My white privilege

My skin is white. This means I have white privilege.

I face a bit of crap in my day-to-day life, because I’m not the nice kind of English white that people prefer. My name comes from my father–he is Greek Cypriot. Poor Cyprus, it only managed a decade and a half of independence after being passed between various empires, before the chunk of the island my family happens to be from got itself invaded again.

My surname is not English. Stavri. It’s six letters long, and if you were to guess at how it were pronounced by shoving together each sound phonetically, chances are, you’d get it right. Despite this, I am perpetually asked how one would say it, or finding my name mashed into something that English tongues find more recognisable.

I get asked where I’m “really from” more often than I care to count. The answer to this is London. I was born in London, raised in London and have lived in London for almost all of my life. But where am I “really from”? What flavour of foreign am I?

This is all profoundly irksome to me, but do you know what? I still have white privilege. I have it in spades, because my skin is white.

It means that when people look at me, there isn’t a whirling mass of stereotypes activated. I am not judged for the colour of my skin, I am not considered a representative of white people. People do not look down on me with disgust or patronising pity because of the colour of my skin. There is a whole world which can be invisible to me if I choose, because I have white skin. I benefit from white supremacy.

There’s no turning away from it. Despite these things that annoy and needle, I will never experience discrimination because of the colour of my skin.

I have white privilege. I cannot pretend it away. I cannot point to the microaggressions I experience for not being some sort of English rose and pretend that this treatment is in any way on a par with what is experienced by people of colour, because it isn’t.

And perhaps conversations about British colonial history and a general nagging xenophobia are necessary, but they cannot be had over discussions of white privilege, because it is something completely different. To suggest otherwise is a derailing tactic.

As a white woman, I own and acknowledge my white privilege. I attempt to mitigate it as best I can, and I try to learn what I can about something I can never personally experience. I try to advocate for women of colour, and I’m open to criticism when I fuck up, because I know my white privilege makes me ignorant as all fuck about these things.

The feminism produced by women like me–white feminism–has failed far too many women by its repeated negligence in analysing structural racism and this must change. I don’t want to be part of the problem. I don’t want to be complicit. And yet, because of the colour of my skin, I can be both of these things.


15 responses to “My white privilege

  • jemima2013

    when we were talking about this it brought home to me how being white just trumps pretty much everything, and whilst of course there are 50 shades of white (see what i did there) its the first glance, the assumptions, the instant summing up of all that you are that doesnt happen.

    This is something I am especially aware of in the sex work sphere, recently made friends with a latvian and we were discussing places she has worked, from Iceland to Japan, all of which happily let her in on tourist visas. As she said no one wants to rescue a blonde white girl, or worries about how they might be earning their money. Those instant assumptions mean she has travelled the world selling sexual services without a border guard raising an eyebrow. Imagine if she had not been white though?

  • ischemgeek

    I’m a Canadian white woman with a similar situation. My surname is Germanic, in a region of Canada that is predominantly English and Scottish with pockets of First Nations and French. I’ve had people call me “Nazi” because of my surname. My surname is also sometimes a Jewish surname, so I get splash anti-Semitism at times, but that’s far less common and less aggressive here than simple xenophobia in my experience. Whether that’s because my surname isn’t stereotypically Jewish, because I’m lucky, because I don’t have a stereotypically Jewish appearance, or because that’s the way things are here, I don’t know.

    I’m usually the whitest human in the room at any given time. Nobody looks at me sideways if I go window-shopping for electronics I can’t afford. Unless I’m with my partner, who is biracial and looks it.

    To pretend the xenophobia I face when people make fun of my name after seeing it on an attendance sheet (I get “How do you even pronounce that?!” a lot, despite a name that’s pronounced phonetically. Also, “Where’s that from?” “Where are you from?” “No, really, where are you from?” a laundry list of mispronunciations that I think are products of people trying to mispronounce it to make fun of it for being different, and I got so sick of Nazi comments I just don’t answer questions about the origin of the name anymore) is the same as racism is foolish.

