Larry Smith

After leaving Saturday Night Live to become a movie star, Eddie Murphy returned more than once to host the show. On one such occasion, he performed a skit that featured him “going undercover” as a white man. This led Murphy to a stunning revelation: “Slowly I began to realize that, when white people are alone, they give things to each other… for free.” That skit encapsulates what is now referred to as “white privilege.” This skit was funny because it had the ring of truth — albeit in an exaggerated way. (Murphy’s performance is interesting because — unlike comedic icon Richard Pryor — his routines rarely venture into the politics of race.) 

Many white people strenuously object to the notion that they are “privileged” simply because of their race. They point to the fact that they’re not rich, endure personal challenges, personally reject racism, lead a “normal” life, etc. Such claims are often true — and always irrelevant. White privilege is not solely about money, though there is an unmistakable economic component to it. Further, white privilege does not ensure a stress-free life. Finally, one does not have to be aware of such privilege to benefit from it. Nonetheless, it is real. If I had to boil down the notion of “white privilege” to its essence, I would describe it as follows: “The nearly endless explicit and implicit ways in which white people benefit from their skin color, in both active and passive ways.” 

A few years ago, I was enjoying an Indiana Black Expo concert downtown. To keep the crowd contained, authorities placed “do not cross” barriers around the venue. There was also a heavy police presence. A white friend of mine and I got up to look for a way to access nearby food vendors. After a couple minutes of frustration, my friend literally said, “I’m going to take advantage of my white privilege” — and crossed over one of the barriers. I followed him. Officers were nearby but said nothing. The point is not that I was not confronted for following him; the point is that it did not occur to me that I should simply cross over the barriers. But it was second nature for my friend. He was conscious of the fact that nothing was likely to happen to him despite his openly flouting the clear expectation not to cross the barriers.

Of course, the flip side of white privilege is Black disadvantage. When I was in college, Colin Powell became the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (long before he became a household name). I was among a group of Black students who had the chance to meet him at a conference. During the question-and-answer session, I asked him to give an example of racism. Powell recounted how he was asked to pick up a white executive from the airport. Powell wore a suit rather than his military uniform. The person who he was there to pick up asked a series of white men whether they were General Powell — completely ignoring the distinguished looking Black man. Powell did not refer to this man as “racist,” he merely highlighted the racial assumptions that are born of white privilege. 

Perhaps the most important benefit of white privilege is not having to be confronted with race, or even consciously think about it on a daily basis. Tim Wise, who is white, is one of America’s foremost anti-racism advocates. Wise openly states that he has an easier time confronting white audiences about racism because he is “one of them.” Wise says that being white is like being a fish in water. Fish don’t know that they’re in an optimal environment — unless they’re removed from it. Or consider my analogy. Scientists tell us that we blink nearly 29,000 times per day. Yet, we don’t think about blinking — other than when a foreign object lands in our eyes. Such is white privilege. (I would note that this is not just an American phenomenon, but that’s another story.)

There is no greater current example of white privilege than Donald Trump being elected president (and apparent avoidance of impeachment). Trump’s personal and professional background would automatically disqualify any African American from even being considered a serious contender — and that is without Trump’s racism coming into play. In a recent interview, former FLOTUS Michelle Obama revealed that she and President Obama were painfully aware that they had to be above reproach during his two terms. Even when President Obama did nothing wrong, he understood that his tenure was precarious due largely to his race. (It is inconceivable that Donald Trump would feel compelled to have a “beer summit” as a result of comments that were deemed inappropriate by African Americans.) 

Finally, if your reaction to this column is one of shock, disbelief, obfuscation, anger, deflection or denial, well …

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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