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On Privilege

In the last few months, I’ve lost friends because of white privilege.  Well, let me clarify, I’ve lost friends because of my discussions about white privilege on Facebook. Folks I’ve known since 4th grade denounced me for having arguments that “pitted races against each other”–mostly because I acknowledged that we don’t live in post racial world. I decided after a string of these to let it be.  I was exhausted, it seemed like I was talking in circles, and there’s no way to convince people of something when they are mad determined to not listen. I think I’m getting a headache just from typing this.

The problem, of course, is that just because I’m tired of talking about it and typing about it and blah blah blah, doesn’t mean that it stops existing. Privilege exists. In a myriad of forms. There’s white privilege, male privilege, thin privilege, etc. So here’s my (probably misguided) attempt at sorting all of this. I’m mostly going to focus on white privilege, but I’ve lots to say about the other kinds too. So feel free to ask!

Yes, Virginia, there is privilege. That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person if you benefit from it. 

This, I think, is key. When you point out to, say, a white male that he benefits from white, male privilege, he might think that you’re somehow denigrating his achievements. He’s worked really hard to get where he is in life, and for me to point out that he somehow benefited from something that he cannot help… well that’s unacceptable. I’ve had men threaten me, yell at me, and at one point call me “racist” for pointing out that white, male privilege exists. In fact, some of these men have then turned the tables on me, and pointed out that things like Affirmative Action and women’s and minority scholarships work against the white man, so how can these men be privileged when they aren’t eligible for such benefits.

Depending on where you look, the percentage of non-Hispanic white people in the United States ranges from 61-64% of the population.  If we choose to lump all Hispanics (white, black, and Asian) together, they makeup 16%. African-Americans are 13%, Asian-Americans about 5%, and the remaining are hilariously qualified as “other.”

Thanks to programs like Affirmative Action,

The percentage of American college students who are Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and Black has been increasing. From 1976 to 2010, the percentage of Hispanic students rose from 3 percent to 13 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from 2 percent to 6 percent, and the percentage of Black students rose from 9 percent to 14 percent. During the same period, the percentage of White students fell from 83 percent to 61 percent. Race/ethnicity is not reported for nonresident aliens, who made up 2 percent and 3 percent of total enrollment in 1976 and 2010, respectively. 1

So, we’ve reached a moment in the educational history of our country in which, again thanks to programs like Affirmative Action, the college student population somewhat accurately reflects the demographics of the actual population. This is not an argument for ending Affirmative Action. This is an argument for continuing its success. Removing Affirmative Action does not mean that these rates will continue. So is it unfair to whites? I don’t think so.

Change from Within makes the astute argument that if you adjust the demographics for age, the breakdown gets skewed a bit. Leading to the conclusion that

White folks are STILL disproportionately likely to go to college despite formal Affirmative Action programs that attempt to recruit students of color.  Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous students are disproportionately less likely to go to college, and the only other group with college-going rates that exceed their percentage of the population are Asian students.  But even that is misleading because to understand Asian success in the United States is also to understand racism.  After all, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act and similar policies that even continue today, for most of U.S. history, it was virtually impossible for someone of Asian descent to legally immigrate to the United States unless they had an advanced degree.  Thus, there is a disproportionate number of folks of Asian descent whose parents are college educated, but when you break down the data by socioeconomic status and ethnicity, low-income Asians are, again, disproportionately less likely to go to college!

And where are students going to college? And what’s happening afterwards?

it remains the case that even when black folks have college degrees they’re nearly twice as likely as comparable whites to be out of work; and Latinos with degrees are about 50 percent more likely than comparable whites to be out of work; and Asian Americans with degrees are about 40 percent more likely than comparable whites to be out of work (2). And yes, even whites who claim to have criminal records are more likely to be hired than equally qualified blacks without records…

And yes, blacks and Latinos combined only represent about 13 percent of students at the most selective colleges and universities — the only ones that actually practice any kind of real affirmative action for admissions — and there are twice as many whites admitted to elite schools with less-than-average qualifications as there are people of color so admitted…2

In order for something to be “unfair,” we have to assume a level playing field, where some kind of “fairness” is possible. Affirmative Action is “unfair” to white people if all other factors outside of test scores and schooling are equal. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Income distribution, parental education levels, access to medical care, and support for students of color is not the same statistically as it is for white people. This is not to say that there aren’t exceptions.

