The Pew Research Center recently polled Americans on their belief in white privilege, and the results should surprise no one: Though a majority (56 percent) of people of all races and ethnicities believe that white people benefit either “a great deal” or “a fair amount” from their race, only 46 percent of whites say they benefit at least a fair amount from advantages in society that blacks don’t have. Just 16 percent of whites say they benefit a great deal.
The easy potshot to make is to say that whites are so privileged that they don’t even recognize how privileged they are.
Some in my family have a different take on it.
For instance, like the other 40.6 million Americans who lived in poverty in 2016, according to recent U.S. Census figures, my in-laws are poor. Like 17.2 million of these people, my mother- and father-in-law are white, non-Hispanic, which is the largest racial and ethnic demographic of people living in poverty.
My husband’s parents were born in a small, predominantly white rural town in the South. Both were high school dropouts. My father-in-law served in the Army, and my mother-in-law had her first child as a teenager. Their early married years were set to your prototypical country tune: with lots of little kids running around, an ample supply of beer and cigarettes, pickup trucks and church.
Then came hard times, when my father-in-law became disabled from illness and then my mother-in-law was injured while working a low-wage physical labor job.
Today they live in a decaying trailer home on the outskirts of a shrinking town that used to be populated by families flush with good jobs at the local coal mines.
They’re the kind of people who shop at Walmart not because they want to but because there’s no other suitable place to buy groceries within a 15-mile radius. I’ve heard them describe, with disgust, the slim pickings of fresh fruit and vegetables available there — a complaint that has been echoed in rural communities across the country — but that’s the reality of living in the depressed parts of America’s Heartland.
Talking to them about white privilege is tantamount to slapping them in the face. From their perspective, they’ve served their country, lived good, honest lives and seen every one of their four children graduate from college — and yet they are barely making it. They believe they’ve never been endowed with any magical racial privileges — much less access to a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s and the income to be able to afford to shop there.
It’s a valid viewpoint that deserves consideration — even if it doesn’t prove that racial privilege doesn’t exist.
A June study from Stanford University found that during interactions with law enforcement officers of all races and ethnicities, “white residents were 57 percent more likely than black residents to hear a police officer say the most respectful” phrases — i.e., apologies or expressions of gratitude like “thank you.” But “black community members were 61 percent more likely than white residents to hear an officer say less respectful utterances” and use “informal titles like ‘dude’ and ‘bro’ ” as well as “commands like ‘hands on the wheel.’ ”
In a new study that will soon be published in the Journal of the European Economic Association, researchers from Britain and Italy found that when receiving requests about basic information such as hours of operation, local government officials throughout the United States were less responsive to African-Americans than they were to whites.
In the discussion about who has it harder in this country, others might note that the crowd that gathered to listen to country music in Las Vegas was not spared from violence even though such music tends to draw a predominantly white audience. In fact, some people actually rejoiced publicly about the slaughter specifically because many of the victims may have been — presumably, by being country music fans — gun-loving Republicans.
Are you seeing my point here? No one wins the oppression Olympics. The reality is that everyone is discriminated against by someone. Everyone has some kind of privilege — whether it’s being able-bodied, free from mental illness, having a supportive family or simply being happy with his or her lot in life.
Does it really matter whether we think we have — or lack — some privilege relative to others? Does it move us forward in any meaningful way?
Perhaps it’s time to stop focusing on how our particular privileges help us and start thinking about how to use whatever privileges we may possess to make others’ lives better — regardless of whether we agree with their politics.
Esther J. Cepeda is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post.