I woke up the other morning with a definition of privilege floating around in my mind. I wasn’t working on a piece about privilege, so I’m not sure why it appeared at that moment, however since there has been a great deal of discussion and debate about white privilege I got myself to my computer to see where the definition led. It seemed like a clear and simple depiction for the concept. White privilege (or any kind of privilege) is the luxury of imagination. It is the luxury to choose whether or not to imagine. It is the luxury to use the phrases, “I can only imagine,” or “I can’t even imagine.”
People of privilege can only imagine the experience of being followed around a store from the moment you walk in until the moment you leave, because of an assumption that the color of your skin makes you more likely to shoplift. People of privilege can only imagine what it’s like to be stopped by the police over and over and over again because of racial profiling. People of privilege can choose not to imagine what it’s like to grow up as a young black man in the United States knowing that because of the color of your skin you are more likely to go to prison or to die young. According to this disturbing article in the New York Times, 1.5 Million Missing Black Men, “more than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life,” disappeared either through incarceration or death. People of privilege can only imagine what it’s like to be the mother or father of one of those young men and know that you can’t keep your child safe from bigotry and the physical, spiritual, and emotional harm it brings. People of privilege can only imagine what it’s like to be the only white face in a classroom, or a boardroom. People of privilege can only imagine what it’s like to be hired, or asked to sit on a committee to make a company or school look good, rather than simply because of the talents and skills you bring. People of privilege can choose not to imagine what it’s like to be hated simply because of the color of your skin. That is a true luxury, having the choice to not even imagine what the suffering of others is truly like.
I think what is at the root of the resistance we are feeling in our society is that white America is only now truly beginning to recognize the privilege they have had the benefit of, and rather than acknowledging it and seeking to correct the imbalance, many are giving in to the deep fear of losing that privilege. Only now are we beginning to notice what it’s like to be identified by the color of our skin. Previously, the only time it really was relevant was on a form where Caucasian was usually listed first. We were raised knowing that the good guy always wore white and the bad guy was always dressed in black. We didn’t have to use our imagination to make ourselves the good guy, it was assumed.
I hate to even have to make this point, but I know there will be people who point out exceptions. So of course there are white people who don’t have the same privilege as others, and white people who are followed around in stores because of how they look, and a myriad of other exceptions. That isn’t the point. The point is we have the luxury of pointing out the exceptions.