On the Matter of Black Lives & White Privilege

I recently posted on Facebook a graphic proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. It was a whisper in the storm that erupted after four cops’ killed George Floyd in Minneapolis (the most recent last straw.) It was my small way of trying to be an ally.

Soon after I posted, two Facebook friends responded with that vapid rebuttal “All Lives Matter.” One of them, while responding to an earlier post of mine, had insisted that “there’s no such thing as white privilege,” a claim that inspired first some harsh rebuttals and then some venomous counter posts from the “all lives matter” crowd. I deleted the post. Since then, I’ve been taking deep breaths and trying to figure out what to say.

My blog audience is very small, even when I link to Facebook, but I’m here to tell whatever readers I have that both history and our present times have taught black people that in America their lives do not matter, while we white folks have always enjoyed the “privilege” of knowing that ours do. 

I put “privilege” in quotation marks because I’m not confident it’s the best word. I know I got defensive myself when I first heard the term, some time in the late ‘80s. Most people understand privilege to mean special treatment, a path free of hurdles. If one is “privileged,” one is pampered and spoiled, enjoying unearned gifts and treats. With this sense of the word in mind, it’s easy to see why poor white people, lost and abused white people, and even successful white people who have overcome all sorts of obstacles are likely to bristle at the idea that they are privileged. They are not pampered or spoiled. The label seems unfair. And besides, some skeptics ask, haven’t others suffered terribly? Do we really need a slogan for every group–LatinX Lives Matter, LGBTQIA Lives Matter, American Indian Lives Matter–when we could instead simply remind everyone that All Lives Matter?

But these arguments ignore the fact that the Black Lives Matter Movement arose in a certain historical context, as everyone saw, thanks to cell phone videos, the horror of unpunished, racist, police brutality. And the full context must include all of American history–all of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and both systematic and systemic oppression for four hundred years.  Those in the Black Lives Matter movement have never suggested that others’ lives do not. They are throwing down their own claim precisely because those brutal videos–the truths that they recorded–demanded that we all take notice of one particular and horribly racist issue: Cops have long been killing black folks and going unpunished. Which is to say, they have been killing black people with impunity.

And that impunity brings us back to the issue of white privilege. I cannot imagine a cop pressing his knee into the neck of a middle-aged white man on a public street, and maintaining the pressure on that white man’s neck for over eight minutes, while being begged by bystanders to release the pressure because, as that white victim insists, he cannot breathe. And I especially cannot imagine the cop’s doing this smugly, hands in his pockets, adjusting his weight and staring blandly back at the cell phone camera, all while two fellow officers put their own knees into that white man’s spine and another, also with hands in pockets, looks on with indifference.

Recognizing the policing crisis and its historical context, we can understand why “Black Lives Matter” has become widespread, supported by the majority of white Americans. We also need to understand why more and more white people are acknowledging ways in which they are “privileged.” Start by defining the term: “White privilege is not the suggestion that white people have never struggled. Many white people do not enjoy the privileges that come with relative affluence, such as food security. Many do not experience the privileges that come with access, such as nearby hospitals. And white privilege is not the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is unearned; most white people who have reached a high level of success worked extremely hard to get there. Instead, white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort” (Teaching Tolerance). 

What I’ve had to learn is that the “built-in advantage” I enjoy comes from the fact that I am not unjustly dis-advantaged in ways that nearly 40% of people in the United States are, simply because of their race or ethnicity. Which is to say that whatever difficulties I have faced in life, the color of my skin has not been one of them. In America, only white people can say that. Surely that is a kind of privilege. Understanding that it is a relative term, I know that, compared to George Floyd, I am privileged indeed. 

I hope–and polls suggest I have reason to hope–that almost no one still believes that Floyd’s story is an aberration, the “exception that proves the rule” that cops are mostly good and that a few bad apples get all the attention. If you still hold tight to that theory, you need to  consider the unsettling examples of police brutality we have seen over the last weeks of demonstrations. Yes, some cops were brutally treated also, but no one becomes a cop without realizing that there are criminals and sociopaths and enraged, frightened people who will try to hurt the police. Those are the people who make policing necessary. But there is no necessity for cops to gas, pepper-spray, mace, and beat peaceful protesters. 

It has become clear that even white folks (see Buffalo and New York City) can lose something of their privilege if they march against police brutality. That’s a good thing, if it forces us to acknowledge that feeling safe in white skin has always been a privilege, one more sharply felt when it is taken away, even briefly. Maybe all white lives matter until we accuse police departments of racism and brutality, and then our safety and our rights stop mattering, too, at least to some cops. 

If there were some way I could do it, would I let my privilege go? No white person is eager to become unprivileged, to face the prejudices faced by Black people. But we need to be eager to do all we can to share our privilege, extending it to every person. It’s going to take hard work to drive assumptions about race out of every brain, heart, institution, and system in America. But that’s the goal. I’m working on understanding how I can contribute to reaching it.