• Monica Montanari

Explaining White Privilege & Its History in America

While it's no DIY or ice post, this was an important topic that needed discussion. So here it is.

A person's opinion on race, as well as their capability for tolerance and understanding, is a deeply personal topic. There are a lot of questions that people are afraid to ask for fear of seeming ignorant, but without the information from those answers, we can't make progress together. The goal of this post is to encourage an internal dialogue among its readers- one that will hopefully change the way you view race in America, and help you understand why a lot of us feel the way we do.


If you have questions or arguments that were not discussed below, I urge you to write them down as you read, and then contact me or comment below so that I can anonymously add those to this post as well. I want to be sure that this post is understandable to all- so please let me know.


 

"First of all, why should I listen to you?"

I've been doing this for a while. I think my obsession began in a dark classroom at the age of six or seven. I remember watching the movie Our Friend, Martin on more than one occasion in school. The movie follows a group of friends who transport back in time to be present during Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life events. I remember sitting at my desk thinking "I wish I could go back to those times. What a cool opportunity I'd have to be on the side of the oppressor, but fighting for the oppressed" (in less eloquent words).


Here's the entire movie on YouTube. It is 61 minutes long, and a great family conversation starter. It was nominated for an Emmy in 1999.



I've studied this. Whether it was that movie or just my independent studies of the race relations in the United States' history, from a young age I became obsessed with studying prejudice and intolerance. So much so, that when I had the opportunity to earn my Master's degree at an Ivy League school, I chose to go to The University of Alabama instead- in part because I wanted to see for myself what this phenomenon was like. I've spent the better part of my life compiling information on racism and studying its effects today, and I do my very best to give you credible resources throughout this piece except when the link is purely for explanatory purposes.


I'm not just saying this. Sure, I've always been an outspoken advocate for civil rights, but not just on social media. I've donated my time, money, and resources for years to organizations that work with black youth specifically. I've written countless pieces on the phenomenon, and showed my support at a variety of events in solidarity with black people. Most importantly, I've taken countless hours out of my life to explain this phenomenon to people who wouldn't have otherwise been able to understand it.

I can make it clear. There are countless amazing professionals of race studies who could spit out the same information at you. But because of my extensive background as a coach, volunteer teacher, and instructor, I've learned how to explain things clearly. With a topic as huge as intolerance in the United States, mangled words and research just won't do. I want you to understand what this is about- not just read it.

This is the only source I would be willing to show to people. While every source I cite below is amazing and credible, few are able to put together succinct information with credible facts, which is why I chose to write this all. This is my landing page so that I don't have to explain the same thing 50 times, and hopefully for someone else it will prove to be helpful, too.


So, let's get started.


 

"Where do we even start?"

Let's start with this: I know that nobody wants to be told they're racist. Nobody wants to be insulted. (Granted, black people have never wanted to be oppressed either, but the way to create change is to foster inclusion. Division only creates more problems). But the first thing that we need to do is get our fellow white people to understand how they have been privileged their entire lives. That's a long, complicated, tough conversation, which is why I've written it all out here in the hopes that someone reading might be able to just share this to save themselves a ton of time, too.


White privilege is the advantage that a person has over another simply because of the color of their skin.


This is where most people will throw Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" at you. However, I see a few problems with this. (1) McIntosh's paper is directed at an audience with at least a college education. (2) McIntosh's paper is outdated.


While McIntosh did a great job of introducing people to the reality of white privilege, people who have higher education levels are more likely to be aware of their prejudice in the first place. (See here and here. ) Read the room, Peggy. A lot of blatantly racist people lack higher education, which is one of the contributing factors to why they're racist in the first place. It stems from ignorance. "...the Invisible Knapsack" is from 1988- and the culture of America has changed greatly since then, with the term white privilege becoming a very commonly used phrase, but now one with negative connotations.


So let's explain modern white privilege in a way that anyone could understand. Here we go:


 

"Isn't saying I have 'white privilege' a bad thing?"

Let's start with this: the term "white privilege" isn't meant as an insult. A lot of people take it that way because "white" makes it sound like a generalization of one race, and "privilege" is never something that people want to be accused of having. As humans, most of us respect hard work and don't like to think that anything has been handed to us. But the first thing we've got to do in order to recognize our racial biases and work to eliminate them is to come to terms with that fact. White privilege is only a bad thing if you aren't aware of it. Once you recognize and own it, it can no longer control you.

Now... a lot of people to whom the phrase "white privilege" is relevant might have never associated themselves with being "white". For example:


"I'm (insert nationality)-American, so white privilege doesn't apply to me."

Sometimes that may be true, but like everything else in the world, it depends.


There are many ways that a person's race has been classified throughout the years. Although Lothrop Stoddard's Global Racial Map was initially published in 1920, it still gives you a pretty good general idea of what society calls "white", which stems from these types of race studies, which were mostly eradicated after 1945 due to the realization that "racism" was a thing, and this kind of research had an awkward way of perpetuating that problem.



So basically if your ancestors came from one of the Brown or Black coded areas, this article isn't about you. (Unless that heritage is far back in your lineage).


