"I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group," revealed Peggy McIntosh in her groundbreaking work Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (1990). Being dominant and being victimized seem to be polar opposites, so how can white privilege victimize white people?
Have you ever thought you were in charge when in reality you were not? It is embarrassing at best, and at it worst it undermines self-confidence and may cause one to act out in ineffective and unattractive ways. Being dominant is a heavy responsibility, particularly if you are carrying it blindly.
Do a little experiment. Ask some white folks you know if they are the recipient of white privilege. The majority will say no. They may even elaborate on how whites are burdened with more responsibility than those of other races, but they are certainly not blessed with special treatment. Geert Hofstede, an early diversity guru explains the invisible nature of culture, “A fish does not know he lives in water until he is caught up in the fisherman’s net and is cast upon dry land.” So it is with white privilege. White people do not know they are benefiting from it until it is stripped away.
An illustrative example is that of Arizona governor Jan Brewer. The now famous photo of 67-year-old Brewer with her finger in the face of President Obama is good documentation of white privilege in action. As a Southern white woman Governor Brewer felt it was within her right to take a bit of poetic license in her book Scorpions for Breakfast and alleged that President Obama was previously patronizing to her. When the President arrived in Arizona, and unexpectedly confronted her with this misrepresentation, it apparently came as a shock to her.
Governor Brewer reacted as she had been taught to act in a situation where a person of color had gotten out of line and was spoiling her plans. She took charge. Later, in a series of interviews she projected blame on the President for her behavior, another automatic reaction born of white privilege. She labeled the President “thin skinned,” apparently unaware of her own defensiveness despite the photographic proof. She went on to allege that the President was “intimidating” her, but who was the nervy one in the photo?
Granted, this example involves just one woman, and one might argue that she was simply used to being treated well and was generally lacking in insight, leading to her personality driven response. This may be true. In 1988, Ms. Brewer caused an accident on Arizona I-17 while apparently driving drunk. Although she failed field sobriety tests it was decided not to check her blood alcohol level or charge her with a drunk driving offense because as a state senator she was protected from arrest by her status as a lawmaker in session. A life of privilege produces an expectation of ongoing protection, opportunity, and advantage. Would she have been shown the same deference if she was a black or a Hispanic legislator?
White privilege makes it possible to think the worst of other races, and to interpret their behavior as scary or provocative whenever it suits your purpose. It makes it possible to escape consequences because you are who you are. It gives you the expectation of opportunity regardless of how sparse it is. White privilege makes you feel normal, and allows you to believe that your experience is a universal experience. White privilege puts you in charge, whether you know how to handle the responsibility of leadership or not. White privilege is in your DNA, and becomes an unconscious part of your personality.
White Americans continue to be born into a world they think belongs to them. White privilege has in no way prepared them for their responsibilities in a multicultural America. They fail to see how spinning facts in their favor is an ethical breach with inescapable consequences. It is the blind spot that white privilege creates that puts white people at risk.
Gloria Steinem contends that those who dominate a society are reluctant to share power and would rather repress others than allow them influence. Such is the mutually victimizing nature of white privilege. Booker T. Washington explains it well, “One man cannot hold another man down in the ditch without remaining down in the ditch with him.”