The reaction elicited from calling white people “privileged” reminds me of the scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy splashes water on the Wicked Witch of the West and she melts writhing and screaming in pain, “I’m melting!” Although that seems exaggerated, it’s usually about how dramatic the responses are.
Online, the rebuttal is usually eight paragraphs about growing up poor and having to work hard for everything. Often, it’s legitimized by one or two instances where the white person experienced shocking racism like being kicked by a black classmate in fifth grade or having been called a “cracker” at a bar. The response to the rebuttal is usually equally predictable, futilely attempting to explain the difference between white privilege and green privilege, or the difference in individual acts of discrimination/violence based on race versus a system of oppression based on race.
I gave up on explaining privilege to white people, and more recently, I’ve abandoned the notion that privilege is the reason white people don’t recognize the oppression of non-white people. White people are right — privilege is not the reason they’re indifferent to our suffering.
Accepting privilege as blinding to injustice means that the ability to recognize injustice is predicated on having experienced that same injustice. This is offensive and absurdly untrue. I’ve worked with white people who bought and passed around sympathy cards for coworkers who lost parents. These people had not themselves ever lost a parent and as such, did not know the pain, but they imagined the pain and knew their support and kind words were needed. They understood their human responsibility to offer condolences. “Let me know if you need anything,” rolled easily off their tongues because it was the right thing to do.
Even more illustrious, though, is the collective reaction from white people to the recent killing of Cecil the Lion. The outrage was not only broad but immediate and effective. None of them had ever been murdered by a hunter, yet they recognized the injustice. Hashtags and tribute statuses flooded timelines for the fallen feline. Neither glorious mane nor title of “King of the Jungle” were prerequisites for protests, calls to arrest the poacher and drafting of legislation to protect animals from being hunted.
Why then, must we excuse the willfully vicious apathy and violently bold smugness of white people when it comes to the routine, systematic murder, brutalization and dehumanization of black bodies by labeling it privilege?
Even when there is a clear disregard for the humanity of black people, we’re still handholding and coddling because “we must never offend white fragility.” Face down on pavement stained with the blood of our brothers and sisters with cops’ knees in our necks, looking through eyes burning from pepper spray, we’re still expected to give white people the benefit of the doubt. We still blame white indifference to black life on the head and not the heart.
“Privilege” is an attempt at diplomacy. It’s an effort to garner sympathy from white people without holding them responsible. Calling a disregard for the humanity of melanin-ated bodies “privilege” ensures the self-professed white allies won’t feel guilty about the unearned superior status their race affords them. It allows those who claim to fight with and for us to deny any culpability in inheriting, managing and perfecting the business of oppression. It adorns a pig in Ruby Woo, painting white people as inherently benevolent and assuming that if they recognized the terror black people contend with daily, they’d be outraged, enraged and determined to change things.
I don’t believe that, though. I don’t believe that people who smile at me on the elevator every day making small talk applaud the murder of unarmed black people because they’re blinded by white privilege. I will not defend myself from bricks with feathers. I will not keep mourning black lives while gently urging those who embolden and enable our murderers to reconsider their position. I will not beg for my life.
Privilege might explain why someone would believe Darren Wilson’s outrageous account of the events that led to Mike Brown’s death, but it wouldn’t explain why that same person would mock Brown by dressing in khaki shorts and a white t-shirt stained with fake blood, adorning himself in blackface and tweeting pics of himself with friends at a Halloween party under the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. Privilege might explain how someone could accept the video and audio of Sandra Bland’s arrest as uncompromised, but it wouldn’t explain the same person posting a Facebook status calling Bland uppity and saying she deserved to die.
Let’s be honest — white people have a vested interest in denying black people full personhood. Any law, practice or institution explicitly and directly benefiting the black collective is consequentially damaging to the white collective. It’s like balancing a scale. In order for both sides to be equal, the side with the heavier burden must have its burden lightened, or the lighter side must have its burden increased. Demanding equitable standards of policing for the black community would mean either the police start terrorizing white people en masse too, or that the police start treating black people with the dignity and humanity they do white people.
In either instance, white people lose. The position of white people with regard to black oppression is not one of privilege but of malice. It is bred and groomed of necessity to maintain superiority.
I read a tweet recently that privilege is when you don’t think something is a problem because it’s not a problem to you. That’s not privilege. Not caring about the suffering you see is deliberate. We wouldn’t call a person who witnessed a woman being raped and kept walking privileged. We’d call the person a terrible human being. That’s what I think of the people who not only do nothing to stop executions of unarmed black people but encourage, endorse and justify them. I do not call them privileged; I call them terrible human beings.