People are uncomfortable with the term “privileged.”
Several readers took offense recently when I differentiated between privileged youths and underprivileged youths in a column about the March for Our Lives.
“Categorizing and generalizing of this type are just veiled forms of discrimination and/or racism,” one man wrote.
I’d like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.
If you are a white person in America, you were born privileged. That’s just a fact.
It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not anybody’s fault. There’s no need to get defensive about it.
The best thing to do is just acknowledge it.
Being privileged does not necessarily mean that you have a perfect life. It does not mean that you come from wealth or that you always obtain everything you want – or deserve.
It doesn’t give you a pass to be lazy and shiftless. It doesn’t automatically guarantee you success. White skin no more relieves you of taking responsibility for your life, working hard and thinking smart than it does for people with dark skin.
It just means that you have a head start over the rest of us.
White privilege means that you were born with an inherent advantage over every other race of people. The whiteness of your skin alone allows you to leave the starting gate quicker and to run the race with fewer obstacles. White skin comes with certain other perks, too, many of which are taken for granted.
American culture itself is white-centric. For example, as an African American woman, I can rarely find makeup that matches my exact skin tone. Though cosmetics companies have gotten a lot better at adding more diverse colors to their lines, I still most often have to buy two shades and mix them together to get a match.
That’s just an inconvenience, though. Other issues require much more attention.
If you were born white, you are likely to earn more money than an African American or Hispanic co-worker who does the same work. You are more likely to be considered for a promotion than a racial minority who is just as qualified. Numerous studies back this up.
Let’s be clear, though. This has nothing do with a person’s actual level of intelligence. It has nothing to do with how talented or untalented someone really is. It has nothing to do with the kind of human being someone is. It is all about perception.
But the perception many white people have about other white people – whether it is conscious or subconscious – is that they are smarter, more ambitious, more dependable and harder working than African Americans.
“Privilege is hard work and sacrifice. Then when paid for this hard work … others who do nothing get jealous and bring race into it,” a woman emailed me.
Black and brown people have no reason to be angry with white people for being born white. We don’t buy into the adage that because someone happened to be white, they are smarter than the rest of us. Nor do we believe that every white person seated at the head table deserves a space there.
What we do understand is that white skin opens doors that often slam shut in the faces of dark skin. That’s what we have a problem with.
It is easy to blame the staggering unemployment rates among African Americans and Hispanics on their lack of education, training or individual initiative. In America, we like to think that the dream can be achieved by anyone who works hard to attain it. But that simply isn’t true.
The reality is that blacks and Latinos have never gotten an equal shake. When affirmative action sought to level the playing field, white people got mad and put an end to it.
As a result, hiring discrimination based on race remains alive and well, meaning blacks and Hispanics have to work twice as hard just to get a foot in the door.
Last year, researchers at Northwestern University, Harvard University and the Institute of Social Research in Oslo, Norway, reviewed multiple studies and concluded that the level of hiring discrimination against African Americans had not changed in 25 years.
According to the data, whites receive on average 36 percent more callbacks than blacks, and 24 percent more callbacks than Latinos. When employers don’t even bother to call you back, that means you don’t get the job.
Until the country reverses itself and African Americans are sitting in all those glass offices at businesses and major corporations, white people will never have to worry about being discriminated against because of their race.
The subtle and sometimes overt biases against African Americans begin long before adulthood. African American men, in particular, often spend a lifetime trying to overcome tags that are placed on their backs as soon as they enter kindergarten.
Research shows that black boys are much more likely to be labeled as troublemakers than white boys. According to a U.S. Department of Education report, black children – particularly boys – are nearly four times more likely to be suspended from school than white children.
When young white people get into trouble, adults are much more empathetic than they are to African Americans who experience similar problems.
Just look at the opioid epidemic. When shooting up heroin became a crisis among white kids, the country rushed to embrace them, saying, “Don’t worry, we’re going to figure out how to help you.” Money was poured into counseling and rehab.
When black kids got hooked on crack cocaine in the 1980s, America said, “Toss those thugs in jail.” When there weren’t enough jails to hold all of them, we poured money into building more.
This is what white privilege looks like.
As long as there’s a need to talk about race and class in America, I’ll continue to use the terms privileged and underprivileged. You might want to hold on to this column as a reference.
Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.