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.
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.