Understanding White Privilege

The phrase “white privilege” has only become a part of my vocabulary in the last 5 years. However, the concept has been a reality I have felt since childhood. Being a light skinned Latino, I have most often seen white privilege in how I have been treated differently than my darker kin.

A Police Encounter

When I was 17 I was angry, vain, and reckless. Though I heard and knew the gospel I would not say I was a Christian. My life showed no signs of a renewed heart and I absolutely loved my sin more than Jesus. It wasn’t even close…

For example, I started dating a girl because I heard she smoked a lot of marijuana. That’s it. That was my motive for dating this young lady. In many ways she was a status symbol that bolstered an image I was trying to portray.

One night, this girlfriend asked if I knew how to make bongs (a device used for smoking substances, most commonly marijuana). I didn’t, so when she offered to teach me how I called up 3 of my friends to come learn with me. After spending a few hours making drug paraphernalia out of 3-liter Big Red bottles, we decided to call it a night.

Shortly after midnight we headed to my girlfriends house. She and I were in my car, while my 3 friends followed us in another car. As we drove down an empty main street an officer flashed his lights and pulled us over.

Initially, there was only one officer who pulled us over. After getting my friend’s license the officer came to my car. I’m not gonna lie, to this day my heart starts racing thinking about that night. I had a girl, with drugs in her possession, in my passenger seat and drug paraphernalia all over my backseat. Plus my windows were not tinted so the paraphernalia was in plain sight.

Rolling down my window to speak with the officer all I could smell was marijuana. After asking for my license, he instructed me to get out of my car. I thought to myself, “That’s it… I’m done.” Stepping out of the car I heard multiple voices in the distance and noticed two more squad cars had arrived. In total there were 4 officers, all white. The only thing the officer told me was, “let’s just stand here and hang tight.”

The next thing I heard was my friends crying out as they were pulled out of the front windows of the car. They threw my friends against their car, searched them, and handcuffed them. One friend kept screaming, “OFFICER, WHAT DID WE DO?!” The only response was “SHUT THE (BEEP) UP!”

To my shame, I just stood there and watched. This was 2002, there were no smart phones with cameras or social media with live streaming, nothing. There were just 5 underage kids and 4 grown policemen. The officers then forced my friends around some bushes where they beat the crap out of them. After what felt like forever the officers brought my friends back to their car and gave my friend who was driving multiple tickets.

How many times was I hit? Zero… How tight were the handcuffs on my hands? I was never cuffed… How many tickets did I get? Zero. I was let off with a warning… What was my warning? The officer who stood with me said, “you look like a good young man from a good home. Do yourself a favor and find another group of friends.”

Moral of the Story

I had drugs and paraphernalia on me. I invited my friends to come participate in illegal activity with me. Yet, they went home traumatized, beaten, and fined, while I left physically unscathed.

Why? Well… I learned 3 things that night:

  1. My light complexion made me safe and unthreatening to the officers.
  2. My light skin along with my last name “Hart” made me a “good kid hanging out with the wrong crowd.”
  3. My having actually broken the law was not as big of an issue as 3 brown boys driving through the city at night.

That night at 17, I experienced first hand a form of “white privilege.”

What is White Privilege?

I want to be clear that I do not believe all white people get a free pass when it comes to breaking the law. Nor do I condone my own actions, I should’ve been in trouble that night. The point of my story is, in American society white people, or those associated with “whiteness,” often get unearned advantages that people of color are never afforded.

Having said that, here is a concise definition of white privilege,

“Systemic advantages that come with being white.”

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? p. 88

For a more robust unpacking of the term here is an explanation by Robin DiAngelo,“to be white is to be in a privileged position within society and its institutions-to be seen as an insider and to be granted the benefits of belonging. This position automatically bestows unearned advantages.” (White Fragility, p. 27)

The term white privilege was popularized by Peggy McIntosh in her 1989 article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” You can find a pdf of this article HERE.

In her article McIntosh unpacks a list of societal advantages she receives for no other reason than being white. Two quick examples of everyday forms of white privilege come from the grocery store.

Bandaids. Ever wonder whose skin “flesh colored” bandaids are made for? Hint: it’s not people of color. Want to see how people are addressing this problem?

Check out this article People of Color Can Finally Wear Bandages That Match Their Skin

The hair care aisle. Ever notice the “hair care” aisle on both sides of one full aisle, and then “ethnic hair” in one corner of another aisle? What customer are stores primarily catering to? Hint: It’s not people of color.

Is It Wrong to Have Privilege?

The short answer is no, not necessarily. There are all kinds of privilege. Even biblically in the Old Testament there’s “Hebrew privilege,” literally Gods chosen people. In our own day there’s things like “Christian” privilege, “American” privilege, etc. With any kind of privilege, including white privilege, the issue is less about if you have it, but what are you doing with it?

Where I failed my friends that night the police pulled us over was I simply stood there and did nothing. Was there realistically anything I could’ve done to prevent what happened to them? I don’t know.

What I do know is recognizing I could’ve said something and I didn’t is a wound that hurts to this day.

When it comes to combating systemic racism it is important for white people to recognize they have unearned privileges and those privileges, justly or not, come with added responsibilities. Understanding, as a white person, you have white privilege, how will you use it to speak up for and pursue justice alongside of people of color?

Additional Resources

Can Latinos Benefit from White Privilege?

White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White

A History of White People: