White Privilege

Every so often, even well-meaning people will pooh-pooh the notion of “white privilege.” Most of us who enjoy that privilege fail to recognize how it works, both for us and for those who don’t benefit from the unspoken assumptions evoked by white skin.

What made me think about the subject was an email I received the other day from a (white) friend. She wrote

I’m currently reading “Ted Koppel Off Camera” a book of his daily journal of news and personal observations from 1999.   In it, he says he read a statistic that was so incredible he didn’t believe it – that 8 of 10 blacks had spent time behind bars.    That includes people held for short times in jail and released for lack of evidence or wrongful arrest, but nevertheless, he was incredulous.    So he asked 5 blacks with whom he worked if they had ever been arrested and spent time behind bars, and every one of them had -one repeatedly for driving a new car which police didn’t think a black man should be driving.

Her email reminded me of my own dumbfounded reaction several years ago, when I was part of a small group that later became the much-larger Race Relations Network of the Greater Indianapolis Progress Committee. There were approximately 20 of us in that early group, about half and half white and black. Most were professionals, or highly-educated executives with local companies or organizations.

For some reason, the discussion turned to speed limits, and someone asked “How many of you have been stopped for speeding?” All of us raised our hands. The next question was more pointed. “When you were stopped, how many of you were asked ‘Can I  search your vehicle'”? Every black hand went up; no white ones did.

Tell me again how “white privilege” is a myth….


  1. Driving While Black (DWB) has been among the most freqent traffic violations for decades.

  2. Because three of my four ex-husbands are black men; I have seen this first-hand. It is appalling, embarrassing, painful and shameful to view and to be believed to be a part of. There is no way to make blacks believe those of us who are aware of this, feel this way about the situation. Being in my position; I became a member of a little-known minority who is treated with scorn by whites and blacks alike, who have lost family members and those we once believed were friends. The loss was their’s; not mine and I stand by my beliefs and my actions. We are the privileged segment of society and at this time, we have more “different” races that we are held above.

    My work with the city years ago put me in a position to see first-hand the needs in low-income areas; the poor, the sick, the disabled of color got the short end of the stick. Living in low-income areas with mixed racial neighbors, I also saw chain stores (Kroger primarily) who charged higher prices for food, often outdated so unsafe for human consumption. A Kroger store 1 mile east in a middle-income, primarily white neighborhood, had lower prices and future dates on perishable foods. Yes; there are poor and needy white families but they will more often be helped first.

    Tell me again we are not autmatic recipients of “White Privilege”!!!!!!

  3. Here in the southwest, it’s Driving While Mexican that will get you stopped and searched. Every single time we take a driving trip, I see police and border patrol on the side of the road, searching a vehicle and a hand full of dark haired individuals (young families from the looks of it) sitting off to the side watching them take every thing out of the vehicle and searching it. We drove Hwy 8 to San Diego last March and there were 3 mandatory border patrol stops on the way. 3 !!! and yet as we approached the stop, we were waved through. I have no idea what they are looking for and we lost an hour waiting in those lines.

  4. On the contrary, being a while man, young and athletic, running on the near eastside after dark is enough to warrant 2 police cars to stop me, question me and my motives for running at night, and accuse me of public intoxication. I’m training for a 24-hour ultra marathon in April.

    Yes, running white in a black neighborhood can get you in trouble. And law enforcement questions why they have no support from the neighborhoods. It’s a two-way street, you know.

  5. How timely. I just came a website called Diversity Inc. that showcases how real white privilege truly is, and especially how ingrained certain ideas are for people of the majority. For thinking about white privilege, I especially like the Ask the White Guy column, written by the CEO Luke Visconti.

    Website is found at http://www.diversityinc.com/

  6. While it may be a “two way street,” one side of the street is 20 lanes wide. (Hint: it’s not the one where white people get harassed for running at night.)

  7. I think it is difficult for some to grasp, because we want to believe our successes are all solely attributable (at the end of the day) to our work ethic and attitude not to some random factor like skin color.

    Growing up in Lebanon, IN, I grew up in a community of almost all white people. My first real job was at a bank. One day at a corporate training event it was basically said I could not be discriminated against because I’m a white male. I was mad, not because I felt targeted. But because I thought– I can be a victim, the whole concept seemed ridiculous. I heard comments about white privilege and was skeptical.

    Then I moved to the city. And it made me realize what an advantaged beginning I had received. Growing up in a stable two-parent home. I was told from a young age how to survive the rules of society. I saw family go to college, and everyone worked. Everyone I’d ever seen in my life had a job, of some sort.

    When I looked at statistics on inner city living (just as a diametric opposite) where unemployment and incarceration are both high… I started to think maybe not everyone had the same “training” I had received. No one told them to read things before you sign them. And on and on.

    I don’t think white privilege should be used as a negative term, but we should do more to understand that not everyone gets socialized and has the same opportunities. If people stepped back and considered that, perhaps some of the food stamp debate and other safety net discussions would be less contentious.

  8. It’s ironic that we hear white people claim that they are victims because they are white. It’s a perverse projection, attributing their own nasty proclivities and historic behaviors onto minorities. They can’t say “I feel entitled to victimize black people and have done so for centuries”, but they can get by with saying, “You are victimizing me but you are not entitled to do that” and think they can get by with it. The first statement has been document thousands of times, and the second is primarily a projection. I guess if one is speaking on Fox News, they can get by with it.

    The “Can I search your vehicle?” story was excellent.

  9. As a former diversity educator in higher ed, let me suggest Bill Shipton, retired Diversity Director for IU’s Office of Residential Programs and Services as a wonderful trainer in this area, and he is quite widely respected. Btw, not that I don’t believe Greg, but I’d love to know what part of town IMPD is policing “white” activity in a primarily black neighborhood? My bet is that the “well intentioned officers” thought they were looking out for you as opposed to profiling you, which leads me to believe that there is some irony in regard to your post.

  10. Good stuff in this discussion. If you take it seriously, follow the suggestions and take in the presentation by Tim Wise (along with his other Youtube videos) and John Scalzi’s down-and-dirty-tell-it-like-it-is game. We need smart, verbal and informed people like this who will confront some of the evil. Some folks won’t like it, but they will have to eat their hate or do something to it. This topic needs to be broken open and people need to hear themselves.

  11. Virtually 1/5th of all wealth in America today can be directly traced back to slavery. That’s somehat telling considering blacks are not 1/5th of the population.

  12. The Emancipation Proclamation has never been fully implemented in this country. Blacks, Hispanics and women earning lower wages are still building the wealth of the 1% in this country. And, as pointed out in Sheila’s “White Privilege”, are not getting many of their human and civil rights recognized. The country does have it’s own form of caste system, it is just not publically admitted.

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