Understanding White Privilege

A week ago I wrote briefly about the upcoming film Straight Outta Compton: The Story of N.W.A., and how that movie’s message is relevant to the current racial climate in the United States. I got a few interesting comments to that post and some pretty cool reactions on Facebook.  Not surprisingly, some people took offense. One Confederate Heritage advocated, and self proclaimed researcher George Purvis, became distraught over a sentence I used in that post: “White privilege is a very real thing.” Afterward, Purvis gave an account of his hard life growing up poor in southern Mississippi. His post was intended to disprove any notion of white privilege due to the existence of interracial poverty. Despite George’s personal story, white privilege is still a very real thing.

 There are a few misconceptions about what privilege means in this context. More often than not, telling a poor white person that they enjoy white privilege presents certain issues. Those issues are easily readable in George’s post. I’m sure my grandfather would probably take issue with the notion of white privilege. He grew up in the northwest Georgia mountains poor and without a mother, who died in a fire when he was very young. Herein lies the great misconception that being poor negates privilege. However, George’s white privilege is still a very real thing, and here is why.

Two points I want to make deal with intersectionality and types of privilege. Intersectionality, plainly speaking, is where people can be privileged in some ways but not in others. A great example of this is George, who by his own admission did not grow up with class privilege but did enjoy white privilege. The second thing are types of privilege. White privilege is not the only type of privilege, there are several. privilege is simply statuses that people are born into which impacts the way they live in the world. This includes skin color but is not limited to it. Some examples are:

  • Citizenship – Natural born citizens in the U.S. have a distinct advantage over immigrants. Always have, and due to the political structure, always will.
  • Race – The obvious, being born white.
  • Gender – Males have a distinct advantage in this country over females. A great example is that males rarely have to walk through parking lots or down the street worrying about ‘cat calls’ or rape.
  • Class – Obviously being born wealthy has distinct privileges which the majority of the country does not enjoy.
  • Sexual Orientation – Often we hear of homosexuals being oppressed in the news simply because of their sexual preference.

That is a very short list but a fairly accurate one. Notice that all aspects of that list resemble a caste system, something that people are born into but cannot leave. Class might be the debatable condition but I would argue that socially mobile people that grow up poor to make a million are not in the same class status as someone who is born with a million. One can also be privileged in several areas. If you are a wealthy natural born straight white American male the world is your proverbial oyster. Something that George and other people need to recognize is that I am not stating that there should be any type of guilt involved. People are born into their statuses coincidentally and factors that led to the numerous forms of privilege predate their lives. The issue is recognition.

privilege

Many white people, like George, simply do not understand their privilege because they do not have to worry about it like non-whites. For example, George explained that “long hairs” attacked him in Atlanta and that he “was holding [his] own” when the police arrived. I noticed the story did not end with his arrest or his eventual lynching. George also tells us about him switching from a low paying job to a slightly less than low paying job. George had the mobility of moving between jobs to achieve higher pay. Although that had to be difficult for him, imagine what it must have been like for a black man or a woman to attempt the same move.

I debated on whether or not to write this post. Purvis’s online antics are known to be rather juvenile. I also know this post would do little to create a rational debate with him nor is he capable of such. In an exchange on his blog George told one commenter that “in [his] opinion there is no such things as white privilege. White privilege is something that is earned by someone. Just because a white, or any other race, gets up off their butt and earns their way in life does not mean they are privileged.” The commenter offered some resources for Purvis to better understand the idea of privilege. In response, George said “You are right I won’t bother reading these pieces because I really don’t need the help.” That sort of narrow mindedness cannot be breached so I won’t bother. I wrote this post to explain privilege as I understand it and how I would explain that privilege to others. Perhaps it might prompt a decent conversation about inequality; perhaps not.

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24 thoughts on “Understanding White Privilege

  1. Jimmy Dick

    Arguing with GP is a waste of time. He refuses to accept any facts that prove him wrong and clings to his beliefs. White privilege is very real. I find it very interesting to see who denies this fact. For many, they don’t want to give up their privilege and erect a wall of denial over its existence.

    1. Absolutely. He’ll likely respond to this post.

      I’m not sure that they understand what privilege means which is why the refuse to recognize it. I also think telling someone they enjoy white privilege makes them defensive. It’s important to recognize that people are not at fault for being privileged. They are born into it.

