The short answer? If your skin is light enough that you could pass for white than you will likely be treated differently than if you don’t. But it’s so much more complicated than that. Privilege is defined as “a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group”. If you belong to the “white” group, you are afforded white privilege – whether you acknowledge it or not.
Far be it for me to say I’m an expert on this topic. Other than me being a member of this privileged group, I have not had to go shopping alone and worry that I will be followed or harassed because of the color of my skin. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.*
But most importantly, I know that, if I’m pulled over by the police, I don’t have to worry about whether this is my last day on earth.
Once again, we are in the midst of dealing with an outrageous act of homicide against a black man perpetrated by a white cop. My heart goes out to the family and friends of George Floyd and yet this doesn’t feel like it’s enough. I feel so incompetent as I sit here in my air conditioned home wondering what I – and others like me – can do to stop this terrorism that is plaguing our country today. How can we change the minds of an entire portion of the population and make them see that there is something intrinsically wrong with treating ANYONE in this way. I know that speaking out for those that are terrorized is one way. Another is to acknowledge my own white privilege and call out those that don’t see theirs.
But we must also remember that there are many individuals who DO NOT support this kind of violence. I regularly read stories that show the basic humanity that DOES exist between POC and white, civilian and police officers, black individuals and white police officers. These may be the places that we want to study and replicate. As Justin Simmons of the Denver Broncos says, “… we need to make sure that we understand that we are fighting for equality, not superiority. All lives matter when black lives matter.” He goes on to say, “We pledge our allegiance to the flag for freedom and justice for all and we do not have our justice. So let’s understand that. We will get it (but) not by force.”
I saw a video clip that encapsulates this magnificently: a line-up of police officers in riot gear; a lone black man kneeling in front of them; a slow and steady stream of white men breaking from the crowd to stand in front of him, as if to say “You deserve to be protected and we will be the ones to do this for you.” Let’s find a way to replicate this.
*These are but a few of the items outlined by one classic article by Peggy McIntosh, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.