In the United States we are in the midst of a protracted struggle to get White people to see the layers, depth and structural components of their privilege – the so called White Privilege, the thing that protects and promotes so many of them like an invisible magic blanket.
It is becoming more and more of an issue because of the increasing assault on people of color by policy, police and individual White people. I find it strange that it is so difficult for many to recognize it. The history of the country and indeed the world should make it plainly obvious.
Recognizing privilege is important. More important is appreciating the difference between privilege and agency.
While in Johannesburg our daughter wanted to see the Alexandra township, Alex. She read Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime, and wanted to see some of the places of his childhood that he mentioned in the book.
While poverty tourism is crass and disrespectful, her interests were born of literacy. It is also important to me to see the variation in human existence directly – the realities that are not covered in the fb and ig selfies and happy highlights of people’s lives, of my own life.
Alex is a dismal place.
It is a mass of Black suffering. There are thousands of people crowded on top of each other. The roads are only partially paved and many of the homes only partially covered. Sewage is a problem. There is garbage and burning garbage everywhere. Stray dogs stand atop the mounds picking through it. People gather around oil drums of burning wood to keep warm. The air is thick with smoke and dust. Brackish water edged with scum dribbles down the side of every street. There are no sidewalks. Cars bleeding oil in various states of disrepair litter the sides of the roads. Everything is dirty. There are no plants and no trees. Nothing is green. Illiteracy and AIDS go unseen ravaging the people like the invisible killers that they are. The place and the conditions put a mask of pain, of suffering, of triumph despite, of grace even though, on the humanity of the people.
I have been to South African townships before. I cried the first time I saw Khayelitsha in the Cape Flats outside of Cape Town. At the time, I had never seen suffering like it. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people, as far as you could see, trapped in a cloud of smog and misery. I gave thanks that I grew up in Brooklyn and questioned my contribution to the world.
While driving through Alex, the feeling surges – there, but for the Grace of God, go I.
What if, in the randomness of birth, I had been born in Alex?
What if I had to sit under a plastic tarp wrapped in a blanket as a child selling oranges out of the back of a truck instead of going to school? What if I had to walk my young sister to an older man’s house for his comfort so he would “bless” her with some money so the rest of us could eat? What if the schools I attended, when they were available, were terrible and the teachers saw their work with me as human charity as opposed to my learning being a measure of their professional excellence? What if I were forced to beg at the intersection of roads and experience being totally ignored and dismissed, as If I were a common gnat, day after day after day?
The list of what if’s is endless. Despite how intelligent I may think I am, the odds of getting out of that grinding morass are slim. Every ladder out is barbed with extraordinary obstacles. It seems that the route out would be some miraculous combination of innate ability, fiery determination and luck. Some alignment of stars would have to happen to create a way out of no way.
Of course this experience – or at least one would hope – makes me appreciative. I appreciate the number I drew at birth. The family and place and time I was born into set the stage for me to succeed. Obviously, I had to work hard and be determined and climb the scaffolding that was in place to support and protect me. I had to know when to put my head down, push forward and carve a path in the places it hadn’t been cleared, yes. But a lot of it had been cleared.
I had to earn my current station for sure, but my life, relative to the people in Alex, has been easy. My life, relative to a lot of people in the United States, has been easy. By virtue of the circumstances of my birth I’ve been granted immunity, that I didn’t earn, to a lot of ills.
Alex is to Sandton in Johannesburg, as Vine City is to Grant Park in Atlanta; as Bushwick is to Park Slope in Brooklyn; as Newtown is to Frigate Bay in St. Kitts; as Waterloo Street is to Tiger Bay in Guyana. In this global human context, I am privileged.
What does privilege mean?
Formally it means – [a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.]
Functionally it means that you are given things that you haven’t earned – that you are protected from obstacles that you don’t even see. You are granted certain graces by virtue of who you are, rather than what you’ve done.
The entire infrastructure of my education was a privilege. I had nothing to do with the fact that my primary and secondary school teachers were extraordinary, or that my father was a calculus and physics teacher and that my mother was a professor of Caribbean literature.
I had nothing to do with the fact that my family’s orientation around Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism curated my exposure to and nuanced understanding of the interconnectedness of the Black world. All of that was a privilege of birth. They were advantages and favors I accrued at birth just by virtue of the family I was born into. I happened to draw the right number.
It doesn’t feel difficult for me to recognize my privilege without belittling my agency. I see the distinction between privilege and agency. I had to work hard, be disciplined, discerning and determined. But I also know that I could have had all of those qualities, been born in Alex, and the outcome would likely have been very different. I could also have drawn the same number and squandered all the advantages I was given – a failure of my agency.
So I don’t understand why so many White people struggle with the idea of acknowledging their own privilege?
When White people see Tamir Rice get shot and killed within seconds, they have to know that it is just by virtue of their own 12 year old sons being White that they don’t get shot by the police. American boys historically play with guns. American teenagers wear hooded sweat shirts and eat Skittles. Had Trayvon Martin been White, there is no way he would have been shot.
Nearly all of the mass shooters in recent times have been White men. However, they are immune to the blanket perception of criminality because they are White, despite what the evidence suggests. It is their being White that grants them immunity from the viciousness of police and from the incessant encroachment of self-appointed White citizen police. It is because they are White that these mass killers are classified as mentally ill, not terrorists. They are granted immunity from a punishing public label.
The epidemic of drinking and rape on American college campuses is primarily at the hands of White college boys. Nearly 25% of girls are sexually assaulted during their time in college. Yet, White college boys are not assumed to be alcoholic sexual predators.
The scourge of meth and opioid addictions that are sweeping the country leaving violence, theft, prostitution and death in their wake are happening primarily among White communities. It is being treated as a health crisis not a suburban intifada. The addicts and perpetrators are treated as patients not criminals. White predators and addicts are spared the stigma of criminality because they are White, despite what they are doing.
The example of the crack era and the war on drugs is so close that White people ought to see that it is by virtue of who they are, not what they are doing that the treatment is so different.
All of these are manifestations of privilege. The list is long.
But why does it matter? Why is it that communities of color are pressing this issue as the demographics of the country are changing and racial hostility is ratcheting up?
Acknowledging privilege is a pathway to human decency. It prevents you from conflating someone’s condition with their character. It forces the recognition that all you have is not simply a result of your own determination and hard work.
While we should appreciate all that we have, we don’t have all that we do because it is all we deserve. That is a critical distinction. It is a premise that ought to guide policy, inform public discourse and the interpretation of people, their motives and their circumstances. It fosters compassion for human yearnings in those to whom nothing was given.
Acknowledging privilege does not belittle agency. On the contrary, it fosters a deeper appreciation for what people achieve despite the obstacles they faced through no fault of their own.
Hard work and struggle are requirements for success and progress. For those without privilege, they get absolutely nothing without them and may get nothing even with them. For the privileged, appreciating privilege itself is the next stage of maturity. It is required for decency in our changing society.
That is why it matters and that was the point driven home driving through Alex.