    I am white. I benefit from white privilege. When I get pulled over by the cops driving home to visit family at 1AM, the cops assume I’m a college kid heading home for break. They don’t assume that I’m drug running, drunk or stoned. They don’t harass me for the crime of driving after dark. I don’t mysteriously develop broken tail lights, and when I’m driving a vehicle that matches one the cops are on the lookout for, I don’t immediately get a gun shoved in my face when I open the window to say, “Hi.” I’m not courting trumped up charges if I question why they pulled me over, either. For having a nerves-induced brain-to-mouth-filter breakdown and blurting out something stupid or rude, I’ve never had my ass beaten or been taken on a starlight cruise (that happens. I know people it happened to. None of them are white).

    If I feel like splurging on a nice rental car for my visit home, I don’t have the cops assume it’s stolen. If I have a lot of cash in my wallet because I’m on my way to pay a bill, people don’t assume I’m a drug dealer or prostitute.

    White privilege. I haz it. Xenophobia is a related beastie, yes, but the two are very different, and it’s just plain wrong to pretend otherwise.

    • mhuzzell

      Different beastie, absolutely.

      I’ve noticed a particularly strange phenomenon, only in the UK. I also have a surname that looks weird and foreign to British Isles/Western-European-derived folks (when people venture an uninvited guess, it’s usually “Eastern European”, occasionally “Turkish” or “Middle Eastern”). So I have often had the “Wow, where is that from?” question — but the difference in tone of the experience in the US (where I grew up) and the UK (where I live now) is astonishing.

      In the US, white people freaking love to talk about which bits of Europe their ancestors are from, and nowadays all of Europe (even Jews! oh my!) are warmly ensconced in the White People Club. So “Where does your surname come from?” almost always comes across as simple curiosity, and has never, in my experience, felt like it was policing the borders of whiteness.

      In the UK, on the other hand… I think that people maybe approach me with a little more xenophobic suspicion in the first place, since my accent of course marks me out as Some Sort of Foreigner. But what’s really surprising to me is the reaction on people’s faces when they see or hear my name and ask “Oh, where’s that from?” — and I say “France” and they look APOLOGETIC, with that slightly embarrassed look of surprise, like when a TV cop pulls over a TV celebrity. Like they’re so sorry they just doubted that I might be all the way white, Western European like them.

      I don’t talk about this much, because I worry that people will think I’m trying to vie for some sort of position in the Oppression Olympics (like “Look, I don’t have full white privilege! Sometimes people mistake me for a lesser category of white!”), which is not at all what I mean — of course I have white privilege; I am up to my pale rosy cheeks in white privilege. What I mean is that the experience of having a name that triggers this sort of response in people has shown me an odd sort of group boundary policing that I don’t think I would ever have known existed if I had either a name that looks as Western as it is, or one that actually is as Eastern as mine apparently looks to people.

      • ischemgeek

        “Pale, rosy cheeks” made me laugh because I have the rosy complexion, too, so much that people often think I’m seriously ill when I’m just exercising (my face turns bright red or sometimes purple with exertion).

        Canada is more like the UK than the US re: surname stuff. There’s a lot of regional xenophobia that varies region to region, I think because our communities have had less inter-community migration than in the States, and so you can have a community 400-odd years old that has been settled by the same dozen or so surnames for its entire history – and having a surname that doesn’t belong marks you as From Away. Folks I know from rural UK talk about the same phenomenon – you know, where if you move there, buy property, marry a local, raise your 2.5 kids and live in permanent residence for the next 70 years, you’ll still be From Away because your surname doesn’t belong. And so will your kids who were born and raised there. Your grandkids might be considered local – assuming your kids don’t get fed up with being outsiders and move somewhere with more name variation.

        That said, I don’t face racism at all and I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to be judged and found wanting because of the color of my skin.

