The Miseducation of White Privilege

When I go in to teach some of my Cross-Cultural Literacy Sessions, I’ve found that there are some words and phrases that I need to be pretty careful with using, or I literally risk losing the ear & heart of many of the white people that I am trying to help navigate this world of race & culture.

Now, I used to honestly ask why it is that having these kinds of conversations can be so difficult.  I mean, all I’m doing is opening up the door to my life and then exposing people to the things that minorities have been saying & experiencing for a few centuries about living here in America.  It just seemed weird that there are people who will literally get angry at me for expressing how I feel about what has been happening to me.  Even to the point of some people actually trying to convince me that what I have experienced wasn’t actually how it happened.  Crazy, I know.

However, one of the terms that really seems to get some people’s underwear all bunched up is when you take the word “White” and put it next to the word “Privilege.”  Man, I’ve seen some fireworks go off with that phrase that would rival the 4th of July in downtown Chicago.  Just verbalizing the idea that a white person may actually have some kind of advantage due to their skin color is enough to get some people DEEP into their feelings and push them to start revealing every single difficulty they have ever had to face from birth to their current age.

I remember sitting at a large leadership conference in Michigan where this topic was broached in one of the sessions and a white person there said that if there is a privilege, she would love to have some of it.  I laughed to myself as I looked around the room and saw an entire world of whiteness with a few chocolate pieces strewn about here and there.  This was my normal.  This had been my normal for as far back as I could remember.  The reality that the more successful I became, the more education I sought out, the more prestigious the place I was invited into, the less likely I was to see others who looked like myself or even understood the very real cultural differences that someone in my shoes had to navigate on a daily basis.

So, let me help you better understand what white privilege means.  The reality is this: Everyone actually understands it completely.  However, for whatever reason, this only becomes an issue in regards to race & culture, which in my mind actually further cements the truth behind the idea.

When I’m teaching, I’m very specific about the fact that I don’t believe we necessarily have a race issue in America as much as I see a cultural issue.  Culture is defined as the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.  In other words, culture encompasses religion, food, what we wear, how we wear it, language, marriage, music, morals, etc.  And most importantly, culture is learned through socialization.

 

Here in the United States we have a wide range of cultures that live here, but there is definitely a dominant culture.  I can hear you thinking, what’s a dominant culture.  Well, that is the culture which must be navigated to obtain higher levels of finances, education, promotion, influence & power in any specific environment.  In America, the truth of the matter is the dominant culture would be that of Caucasians.

Our country’s reality is that white people own 85% of the wealth in our nation. Not only that, I was looking into the disparity of power/authority and out of 900 of some of the most prominent positions of power in our country, over 80% of them are held by Caucasians.  To make this even more clear, here is some additional data I found in a New York Times article to help you get a better visual:

  • Since 1789, all but six of our Supreme Court Justices have been white men.
  • 7 of 8 of our Joint Chiefs of Staff are white even though over 40% of active-duty members are people of color.
  • Of the people at the top of the 25 highest-valued companies, 19 are white.
  • Of the people who head the top 25 universities in the country, 24 of them are white.
  • 15 people head up direct major news organizations, 12 of them are white.
  • There are 5 people who lead the Big Five publishers that shape literary culture and are responsible for a vast majority of best-selling books. They are all white.
  • The people who edit the 10 most-read magazines in America are all white.
  • When looking into the people who run the three major music label conglomerates that account for roughly three-quarters of the market; the three publishers that generate the most revenue; and the two concert promoters that put on most shows, plus the heads of the six major streaming services and broadcasters, you come up with 14 people. 12 of them are white.
  • 25 people run the top TV networks & Hollywood studios.  22 of them are white.
  • Of the people in charge of the 25 highest-valued fashion companies, 22 are white.
  • There are 99 owners of professional baseball, basketball & football teams. 93 of them are white.
  • Out of 50 state governors, 47 are white and there has been only 2 black governors elected in our entire history.
  • In our US Senate, there have been only 29 senators of color in our nations entire history.
  • According to historical data collected by the House, there are still fourteen states that have never elected a Black, Asian or Hispanic official to Congress.

I want you to really think about these numbers for a moment.  I’m not here to tell you that this is right, or wrong.  But, I will tell you that this reveals to me what I’ve already known, and that is the fact that the dominant culture that we all have to navigate is overwhelmingly white in nature.  This means that the rest of us, who didn’t grow up being socialized by Caucasian culture, have no choice but to learn how to navigate it if we desire to truly be successful here in our nation.

For those who have already grown up socialized by the dominant culture, they have the “privilege” of simply not having to think about it.  For them, the nuances, cultural expectations, pronunciations & customs would actually just be “normal life”.

For those who have already grown up socialized by the dominant culture, they have the “privilege” of simply not having to think about it.

We all know this is true, because if we hopped onto a plane together and moved to Nigeria, we completely understand that we would all need to learn how to navigate Nigerian culture.  And then the Nigerians who grew up there would have the privilege.  This would be the same if we went to China and had to navigate Chinese culture.  In that scenario, it would be those who grew up within Chinese culture that would have the “privilege” of not having to think about every single interaction and word spoken.  We could travel anywhere in the world, whether is was the Bahamas, Australia, Russia, Iran, Brazil, Spain, or Germany, we would still be required to navigate that specific culture to achieve any high levels of success.

So, the next time you come across someone who is venting about the phrase “White Privilege”, hit them with some of this information.  Use some of the examples here to give them a different perspective.  Ask them if they have ever traveled out of the country and needed to spend the some time learning about the local customs, language & cultural norms before going there.  And if they still say that they don’t get it, that they don’t see it, and that they don’t understand why it seems so hard for minorities across the country to realize that we are all one culture of Americans, you have my passionately expressed permission to tell them that I said they are a walking, talking example of exactly what White Privilege looks like.

 

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