NYC222 cover image See all stories from issue #222, September/October, 2010

An Invisible Force
Being white still has its privileges
Evin Cruz

True or false?: Everyone is treated equally in America today.

At school we’re led to believe that this statement is true, and a lot of us get the idea that racism is about people who wear white pointy hats or owned slaves on plantations. We learn to point our finger at someone else and away from ourselves. One of the things we ignore in the process is white privilege.

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White privilege is a sort of lingering smell of the dung that is racism. The fact is that if you are white or look white, you get an unfair advantage in the world. You might not think this is true—I didn’t either, until I asked writer Adam Mansbach questions about race. Mansbach, who is white, made me think about things in a way I hadn’t before.

Pressures Inside and Out

Mansbach described white privilege as a set of advantages that people have automatically because they’re white. Some have to do with society’s institutions, like education or the judicial system. For example, in New York City, non-whites are far more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges, even though surveys show white people are more likely to smoke it.

image by YC-Art Dept

Other privileges have to do with the way you think about yourself and other people in the world. Some of my black friends on the YCteen staff admitted in our discussions that when they see people of their own race acting badly, they feel it’s a reflection on all black people. I understood this: when I was younger, I felt embarrassed to tell anyone that I was Puerto Rican when I saw Puerto Ricans blasting music or acting in a way I didn’t like.

But most white people probably don’t feel embarrassed for their race when they see a white person acting badly. That’s because white people, as the traditional majority and holders of power in America, aren’t under the same racial pressures. It’s easier to forget about race when you don’t look or feel different from the dominant race.

Notice the Wind

“The metaphor I like to use is of a person who’s bicycling with the wind at their back and not noticing that the wind is speeding them along,” said Mansbach. “The wind, representing white privilege, is invisible to you [if you’re white]. Whereas someone who’s biking into the wind is aware at every moment that they are struggling against a powerful force.”

I love this metaphor because it describes something that has an effect, even if you don’t see it. And just like the wind, you may not have caused it or asked for it, but you can’t deny it exists.

“White privilege” may sound like a great thing for white people, but “it’s actually incredibly damaging—emotionally, psychologically, spiritually—to be in a position of unearned superiority,” Mansbach said. I agree. The first step to changing this inequality is seeing that white people do have certain advantages, and not being afraid to recognize that.
The second is to make sure we teach our kids about white privilege in school, instead of pretending everything is fine and dandy. Otherwise, it’s too easy for white people without racist intentions to believe that they don’t need to worry about the difficulties minorities still face. These difficulties are many, and often serious. Accepting white privilege means accepting that it’s everyone’s responsibility to work toward true equality.

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