Two days ago, I sat at the dinner table, watching World of Dance on my phone when a call came in. It was a friend, one of those people you meet at work and you instantly connect. My friend and I had bonded over her incredibly cute kids and our mutual love for Jesus.
25 minutes later, I hung up the call, a little dazed. In our conversation, Chloe (an alias) had expressed to me in no uncertain terms that systemic racism did not exist, and white privilege was a farce, not a real phenomenon with societal and economic ramifications.
“What is white privilege?” she challenged a note of indignance in her voice. “How can I be privileged? I grew up poor…and if I didn’t work hard, I wouldn’t be where I am.”
I wondered if I should even try. At that moment, it felt like a ten-foot-thick brick wall had been erected between me and my friend, between my Jesus and her Jesus.
Chloe explained how she broke down in tears as she prevented her oldest daughter from going to her job that was located on a street where protests were scheduled to happen. Because, as Chloe tearfully expressed, she is white. Chloe thinks that Black Lives Matter means that other lives don’t matter, that white lives don’t matter.
20 hours after the call, there were things I wished I had said to Chloe. As I sat there, I realized that Chloe is not the only white Christian who feels this way. It is for them that I write this article. It is to them I address the following.
What is White Privilege?
As personal as it sounds, white privilege is really not personal. It is not about you, your life’s journey or your achievements.
White privilege is the societal understanding (and agreement) of white as normal.
Take a second now: Imagine a normal, loving American family. Do you see a white family, their blue eyes shining as they hold hands around the dinner table? Do you see a little light-haired girl running through the sprinklers in a yard surrounded by a white picket fence? Do you see a little boy cradling an elbow that sports an obviously angry, reddish scrape? That’s white privilege.
This is a privilege because Black people in America are also taught that white is what it means to be normal in the United States. And so, because they are not white-skinned, their little girl is not a wispy blonde, their eyes are probably never going to be blue and their skin is never going to turn a glaring red when irritated, they can never be normal.
To think of normal in the United States is to think of white. In the words of Toni Morrison, “everyone else has to hyphenate.”
White privilege is the understanding of white as default.
Take a second to think about Band-Aids. Since its invention in the 1920s, the single created (skin) color of a Ban-Aid was a pale pink, made and advertised as “neat, flesh-colored, almost invisible.” This ad merely revealed the implicit exclusivity of the Band-Aid product: created for (and to match) white skin.
Take a second to think about emojis. All emojis that simulate faces or facial expressions were initially created in the default yellow of a lighter, whiter skin tone.
Think about your nude pumps (and other flesh-toned clothing like bras and shapewear). They are termed “nude” because they match your skin-tone. But what this really means is that they match white skin-tone.
Even something as innocuous as deodorant is produced with a white-as-default understanding. Most deodorants leave white residue on your skin after use. For someone with whiter skin, this blends in perfectly. This is not the case with Black or brown skin. Our ring of application sticks out like an eyesore.
A few months ago, I was attempting to self-diagnose a skin irritation on a medical website and one of the symptoms that kept coming up was a reddened patch of skin. Even in this, white skin that turns red when irritated is centered as the default and melanin-enriched skin tones that do not turn red when irritated are ignored.
You might explain these away with a dismissive wave. After all, white people are in the statistical majority in the United States. It is merely good business sense to cater to and produce for a larger audience. Yet does this also explain the complete nonexistence of such products for Black people? Black and brown people are not considered until years, sometimes decades, after white people have enjoyed the exclusive benefits of such products.
For instance, with emojis, other skin tones were not included until about five years after their introduction. In most cases, Black creators usually have to step in to create similar products for the Black population, as in the case of EbonAid or Jeneba Barrie Nude Footwear.
If this was merely a matter of supply and demand or audience numbers, Black creators would not need to create their own lines of product because they have been pointedly ignored by the mainstream creators.
American society’s understanding of white-as-default does not translate to mean that all white people are racist because they are white. For instance, I am not claiming that the writers of the medical website intentionally meant to exclude non-white skin types*. What I am illuminating here is how unconsciously — even instinctive — basically normal it is (and has been) to think of white as the default, as the norm. Such that non-white automatically feels “other” or, as we like to say, “diverse.”
White privilege is always being included
As a counter against white privilege, some have argued that it is really Black people in America who have the privilege. For example, they say that Black people can create and join clubs that cater specifically to their race (such as NAACP), something white people cannot do without being called racist.
Really, it’s the opposite of privilege that Black people have had to create their own groups because they have been excluded from mainstream groups where white skin is the unnamed criteria. HBCUs (Historically Black colleges and universities) were created solely because other higher education institutions excluded and limited African Americans from attending.
Think about it. Even Black history includes white people. Black people in America cannot accurately portray an event in their history without white people being included in their story, for better or for worse. Yet white people in America can portray (and have portrayed) many events in their history where Black people don’t exist and don’t matter.
White privilege is getting the benefit of the doubt.
This is the crux of Black Lives Matter.
Take a second now, conjure up the image of the victim of a crime. Who do you see? Now imagine someone who committed a crime but had a justifiable reason, such as self-defense.
Do you see a white person?
When you see the mugshot of a suspected criminal on television who is Black, does it elicit your sympathy? Or do you think, “I am glad such a violent criminal is off the streets.”
As soon as a Black person is suspected of a crime, their Black skin condemns them worse than the evidence. They don’t get justifiable reasons assigned to them, not even in the court of public opinion
White privilege is being able to live your life without always thinking about racism
It’s a privilege to say that racism doesn’t exist because you don’t feel it. You might have Black friends you love. You might even sponsor Black children in other countries. That’s great. But that does not exempt you from this conversation.
White privilege is having your skin work for you.
White privilege is white lives always mattering in art, in history, in products, in imagination, in ideology, in everything.
So when we chant “Black lives matter” and we talk about systemic racism, my fellow (white) Christian, join us. Joining the conversation and learning about the experiences of your Black brothers and sisters does not betray your values.
If anything, it is what Jesus would do. For, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” and the “members should have mutual concern for one another” (Galatians 3:28, 1 Corinthians 12:25). For “if one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26)
Black lives matter means that fighting and making way for Black lives in a world suited for white privilege.