  2. The response of most white people to the notion of white privilege reminds me always of David Foster Wallace’s famous fish analogy:

    There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

      1. Jimmy Dick

        Once again, GP proves his inability to learn. I will have to feature him one day in Diffusion’s Blog of the Week section. Somehow I do not think he will like it.

        1. To add:

          I’m glad you mentioned your blog’s name. I tried to find it a few weeks ago but I completely forgot to add it to my reader and had forgotten the name last time you mentioned it. I added it to my feedly account.

          1. Jimmy Dick

            Thank you. I will be featuring your blog on the Blog of the Week section one day. I sort of randomly pick them and try to move around in history some so I don’t have a big run of CW or Revolution blogs in a row. I will be writing more flipped classroom posts as this current semester ends in a few weeks and I’m not chained to a bi-weekly mandatory school topic. It will be my prep work for an article I want to submit to the American Historian as a follow up to a roundtable I was part of in November.

  3. Isabel

    I think it may be helpful to explain to your readers, regardless of whether they’re willing to listen, that you may not have so easily accepted the notion that you enjoy white privilege earlier in your life. Self-reflection may be easier to swallow than the occasional, and albeit correct, manspalining 😀 – Half joking. Half serious. I can distinctly remember moments in our own conversations where you wouldn’t have so easily surrendered that the notion is real or that your perspective could be shaped by it.

    People, myself included, grow up…or something…

    1. I think it’s worth noting that the manapsalining conversations were rather harsh which is why I did not readily accept the criticism. This concept of privilege doesn’t negate or diminish hard work. People get lost thinking otherwise.

  4. Isabel

    I am not interested in going back to those conversations at all. I mostly mean that the change in approach on the this particular topic from: facts to self-reflection, may be more warmly received. The kind of people you’re dealing with though, aren’t interested in hard work or thinking in general. They’ve found convenient “truthiness,” and that’s enough.

      1. Jimmy Dick

        His response was pretty much nothing but the usual denial of reality. No one has commented on them either which indicates no one is paying attention to him. That’s a good thing.

        1. Jimmy
          This what I replayed to George, it’s awaiting moderation. So yes they are folks paying attention, now all of you folks may pile on me.
          From Bakers blog
          “Well, I admitted that the post made use of his example, but I don’t consider the post to be for him. It’s for people who might want to learn.”
          Seems odd he talked in length about you and whats is he trying to teach [Edit]?
          His kind cannot just disagree with your opion they have to try and attack you personally to make them selfs feel superior.
          He has an agenda to make sure he keeps his liberal (yankee) masters happy. I pity his poor students that have no choice but to listen to [him] in the classroom.
          Just to make sure he knows who wrote this,
          Jessie Sanford
          Petal Mississippi

          And yes Rob I did attack you see how it feels, no different from anything I have read on many blogs attacking folks that believe like me? I don’t know you or any of the rest of the folks that post here but I do know by the post I have seen y’all want to be adversarial and attack any thing that has to do with Confederate heritage. Yes, I know Jimmy what you are going to say next “we don’t know anything about history” and that sir is your opinion.
          God bless and have a Dixie day

          1. Do you have anything to say about the post or about George’s post? Is your entire presence predicated on the need to rant and spew vitriol across the world wide web?

          2. Jimmy Dick

            That would be easy. Confederate heritage involves lying [edit] to conceal the fact that the CSA was based on the preservation of slavery. You may actually know history, but you choose to lie about it to glorify traitors. That’s your problem. I make sure to point out that the people who chose to secede committed treason, supported slavery, and were traitors.

            Then I get to Reconstruction and point out that many were also terrorists.

          3. Let’s keep the post on topic. I don’t want this to turn into the sort of muck one might read on Purvis, Chastain, or Jerry’s websites.

  5. Rob
    White privilege, do you enjoy it? Did you get your job as a teacher because of it? Will you give up your job to a minority?
    [edit: off topic]
    But God Bless and take care.
    Jessie Sanford
    Deo Vindice

    1. Do I enjoy it or do I have it? Yes, I have it, but I recognize that it exists. No, I got my job because I worked hard in school, got several degrees in history, and know how to coach wrestling. You are missing the point about white privilege. No, I won’t give up my job to a minority, I won’t give up my job for anyone.

      I’m editing the rest of your comment out. Stay on topic. This is not the place for your’s and Jimmy Dick’s flame war. You can take that garbage to Purvis’s echo chamber.

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