  • Justen B

    White privilege is a stupid theory that doesn’t help us explain racism or how to fight for a racial justice future world. And just because you keep saying that you have white privilege doesn’t make it so.

    The absence of suffering is not a benefit. If your neighbour’s house burns down and your doesn’t, you haven’t benefited from it. Yes, your neighbour has suffered, and this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, but in no way can it be suggested that you benefit from it.

    Same goes for racism. Blacks and Latinos suffer racism, and that makes their lives miserable. But whites don’t suffer from this. That doesn’t magically equate to a benefit. It’s not like whites are given money, jobs, products, etc, etc, because of racism.

    The norm should be “not suffering from discrimination,” in which case blacks are the sufferers and whites are not. The focus of our attention is therefore to raise blacks up to the level that whites already are. In other words, whites don’t suffer from racial discrimination, and by creating a racial justice world neither would blacks or Latinos. That’s how the traditional view of anti-racism has always seen it.

    But the white privilege theory is the other way around. Racial suffering is the new norm, it is considered proper and normal for you to suffer this kind of misery. Whites, the ones who don’t suffer from racism, are elevated to a higher status, because of the logical consequences of this.

    The word privilege implies a benefit, as though all whites, including poor and working class whites, gain some kind of benefit from the existence of racism. This is straightforwardly not true. In fact, poor whites and poor blacks can work together and unite to fight for a common cause, such as getting pay rises, keeping cops accountable, getting rid of the death penalty, etc, etc.

    There are a group of whites who do, indeed, benefit from racism, such as those who run and manage the prison industrial complex, those who benefit from hiring cheap Latino workers, those who make money off the drug trade, etc, etc. Those whites benefit from racism, but this has much more to do with their class than their skin colour. We should be fighting against corporate capitalism and institutionalised racism, then, not going on and on about white privilege. The latter is merely a distraction from us properly doing the former.

    There’s another serious problem with white privilege theory: it changes the subject of the narrative. In the old days, in the 1960s, the protagonist of racism were blacks and Latinos: they were the victims of racism and it was their struggle that sought to break down racial barriers. The great heroes of black liberation and Latino justice were from that era. White privilege theory twists this the other way around, rather than us focusing our attention on the sufferers of racism and the fighters against it, we focus on the white people.

    We need to go back to the militant anti-racist teachings of Malcolm X. He didn’t waste his time with notions of white privilege. He put all of his focus on getting blacks united, working together and fighting for a common cause, that is racial justice. And for those leftwing whites who supported the black struggle and wanted to help, Malcolm was more than happy to have them as allies.

    • Mary

      >>But the white privilege theory is the other way around

      I think that’s the most powerful thing for me. Instead of positing white experience as normal, and saying that racism which harms black people is a deviation from the norm, it says that having privilege is a deviation. It focusses attention on the advantages that white people gain from racism (which are much more difficult for us white people to face up to) rather than on the more obviously “nasty” things done to people of colour.

      There’s a bit in one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s novels that I think illustrates this brilliantly. The aristocratic* protagonist looks at a commoner who will be a colleague and a competitor as they go through millitary academy, and sees him as someone with a chip on his shoulder. Because his experience – of being an aristocrat, being privileged, having his way through live smoothed by class, even though he’s also disabled – is normal. Not being an aristocrat is to be other than normal – to be chippy, and to have his psyche conditioned by the experience of not being normal. When, clearly, not being an aristocrat is clearly the statistical norm in any society which has an aristocracy – it wouldn’t be an aristocracy if it was the majority – and the expectation of having one’s pathway smoothed by one’s class privilege is statistically aberrant.

      That’s exactly what I think is great about the idea of privilege. It doesn’t say “experiencing racism is abnormal, the norm is not experiencing racism”; it says “experiencing having your life smoothed out by the colour of your skin is (globally) not normal. Being able to travel nearly anywhere in the world and having immigration officials assume that you are a tourist or on business, not an untrustworthy economic migrant, terrorist or criminal, is statistically not normal. It is a privilege.”

