Talking About White Privilege

Before I begin this piece, I will add a disclaimer. I am a white person in my late 40’s. I have grown up in a white neighbourhood. There were people from a broad variety of backgrounds in my school, but these tended to be the exception rather than the rule. Although I lived in big metro areas, specifically, just outside New York City and inside London, my experience of these places was cosseted by my upbringing.

When I mention “white privilege”, no doubt, a lot of people who have a similar background to me will be tempted to say, “What privilege? Life is hard!” When one looks at some of the poorer locales in the West, this privilege can seem like not much of a benefit. There are places where the majority of residents are just as white as I am and are wracked with misery and unemployment, domestic violence, and despair . When I talk about “white privilege” and “white supremacy”, it is not to minimise the suffering that occurs there.

White privilege manifests itself in the strength of headwinds which blow back against the individual. For example, a young white man recently did the following experiment: he went out running. He was carrying a television set. No one stopped him. Furthermore, he claimed people waved to him and smiled. Ahmaud Aubery, an African American man, went jogging without a television under his arm: he was shot and killed by a retired police officer and his son. It took a great deal of pressure on Georgia’s state government for the case to be treated as a homicide. Therein we see the privilege: the assumption made by passersby was that the white jogger had a legitimate reason to be running with a television; Mr. Aubery was assumed to be up to no good. This prejudice was reflected in the authorities’ inaction. Expand this premise out and you can see why there have been so many cases of African Americans dying in police custody.

Other headwinds are economic. One effect of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time in office was to expand home ownership. Agencies were set up to facilitate mortgage lending. However some areas were deemed too risky; this practice was known as “red lining”. Red lining directly disadvantaged African American communities. Without home ownership, it was much more difficult for minority communities to build up wealth. Sub-prime mortgages eventually appeared: but these were granted on the assumption that those who took them out would pay higher rates of interest. When this premise collapsed after 2007, so did the financial markets.

Another headwind is cultural. I live in Britain; I speak with an American accent. The most I can expect is to be teased about not pronouncing “battery” or “aluminium” correctly. If an African American speaks in their accent in the United States, they can often expect to be told to “speak proper English”, as if the way they speak is something to be eliminated.

None of this is to say that the life of every white person is particularly blessed. The son of a coal miner in the wilds of West Virginia may find it difficult to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Their school may be of limited value. They may find that good paying jobs aren’t available. Nevertheless, the headwinds they face into are generally less: they can go for a run and not fear that they may get shot and that the perpetrator won’t be prosecuted. They can see a police officer and not worry about being misinterpreted. They can apply for jobs and not wonder if they ought to use a different name to get to the top of the pile of resumes.

White privilege continues white supremacy; we would like to think it’s a relic of the past. For example, Léon Rom, pictured at the beginning of this article, was a colonial official in what was once known as the Belgian Congo. The Belgian Congo was a result of perhaps the most egregious exercise in white supremacy, the so-called “Scramble for Africa”, which occurred in the late 19th century. European powers decided to divide up an entire continent without consulting anyone who lived there. Belgium, thanks to the diplomatic manoeuvres of King Leopold II, managed to get a giant slice of central Africa: he looted the so-called “Congo Free State” for rubber and ivory, which was collected with slave labour. Leopold regarded this as the natural order of things; he went so far as to regard himself as the Congo’s “proprietor”. Rom was one of the many agents Leopold sent to gather the loot. In his spare time, Rom collected butterflies; he painted. In some respects, he was cultured. However, he also kept severed heads of Africans in his garden as a warning. He wrote a book about African customs which was racist, pompous, and dismissive. He saw nothing wrong with this. He saw this as the natural order of things.

Rom has been by and large forgotten, except as a possible model for Kurtz in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. We’d like to think we’re beyond this; we’re embarrassed by racist caricatures and want to be politically correct. The average Belgian sees their life as hard and doesn’t look up and notice that many of the grand edifices in Brussels and Antwerp were paid for out of the slavery and misery of others. The double L symbol of Leopold II still adorns public buildings; the magnificent palace Leopold built at Laeken still stands, the Belgian Royal Family lives there. 60 years after Belgians quit the Congo, the Belgians benefit from white privilege though they may not know it. We all do: some people may be reading this via a mobile phone. Many of the rare earths and materials used in its construction come from the Congo, and those who gather them are paid a pittance. Not to do so would ensure their starvation. This is not much different to the system that Leopold II put in place. We should be conscious of these facts, and begin the hard task of removing white supremacy and privilege; until then, we are collectively no more civilised than Rom was, specifically, only on the surface.

It is not solely a person of colour issue; Muslims face into similar prejudices. They are excluded from identification with the wider life of the nation. Change, when it occurs, is often because the pressure of injustice is too much for any society to bear. I submit this is what led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Otherwise, it happens slowly: one relationship at a time, one friendship at a time, one disaster at a time which forces society to cohere more closely. Hopefully the coronavirus situation, as terrible as it is, will show us that we are all human and vulnerable. The fact that minorities have been dis-proportionally hit by the coronavirus demands answers. But even if the barriers are eroded, they are unlikely to magically disappear.

It’s in everyone’s interests for white privilege to end. It’s very clear that people like me, older white males, haven’t done a particularly good job of running things. The economy’s rules, much of which are epitomised by the swaggering machismo of (mainly white, male) business channel commentators, is not delivering better outcomes for all. Meanwhile, generally speaking, the countries which have responded most effectively to the coronavirus have one thing in common: they’re not led by white men. It should disgust and repulse any person with a conscience that the colour of one’s skin or one’s creed could provide an instant assumption about what that person is like, their depths, their inner qualities. Yet this prejudice floats above society, like a storm about to break, with the occasional lightning flashes and thunder roaring. “Civilisation” as presently constituted, is in a state of gradual collapse; the Earth roils at what a terrible job we’re doing. The seas are full of plastic, the skies thick with carbon, the coral reefs bleach, species upon species die. We need change, and quickly: perhaps the way forward would be to understand that no one person, no one category of people, has a monopoly on truth, nor a right to civilisation. It is the inheritance of all humanity, to develop and improve.

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