they aren’t trying hard enough. It’s called empathy and compassion. It used to be a requirement for those who have been blessed in the socio-economic lottery. It was called noblesse oblige. It used to be a fundamental aspect of being a Christian. It was called Christian duty. And it seems to be one cultural area that conservatives are not nostalgic for the country to return to. Float on, people. Float on.