With all of the national attention to police violence against unarmed young black males lately, there has been a lot of talk about this thing called white privilege.
As I scroll through some of the comments on articles I read, I am struck by the fact that there are so many people who simply don’t understand what this means. I believe this is because they have never been exposed to the injustices and differences in the life experiences of someone who goes through life with any color skin besides white.
I get where they are coming from. How could you understand what you haven’t lived or what hasn’t been explained to you?
In fact, I’ve been there. A couple decades ago, I didn’t get it either. I certainly didn’t feel privileged when I was a young, poor single mother barely making ends meet. Later in life, however, my worldview changed drastically when I adopted my two youngest sons and became the mother of two beautiful black boys.
Raising them has given me insight into things I never could have understood. It has been a lot like living a social experiment. It has been both one of the greatest joys and biggest heartaches of my life. I have learned things I never expected. I actually have three sons—two black and one white. My white son is 29 and my black boys are 14 and 15.
When I was in college, I read an article by Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” She wrote of the privileges she as a woman experiences for being white. I would like to take it a step further by sharing some of the things I experienced raising my sons that have made my white privilege slap me in the face. I hope that you, too, might understand what it means when we talk about white privilege.
Here are some of the privileges I never realized I experienced raising my white son:
…did I ever have to explain to my white son that people might be mean to him and even hurt or kill him simply because of his skin color.
With my other two sons, I had to figure out at what age to do this and ask myself a variety of questions: Do I wait until they are old enough to see the news and understand it? Is that too late? Will telling them too soon make them unnecessarily afraid? How do I explain this without making them completely distrusting of authority figures and people in general? Can I do this without making them fear white people? I mean, I’m white and I have white friends and family members. Will telling them too late keep them safe? What will this do to their sense of self-worth? How in the hell do you explain this ridiculousness to a child?
…did I ever have to tell him to keep his hands out of his pockets while in a store, because they would follow him around if they thought he was going to steal something.
…did I ever have to go into a store or a school or athletic event with him to assert myself as his mother so that people would treat him fairly—so they’d think, “oh, his mom’s white so he’s like-white.” Countless times over the years I have watched people change the way they treat my black sons; they suddenly become more friendly or less skeptical after I have asserted myself as their mom.
…did I ever have to tell him not to wear the hood up on his hoodie, because it might save his life. Because Trayvon Martin.
…did I sit across from him at the dinner table and nearly drop my fork mid-bite and contemplate how to answer the question, “Mom, if a girl won’t be your girlfriend because her dad won’t let her because you are black, is that racist?” Then later wipe away his tears along with my own after I answered that question. I didn’t have to go to the school to explain to them that this seven-year-old girl told my son, “I can’t be your girlfriend; in fact, I don’t even like you because you are brown.”
…did I have to go looking for band-aids that would match his skin color or use a marker to color the ones I could find because the only ones sold at my local store are white flesh-color.
…did I have to tell him that he has to always be on his best behavior, because he will get blamed for things before others do. Or tell him that sometimes, in situations with certain people, it doesn’t even matter how good you are or what you do—they still won’t like you or treat you fairly.
…did I ever have to go looking for things like books or artwork in “specialty” stores or online in order to find things that depict people of his same race. I mean, how many black Santas have you ever seen? And have you ever looked for children’s books that have children of color in them? Let me tell you, it isn’t easy to find in your local store.
…did I ever have to go to five or more different stores in order to find hair care products for his type of hair.
…did I worry about him walking home in the dark by himself out of fear he may be harassed by police or others—a mother’s worst nightmare when she can’t be there to protect him.
…did I wipe away tears because someone called him “nigger.” I never cried myself to sleep over the injustice of my white son being demoralized or degraded by his peers for something he had absolutely no control over. I never had to deal with him being frustrated or angry because of these situations. I didn’t have to delicately balance his self-esteem with his safety. I didn’t have to teach him how to both resist and conform to an unfair society.
