I had a great talk today with a married couple that I’m friends with. They’re black (yes, in this conversation, that matters). Our conversation ran the gamut, from #EatPray10v3 to children and the sleep deprivation that accompanies them. Because of prior commitments and certainly not boredom or anger, our conversation ended on the topic of race in America and specifically the term “White Privilege.” The man in the couple (we’ll call him “Solomon” since he brought Ecclesiastes into the convo) said that the term “white privilege” may be a misnomer at this point and that it has served its purpose. If progress is to be made, we must focus less on the white privilege and more on the economic inequity that plagues the nation. Solomon comes from a less luxurious region of America where opportunities are difficult to find, regardless of race. He, as a professional black man who made it out of that setting, said that the overlooked white people in his hometown would consider it a slap in the face if he, with his “polished shoes and tailored suits went to them talking about their privilege.” The word, though unintentionally, is offensive when we are talking to those whites who have, as far as they can see, experience no semblance of the privilege that the mainstream so often speaks of and shames. Those white families who populate the mining communities of America’s mountainous regions or the ones who must laboriously provide for their families in less than luxurious settings are not feeling the privilege that many of us speak of. Certainly, the media does not paint them as the faces of philanthropic need and government welfare but they overwhelmingly are and they’re angry. Are they being gunned down by a culture of policing that says “The black man is most likely guilty of something so shoot him”? No and, in that conversation, they do have privilege. But when we’re discussing generational wealth, a strong majority of whites are not much better off than blacks. There are, however, a gross number of white households who are doing as poorly as black households and those households have historically had less access to resources that will provide them with the upward mobility required to transition the next generation of their legacy into the next economic class. In short, there is a plethora of programs that I, as an underrepresented minority, have access to that will allow me to traverse America’s economic landscape (even against the system’s desire for me to). Poor whites don’t have that. So, in my lack of privilege, there is a sliver of privilege.
Don’t get it twisted, I still believe that, in the face of a trigger happy cop, poor and rich white people have a better chance of coming out alive than I do as a black man of any background. But, when we’re talking about having access to resources and education, poor whites don’t fare better than poor blacks (excluding consideration of cultural bias when it comes to names). Therefore, these unwealthy white people are upset because of what they don’t have when it appears that everyone else, including the poor blacks who society tells them that they are supposed to be doing better than, is making forward strides. This leads to things like the election of those who pander to their fears, the clinging to a hateful pride in a treasonous culture, and the dogwhistles that are reaching a low enough frequency for us all to hear.
Which brings me to the short, but direct, point: We must change the language. While white people have an indisputable cultural advantage in America (sometimes because of language but more often than not because of a propensity to engage media before we do people), white privilege is not universal in its application. I’m not sure what language we need to use or whether we need to be more specific when we speak of what arenas whites are privileged in, as opposed to using it as the blanket statement we’ve been using it as.
I won’t lie, I grew up around some rich white folks. I mean, RICH! There were Benzes, Porsches and Land Rovers in my high school parking lot. Multiples. In double digits. So I can relate to the concept of white privilege because I perceived white wealth and I came from, at times, a black family wrought with financial instability. But, the older I get and the more I speak with people of varying backgrounds, I see that, in affluent areas like NC’s Research Triangle, you’ll see quite a few well-off white people. These areas fuel the narrative of the rich whites. But, when you look across the nation, economic disparities even out across racial lines. Therefore, in an attempt to break down the barriers that the rich have built to keep the poor fighting one another, we must either be cautious or more specific when we speak of white privilege. We cannot build allies if we do not. How we do that is up for conversation but the fact that it must happen is indisputable.
Make using intentional language a priority.