Last week I got an email from a USA Today Pentagon correspondent who’d just written a story about a diversity training session with 400 troops on an army base in Georgia. The instructor included a slide about white privilege and the luxury of obliviousness, stating the radical idea that white privilege gives white people little reason to be aware of people of color and how they are affected by it.
Someone snapped a photo of the slide and posted it on Facebook, provoking a firestorm of angry protest that soldiers were being subjected to such a thing. And after an army spokesperson identified my work as the source of the material used in the slide, I received a dose of hate mail in my inbox.
The army promptly announced that the slide was “unauthorized” and “inappropriate” and would not be used again. No news on just what made it inappropriate or what became of that brave instructor.
Judging from the comments I’ve seen as the story has gone viral on the Internet, the main objection seems to be that the slide was an assertion that white privilege is real, including in the military.
It is a complaint based on a complete misunderstanding of the nature of racism and how systems of privilege work.
There is a lot of that going around. It’s one of the main reasons why it’s so difficult to have productive conversations about race in this country. And it’s why I’ve devoted much of my career to explaining what these troubling issues are about.
The biggest myth about white privilege is that it guarantees a good life for every white person and a bad one for everyone else. Since many white people have anything but—in spite of a lifetime of hard work—and there are abundant examples of people of color who have done well, it can seem reasonable to conclude that white privilege does not exist.
In other words, “If there really is white privilege, where’s mine?”
But systems of privilege don’t work that way. They guarantee nothing for individuals. No one can predict the life of a baby who happens to be born white or of color.
What systems of privilege do instead is load the odds one way or the other. You can be white and still not get the job you’re qualified for, or go to school and work hard your whole life and have little to show for it, or be stopped (or shot) by police when you’ve done nothing wrong, or be followed around a store as if you can’t be trusted.
But in a system of white privilege, the odds of such things happening to white people are much lower than for everyone else.
Research consistently shows, for example, that white people and people of color are equally likely to use and sell illegal drugs. But most of those in prison for drug offenses are people of color.
During the subprime mortgage crisis, white people were far less likely to be sold subprime mortgages or to lose their homes to foreclosure, even when compared with blacks who had similar incomes.
And repeated experiments find that mailed-in job applications are 50% more likely to get call-backs if the name on the application is Anglo (e.g., Robert Morgan) than something like Jamal Jones or Hector Martinez.
These are the tip of a very large iceberg that’s been around for more than 300 years. The idea that the military is somehow above and beyond all this, all the while drawing its personnel from the same society the rest of us live in, is . . . well . . . choose your adjective.
As far as I can tell, progressive voices have been silent on this story. Because silence is essential for any oppressive system to continue, I hope you will do what you can to break the silence, spread the word, and wake those voices up.
You can find more on the subject of white privilege and racism in my blog posts and website essays:
“The Luxury of Obliviousness”
“Aren’t Systems Just People?”
“What Is a System of Privilege?”
“Are You Just into White Guilt?”
“Our House Is on Fire”
“Proud to Be White?”
“Where White Privilege Came From”
Now’s the time.
You can find the USA Today story here.
Allan G. Johnson‘s work can be found at Unraveling The Knot.