Hi folks. As Lyndon Johnson once said “I come to you tonight with a heavy heart.” I come to you tonight to blast apart an absolutely ridiculously stupid term: “white privilege.” Grant you, I’m anything but a logician, so you could have an argument that would blow mine out of the water. I’m an advocate for common sense, though, and for “plain,” as in “blunt,” speaking, so that’s where I’m coming from tonight.
People from various walks of life have fallen in love with the term “white privilege.” As I understand it, it’s the idea that Scandinavian-Americans like me, and other white people, are privileged to not be stopped at random by cops, are privileged to be able to find a job or housing that we are qualified for, are privileged to assume that if we don’t go on a big bad crime spree, we won’t be thrown in jail, shot by a cop in a rush to judgment, choked to death in a case of “short cop’s disease,” just for how we look.
No, no, no and no. Those are rights, not privileges. Some members of minority groups are being denied rights, not being denied privileges. I have basic rights but am not privileged. If I were privileged I would be living in a cushy house, with a big fireplace, overlooking a private pond with some evergreen trees around it and just enough frozen water in it to be cute, but not enough to be a vast expanse of flat frozen whiteness like a winter lake. If I were privileged, on days when it wasn’t my turn to pick up my daughter from school, I’d sometimes have my private pilot fly me to Arizona for a day and a half vacation in the sun. If I were privileged, I’d sleep as late as I wanted and not get up at the ungodly hour of 6am to go earn 12 bucks an hour in one of the poorest-paid parts of the country. If I were privileged, someone else would swab my toilets. Someone else would do the motherfucking boring dishes. I’d chop wood for exercise because I loved to do it and loved having a fire in the fireplace, while someone else vacuumed my rugs for a living wage of $15+ bucks an hour. If I were privileged, I wouldn’t have to choose between putting money away for my kid’s post-high school education or getting $10 grand or more worth of dental implants in my mouth, so that I wasn’t toothless on one side on the top. I’m not privileged, I’m the “working semi-poor,” not homeless (yet, by any means), not yet choosing between meds and food like many do, not going without preventive medical care, but not living a life of thrill or luxury. I don’t have a life of privilege.
What I do have are basic rights, the right to drive anywhere I want, weather permitting, depending on fatigue, time-off available, gas prices, etc., without worrying about a cop stopping me because my skin color and casual dress says that I don’t belong in the car I’m driving. I can walk anywhere in my town without being stopped and frisked by cops. I may be deemed odd because of my sense of humor or a look in my eye and therefore not hired, but it won’t be because they’d rather have someone of another race around. If I write a bestselling porn book while dilly-dallying around about writing something better, and I decide to buy a McMansion in the better part of town, I won’t be frowned at by the realtor because of the color of my skin. I might be frowned at because I’m not a snappy dresser and don’t look like I “come from money,” but when they check my (fictitious fantasy future financially fabulous) checking account, they’ll smile big, overlook the jean jacket, pop in a breath mint, and say, “Are you looking for a house with an indoor pool or an outdoor pool, Mr. TrashDeluxe?”
Those are rights, not privileges, the right to be treated equally regardless of skin color. The right to live an anonymous casual workingman’s life at my income level now, the right to not be treated like a criminal or a threat or an inferior. Many, not all, perhaps, but many, people of color are being denied these rights. They are no more being denied privileges than I am, because they may not be rich, as I am not rich. If they win the lottery, invent something great, develop an artistic talent that appeals to the masses, or marry into wealth, they have the same right to a life of privilege as I do.
Here’s an example of a privileged person: Jay Z. I don’t care for his music any more than I care for any rap or hip-hop, by anybody, but he is successful and has taken his abilities and turned them into gold. He doesn’t have to clean a bathroom. He lives a life of absolute privilege. However, if, for some odd reason he decided to drive a favorite upscale SUV through the backroads of Mississippi, and his extremely distinctive, boyish face doesn’t ring a bell, for some odd reason, with some sheriff’s deputy, he may be denied a basic right by that deputy. He may be treated like a common criminal who just doesn’t belong in that fancy vehicle. He may not be treated like a human being with a right to go anywhere he wants. The difference between rights and privileges then becomes clear: he is privileged to not have to work a humdrum job, to have a fancy car and afford to go anywhere, but he would be being denied the basic right to drive, unchallenged and unfettered, in the car he owns. I, on the other hand, would be driving a tan Japanese econo-box on the same road, on a one-week vacation from a humdrum job, sleeping nights in cheap motels, and would be looked at by the same deputy as a “Yankee” but not as a criminal. I would be allowed the basic right to just be who I am. I would have to go back to my ho-hum life, with no great privileges but lots of rights. He (Jay Z for some crazy-ass reason travelling alone in a part of the country where some don’t accept that the Civil War is over) could call up his manager and have that person book the best suite in the best casino in Biloxi or Gulfport, could call Beyonce and have her hop in a private jet and join him for an impromptu vacation, but he would be denied the basic right to drive to that casino if some rural cop didn’t recognize him or allow him the right to just have the benefit of the doubt that a black man could possibly own a $75000 LandRover.
That’s the difference between privilege and lack of privilege, and has nothing to do with the color of someone’s skin. That’s also the difference between basic rights, and the denial of basic rights, and it has everything to do with skin color, too many times. There’s no snappy term for “denial of basic rights,” but that doesn’t mean there is a “white privilege”–that’s just silly.
Dictionaries tell me that I’m somewhat full of shit, but I already knew that. Merriam Webster online defines privilege thusly:
: a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others
: a special opportunity to do something that makes you proud