      That’s actually more accurate description of the centuries since European colonies invented the scientific discourse of race to justify colonialism. Making white skin privileged, making it easier to immigate to America, having an assumed right of residency and citizenship in the wealthiest countries in the world is just as much an effect of racism as making dark skin disprivileged. Racism isn’t just a coincidence: it’s always *benefitted* white skinned people, even poor white skinned people. Focussing on the unfairness of that privilege is, to my mind, more powerful and more challenging than acting as if having privilege was “normal” and our task is simply to share it out.

      (“It’s not an aristocracy, it’s a millitary caste!” – yeah yeah, only the aristocrats care about the difference.)

  • Justen B

    All of these arguments were made in a much better, much more intelligible and succinct way, just recently by a friend of mine. He wrote on Facebook a month or so ago (https://www.facebook.com/notes/daniel-lopez/against-privilege-theory/10152020301028808):

    ‘Well, as I see it “privilege” (white, male, straight, etc etc) can mean one of two basic things. Firstly, and most simply, it can mean the absence of a special oppression. In this usage the term is misleading. At best it can highlight to people who don’t suffer from oppression the experience of those who do. But individual experience doesn’t tell you anything about how social reality is built. Tf it did, we wouldn’t need politics or theory – literature would suffice (and I mean to cast no aspersions on literature!) But this usage is misleading because privilege implies benefit. And this is the second, real meaning of “privilege”. It means the non-oppressed group benefits.
    ‘The one common relationship where the oppressor group accrues a benefit from said oppression is in class relationships. That is to say, a landlord does measurably benefit from the oppression of a tenant. A capitalist does measurably benefit from the oppression of the worker. This is not narrowly economic – although the heart of it is economic – but this is manifested in all sorts of social power that the bourgeoisie actively enjoys.
    ‘The only other example I can think of that approaches this, in the modern world, is active colonialism, where a colonial group, comprised of many classes, is directly privileged and benefited by the oppression of the colonised group. Needless to say, Israel is the best example of this.
    ‘In all other cases of oppression, it is senseless to talk about the non-oppressed group benefiting from said oppression. Take examples of oppression that are less commonly talked about. Disabled people are specifically oppressed. Is this to say fully able people benefit from their categorisation as disabled and subsequent marginalisation? Precisely what are these benefits? Or, take the oppression of the lumpen-proletariat, afflicted by extreme precariousness, homelessness, substance abuse, harassment by the authorities and so on. Should we check our “non-lumpen-proletarian” privilege?
    ‘If privilege simply becomes the absence of some sort of disadvantagement, then it becomes as infinite as human differences. So, as the owner of a cat, perhaps I should check my cat privilege with respect to someone bereft of feline company? And needless to say, this view of privilege reduces oppression to difference. Oppression is more than difference, it is systematic.
    ‘But of course, this is not what privilege theory is about. Privilege theory contains, in an explicit or unstated form, the view that the non-oppressed group benefits from the oppression of the oppressed group and is the agent of that oppression. So, men oppress women, straights oppress non-straights, white oppress blacks, the able-bodied oppress the disabled (!), those with stable employment oppress those in the lumpen-proletariat (!!!), adults oppress both the young and the old (!!!) and so on ad-nauseam.’

    • Cel West (@Kosmogrrrl)

      You’re being absurd – if you think white people globally don’t benefit from white privilege/supremacy, go do some reading on work conditions, life expectancy, chances of getting work in the West with a black name, etc, etc.

      It is systemic. All the evidence shows it so, and privilege unpicks how.

    • Cel West (@Kosmogrrrl)

      As to how able people benefit – google DPAC, “atos kills”. Often you benefit through not being dead.