…did I have to go to school to raise hell about him being harassed for his race. And not once did he get suspended for punching a kid for calling him racial slurs, because the school refused to do anything about it.
…did I have to look in his 11-year-old eyes and tell him he couldn’t go play in the alleys of our neighborhood with the other boys who had air-soft guns, because he might get shot by police thinking he had a real gun.
…did I ever have to look at any situation he was in and decide if there were racial undertones involved. “Mom, I think this teacher hates me because I am black.” “Mom, everyone got invited to this kid’s birthday party but me.” “Why am I the only kid who got suspended for doing what several other kids were doing?” “I don’t want to go to history class, because we’re learning about slavery and the teacher always looks at me or asks me questions and it makes me uncomfortable.” These are a small sampling of questions I’ve been asked or things my black sons told me that made me have to decide if there was a racial component to the situation. And once I had made that determination, I had to decide what—if anything—to do about it. I had to ask myself if “doing something about it” would further escalate the situation. Would it make it worse for them or better? Did they need to see me stand up for them in this situation? Or did I need to leave it alone so it didn’t cause them further problems with authorities or their peers.
…did I have to go to court with him for something trivial and witness the old white judge talking with every white child who was in there for the same thing but not say one word to my son when it was his turn—my son, the only kid in there who was dressed respectfully in slacks and a button up shirt—then answer his question on the way home, “Mom do you think that judge didn’t treat me the same because I am black?” with, “Yes son, I think you are right.”
…did I worry as my teenage son left the house that he may get killed today simply because of his skin color. I never lay awake at night worrying he might not make it home to me. I never had to decide how much freedom to give him because of his skin color. It never broke my heart that I had to treat him differently than his brothers.
…did I have to explain that he will have to work harder in school and at work to make the same money as a white person doing the same thing. He will have to be better and work harder to prove himself, because statistics show that black men make less money for the same job.
…did I have to watch him go from being seen as the cute little brown boy to being perceived as scary or a threat as he grew into a big, strong young man. Never did I witness white people crossing the road to walk down the opposite side from him because he scared them. I never had to wonder how this was affecting his psyche and what I could do as damage control.
…did I struggle to find a school that had a decent proportion of students of color like him but wasn’t located in an impoverished part of the city where the education he would receive would be of a lower quality than those schools located in a predominantly white neighborhood.
…did I have to tell him I wasn’t ready for him to get his driver’s license yet because of the can of worms that opens. I didn’t have to explain that he most likely would be profiled and pulled over at some point for DWB (Driving While Black), which can lead to a whole other host of problems while interacting with the police. I didn’t have to worry that if I let him drive my nice car he would probably get pulled over because they would think he stole it. I didn’t have to re-iterate over and over the importance of keeping his hands in plain sight if an officer pulled him over and clearly stating that he was going to open the glove box to reach for the registration and insurance information so they wouldn’t assume he was going for a gun.
I could go on and on here, but hopefully you can see that many of the privileges we experience as white people are invisible to us.
We don’t even have to think about so many of these things in our daily lives, and we don’t even realize it.
I hope that sharing some of our story helps you understand the privileges we take for granted. Being pro-black doesn’t mean you are anti-white. It means you empathize with the way things are today in America for our brothers and sisters of color. It means you stand together with them in fighting the injustices they experience and that you recognize and honor these differences. It means being the change you wish to see in the world.
In closing, a wise black woman once told me a powerful story about how racism feels and wears on a person. She took my hand and ran her fingernail across the top and asked me if it hurt. Of course I said no.
“Well, what if I keep doing that over and over in that same spot for years? Eventually the skin will break, it will bleed, maybe fester and scab over. Then someone else comes along, does the same little thing which normally wouldn’t hurt but it breaks the scab open and you scream and howl in pain and punch them in the face. That is how years and years of discrimination wear on a person and why sometimes we react in the ways we do.”
I can only imagine how it feels to live with this day in and day out based on my second-hand experience.
And that, my friends, is white privilege.
Author: Christy Richardson
Editor: Toby Israel
Photo: Author’s Own