Hello. My name is Adriana Ramirez. I grew up with privilege. I’m white comma Hispanic, but I have benefited from wealth, education, health, and, yes, Affirmative Action. And just because I have benefited from Affirmative Action, I do not think that I have struggled less, worked less, or reaped more than my white counterparts. I just happened to get a scholarship that had the word “minority” in it. One that enabled me to attend school, without which I probably would not have attended the prestigious institutions that have molded my privileged mind.

I also know some white people who have grown up in poor, dire situations. Ones far worse than mine. White men who have struggled with discrimination and prejudice, who have been relegated to “minority” status in predominantly Hispanic or black neighborhoods. Who have felt threatened or mistreated due to their gender and race. It’s awful. It sucks. But, when you look at the numbers on a macro level, these white men are outliers. And while I do not mean to in any way discredit an individual’s experience, privilege is about the larger systemic and institutionalized experience. It’s about the fact that overall, being a white man is still better than not–despite the individual exceptions. 

What does this look like?

In “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh breaks down some of the markers of white privilege. My favorite part?

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

I went to a high school that was 80% Hispanic, in a school district that was anywhere between 80-90% Hispanic, depending on the school. In my entire education, I read ONE book in school that featured Latino characters. House on Mango Street. That was it. I was born in 1983 and graduated from high school in 2001. This is not fifty years ago. Most of the television I watched featured main characters that were white. If there happened to be a Latina, she was a sidekick of some kind. And most of her plot lines revolved around her being Latina (how does her family celebrate Christmas?). I grew up in South Texas. Outside of Texas history class (where Latinos were the bad guys… What’s up Alamo?), people who looked like me did not figure into history AT ALL. Except for a mention in someone else’s chapter (what’s up Conquistadors?!).

Representations of white people continue to be dominant. Most lead roles in Hollywood are played by white men and women, because white audiences prefer white actors. What black actors there are play roles that hinge around their blackness, same with Latinos (mostly maids, thugs, gangsters, slaves, and the poor).  We see black actresses with light skin playing dark-skinned women (Zoe Saldana in blackface playing Nina Simone), we see women of color lightening their skin and hair for commercial and crossover appeal (Beyonce and Shakira). Even when films showcase all minority casts, they are usually left off of best-of lists, awards, and mainstream recognition–despite ticket sales and popularity (see Tyler Perry).

How can we go about fixing something that seems so ingrained in our culture– most of our beloved cultural icons are white, despite the fact that more and more of the American population is not?

Slate‘s Aisha Harris points out that Santa Claus should be a penguin in order to solve the issue of white culture as default.

That’s right: a penguin.

Why, you ask? For one thing, making Santa Claus an animal rather than an old white male could spare millions of nonwhite kids the insecurity and shame that I remember from childhood. Whether you celebrate the holiday or not, Santa is one of the first iconic figures foisted upon you: He exists as an incredibly powerful image in the imaginations of children across the country (and beyond, of course). That this genial, jolly man can only be seen as white—and consequently, that a Santa of any other hue is merely a “joke” or a chance to trudge out racist stereotypes—helps perpetuate the whole “white-as-default” notion endemic to American culture (and, of course, not just American culture).

This, of course, made some folks sad.


For the record, there is nothing that suggests that Jesus was white. And Saint Nicholas was  Greek/Turkish, not Scandinavian. But traditional representations of both figures, in art and culture, suggest otherwise. And we’ve assimilated these representations as being truthful, because they are what we’ve always encountered.

Not only has white culture rewritten history, become a dominant force in our country, but it’s also borrowed from other cultures in what can only be called appropriation.