      • Exposeur

        Exactly. Thousands of us have died in the ConDemNation’s war against us, and dickhead upthread (and millions of others) have the fucking gall to mock the notion of privilege.

        It must be to nice to be able to laugh, using “disabled(!)” as some sort of comic point. It must be nice to be able to live without fear of the brown envelope. It must be nice to not even be aware of the pain, the suffering, the death and destruction.

        It must be such a peaceful, privileged existence to not even know what ‘Aktion T4’ was, and how the actions of the ConDemNation are so reminiscent of it that it’s scary. I wish I could live without comparing the two: the demonisation and vilification, the media blitzkrieg of verbal bullets and bombs like “lazy”, “scum”, “fakers”. “scroungers”, “cheats”, the willing, even gleeful rush by the public to believe the lies and join in the terrorisation of innocent people. Then there’s the radio silence. No mention of the demonstrations, no news about the hounding, the beatings, the rapes and abuse, the fear, the evictions, the suicides, the deaths.

        I defy anyone to tell me I’m not oppressed, that my fellow PWD are not oppressed. Not having to think about any of what’s going on is a privilege in itself, the privilege of being able to sleep at night, of not being so scared that the prospect of post makes you vomit and cry, of never being asked to justify your very existence.

        I dare the smartarses to tell me, us, the friends and families of the hundreds who are dying every month, tell us we’re not fucking oppressed.

        • yetanotherlefty

          Not to mention that lack of access in work places surely means that people who aren’t disabled are gaining employment *that similarly or better qualified disabled people are prevented from even applying to*. Seriously, temporarily abled people are basically stealing our jobs😛

          *sits here thinking of all the tourist attractions, museums, schools, libraries, political spaces, shops, cafes and restaurants, stations, HOUSES, and all kinds of other places that abled people can go and enjoy and I and others like me can’t*
          Tell me that being able to go pretty much wherever the heck you like isn’t a privilege. Tell me that abled people didn’t, y’know, DESIGN and BUILD and RUN these places that I cannot get into and they derive no benefit whatsoever from being able to run businesses, schools, campaigns and birthday parties without ever really noticing that no matter how badly some of us might want to join them, THEY HAVE ACTIVELY CHOSEN TO EXCLUDE US – even and especially if they just weren’t thinking about disabled access at the time.

          So: advantages abled people definitely get at the expense of disabled people include
          * Jobs where better candidates were hampered by access issues (which are created and sustained by abled people)
          * Feeling good when donating to charities (often run by abled people) that help to fix inequalities affecting disabled people (these inequalities are created and sustained by abled people)
          * Beauty standards created by and for abled people
          * Media representation: abled people are portrayed as normal and good, disabled people are portrayed as freaks and/or object lessons for abled people.
          * Abled people literally get to decide how much disabled people’s lives are worth
          * A society such as ours in which identity and status is derived from work gives abled working people higher status at the expense of non-working disabled people and allows abled people to decide who should and should not work

          Need I go on?

        • dave davies

          “It must be nice to be able to live without fear of the brown envelope.” nicely put. mine came this morning. looking forward (sarcasm) to attempting to justify my existence in a little over two weeks now.

  • amnagermanottariaz

    To Justen: ‘It’s not like whites are given money, jobs, products, etc, etc, because of racism’, YES THEY DO. White people with a criminal record are far more likely to be employed over a PoC with NO criminal record.

    White is normative and has become a globalised norm, so that EVERYTHING is catered to an imagined White consumer, from beauty products to films and games. Working class Blacks and Whites cannot fight class mobility on par with each other BECAUSE of historical racialisation.

    Anti-racism in not only about fighting for equal opportunities, it also about fighting against racialisation.

    ‘we focus on the white people’. No shit, race was created by White supremacy which relies on a WHITE person to enact it, so of course it will focus on White people. And NO White privilege is EXACTLY what we need to focus on because it is part of the story of racism. We cannot be post-race when some groups still gain advantages overs others without trying hard.

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