White Privilege

Associate Jessica Mayo

By Associate Jessica Mayo

White privilege can be a challenging concept. But those of us whose skin lacks melanin experience it on a daily basis when we find our own image reflected in most television shows and movies. When we buy “flesh-toned” Band-Aids that match our skin color. When the free shampoo in the hotel room is the right kind for our hair. When we go shopping without being suspected of shoplifting.

Even if we agree that white privilege exists, some people ask, what’s the point? Why spend so much time thinking about privilege? Are we just engaging in good old-fashioned Catholic guilt?

Or perhaps we’re supposed to use that privilege to “help” people, to engage in our good-old fashioned white savior mentality. Jesus did, after all, look like a California surfer.

Okay, maybe not. Renée Graham, columnist for the Boston Globe, wrote, “If I had white privilege, I don’t think I’d be ashamed of it. I’d use it to expose injustice and work to make things better.”

What a mission! Where to start? Let’s suppose I went to the store with you, and we both bought a new book. For some unknown reason, you were charged twice as much as me for the same book. I might feel a little bad about the disparity. I might even offer to chip in towards your book. But you’d probably tell me it was fine—the first time. But what about when we returned, and we had the same experience again? Maybe this time I would buy your book for you, getting 50 percent off for both of us. But what about if you went shopping on your own? Then you couldn’t have my discount. Perhaps, at this point, I would address the issue from a systemic level—talking to the bookstore about why some people were charged more than others, and seeking to make the system more equitable.

Our reaction to white privilege and racism might follow a similar progression. To begin with, we need to recognize that it exists. We can’t pretend like we both paid the same amount for our books, or insist that the different charges were for some reason fair. That awareness should compel us to act. We can seek to extend our own privilege to the people around us. We can work towards systemic change.

And we don’t need to wait until that fortuitous moment in the bookstore. We can just turn our attention to those daily examples of our privilege. Perhaps we could contact the pharmacy where we buy our Band-Aids and suggest that they stock a more inclusive array of colors, or we could spend our money supporting companies that have a more diverse array of color offerings. We could contact the hotel and tell them that we are dissatisfied with their free shampoo selection. We could talk to the security guard, or approach store management if we see a shopper being monitored because of the color of her/his skin.

Let’s work together to expose injustice. Together, we can work to make things better.