So Miley Cyrus appropriates black culture. Lana del Rey appropriates Latino culture. Gwen Stefani appropriated Japanese culture, as does Katy Perry. The very notion that someone can “dress” or “dance” as a person from another culture seems outdated. When folks dress like a “Mexican,” it sort of baffles me. Because what they are actually dressing up as is a caricature that’s rooted in racism or in a particular subculture that does not speak to the whole. To me, dressing like a “Mexican” involves wearing clothes, because I’m Mexican. Today I’m wearing jeans, a Mountain Goats tshirt, and a fleece my ex got me a REI. So Mexican it hurts.

Miley says she’s not appropriating (so do the others). But I think that her appropriation is not for her to determine. If others look at, say, Julianne Hough’s blackface during Halloween and see something offensive, whereas she only sees an homage to her favorite TV character, that doesn’t mean it’s not offensive. There are larger, cultural histories and institutionalized offenses at work here. If it’s offensive to the person receiving the message, does intention matter?

Which brings me to the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (the logical transition, of course). One of the characters said something racist on TV and then defended herself by saying she wasn’t racist. Here’s what she wrote on her blog:

First and foremost, I really do want to sincerely apologize and say I am truly sorry for the insensitive joke I made about Joyce not getting in the water and to anyone of my friends or fans of the show I offended…

To start off, I have been in several romantic relationships over the years with African American men and still have close relationships with those ex-boyfriends even now. For over 20 years now, I have had girlfriends from pretty much every ethnical [sic] background. Sometimes (actually a lot of times) these girlfriends and I joke inappropriately with each other. These jokes are clearly not ready for TV.

I married and have two children with a Cuban man whose parents were both born and raised in Cuba, and I consider my children to be multi-racial. I am not a racist and I apologize for my insensitive joke…

All of that being said, I hope you see that although it didn’t go too well, I was just trying to be funny — as I always try to be. Life is not worth living if you can’t laugh with your close friends. In the future, I will remember in to hold back with people who I now see are only looking to take me down so that they can have a something for themselves.

This to me sums up the worst of white privilege in a nutshell. This woman (who I refuse to name) doesn’t see how her comments were racist. She doesn’t have to be racist for her comments to hinge on racism. She can shag all the people of all the races (also, Cuban is not a race), that does not mean that she isn’t perpetuating an understanding of the world that is rooted in racism. That doesn’t mean she isn’t benefitting from white privilege in her assumptions and in her actions. She was trying to be funny. And her humor stemmed from something much bigger and nastier than the comment she made.

“Life is not worth living if you can’t laugh with your close friends” implies that the problem is how people received her comment. Not that she made it. For once, just for once, it’d be nice to read a real apology. Something along the lines of “what I said was based on ignorance and my own white privilege. I’m sorry–I lacked the awareness to realize how my speech can hurt people, behind closed doors or in the open, as my comments were informed by racism.” I’m not asking white people to stop being white, to stop benefiting from privilege–I’m simply pointing out that a bit of awareness can go a long way in preventing folks from perpetuating the ugliness associated with our complex history.

The best part? She’s somehow the victim by the end of her letter. And she’s not alone. From the white man who yelled at me about Affirmative Action to Miley to this woman, to all the instances that happen daily to people of color (microaggressions, indeed), there’s a strange culture of denial happening around white privilege. Like we just don’t get the joke.

So here’s a better joke.

  1. National Center for Education Statistics, 


  1. Katie Katie

    Thank you for a very thoughtful post. As someone who has benefited from white privilege, I believe it’s good to be mindful of that fact, if for no other reason than to recognize and acknowledge the non-white people who “make it”, for they have placed significant cracks in their glass ceilings. However, it is something I have taken to heart when making decisions such as hiring employees or which authors I read (although many are white males, I make a conscious effort to seek out other perspectives).

    As a woman, I am acutely aware of my inability to join the “good ole boys’ club”. It does mean I need to work harder to prove myself credible and reliable.

    As a human being, I try to recognize that everyone is fighting her or his battles. Some are obvious or apparent, and others are not. We are all looking for an edge, and Affirmative Action is one small attempt to level the playing field. Diversity is a beautiful thing and one we should actively seek to maintain. We can do that only by recognizing the “edges” that exist and acknowledging who has access to them.

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