If the majority of your heritage comes from one of the red areas (a.k.a. white areas), keep reading. If look in the mirror and your skin isn't brown or black, you should probably keep reading, too


 

"So where in the world does this 'white privilege' come from?"

To look at the origins of white privilege in America, obviously we've got to start with the days of Slavery.


As you'd suspect, white privilege dates back to the origin of the American slave trade, when white people owned black people and treated them horrifically and paid them nothing to do literally all of the work. We can all see that white people in those days had privileges: to live their lives freely, to be protected, you name it.


But what some people aren't aware of is that modern white privilege started there, too. Lighter-skinned slaves had a more European (white) appearance, which resulted in their oppressors trusting them more. Because of that trust, light-skinned slaves were often invited to work as house servants further away from the beating sun and unbearable temperatures. Often, these lighter-skinned slaves were the mixed children of the slave master and a slave. Even among the enslaved community, lighter-skinned slaves enjoyed more freedoms and higher levels of social stature. These were some of the very first privileges enjoyed by not even white, but just "white-er" people.


The Civil Rights Movement portrayed less blatant, but still obvious white privilege (because could white privilege be more obvious than in the days of slavery? Come on). The country ran on a "separate but equal" motto, which - if you know anything about our history- was never upheld. Black people were given incredibly inferior versions of the things that whites had. Case in point:



"Okay... so white privilege might have existed then... but it's nothing like that now!"

If you grew up in America, you've experienced white privilege, whether you were aware or not, your entire life.


Let's just start from something super simple: There are three things I can guarantee you did as a kid: you read books, watched television, and played with dolls or action figures.


Have you ever stopped to notice that in the books you read, the characters were more frequently white? Or in your favorite television shows, how many black characters were there? Did you ever see a black doll or action figure in person? I can say that personally, until I was trying to understand white privilege, I never had asked myself any of these questions.

"Yeah but it's not like we had Indian or Chinese characters/dolls either!"

Exactly. Every race besides white lacked representation. Thank you for proving my point.


"Okay, so kids didn't get toys or entertainment that represented them... so what?"

While these may not seem important to you, they actually foster a culture in which our idols and heroes are white. We idealize white skin. Those are the people we read about in our history textbooks, the political leaders we see, celebrities, etc.


In fact, that infiltrates our sociocultural norms so much that most people, when using the term "American", they actually mean it to be synonymous with "white".


 

"But America is white."

Uh... no. The first slaves came to America as early as the 1500s. This means that black people have been a part of American society since long before there even was an American society. Black people were instrumental in founding the United States. As slaves took the place of indentured servants, their backbreaking labor was what cultivated all of the resources that kept English immigrants alive. Their labor also allowed the Englishmen turned "colonists", to have enough free time to establish systems of government that would further oppress their slaves.


The American Revolution of 1775 established the American colonies as a separate entity from England. That war for independence was aided by the help of more than 5,000 African-Americans, at times representing up to 10% of the soldiers who made America free in the first place. Afterwards, slavery continued to be paramount to the Southern economy, seeing as how paying for fair labor would have made plantation owners cut their profits dramatically. In the first American census of 1790, already 19.3% of the American population was black. For more history, see this link. You'll learn a ton, I promise. It's fascinating, and that's our nation's history. Not just "black" history.


Basically, every American event you can think of was aided by African-Americans. Without them, there would be no American economy, no American government, and probably, no America.


America is a melting pot. Most white Americans are descendants of people who immigrated to this nation after it was established. So, fun fact, African-Americans are more American than most of you. (I can say "you" because my family is legit American back to the Revolution. So if you want to talk about what "American" means, feel free to ask. From George Washington to Andrew Ponton, my DNA gives me credibility to tell y'all that.)


"So then why are they called African-Americans?"

They shouldn't be. They're Americans. No hyphen involved. Anyway...


"If America never has been white, how can people argue that black people are mistreated in this country?"

Prejudice didn't just vanish after the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech in the summer of 1963 was just 57 years ago at the time of this article's publication. We probably have family heirloom hot-sauce that is around that age.

If you need proof that there were problems, just look at the legislation:

  • 1965: The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is passed, abolishing the requirement that voters take a literacy test in order to be able to vote. This requirement was created in the Jim Crow South, because newly-freed slaves didn't have the education resources to be able to read or write. Thus, in banning illiterate people from voting, the states were simply banning black people from voting.

  • 1968: The Fair Housing Act is passed, prohibiting real estate discrimination. This was necessary because housing was being denied to all non-whites based on race.

  • 1977- The Community Reinvestment Act limited redlining (a concept explored in the video below, and explored even more in-depth here).



Legislation doesn't get passed without reason to do so.


"Alright so you've proved that up to 1977, there have been civil rights issues. Fine. What about now?"

Well, if you watched the video above, you would see just a bit of what's still going on in America. But to sum it up:


Imagine we've decided to be the referees at a foot race. We have two competitors: one black person, and one white person. They're going to be running toward an end goal. You know what, just watch it:



Don't get me wrong: we've made progress- and I like to think that MLK Jr. would be proud. But we've got a long way to go.


 

"So, how would someone, hypothetically, help? Like... if they were into that type of thing..."

Being part of the solution doesn't make you a a soft person or an emotionally-driven snowflake. It doesn't make you a liberal to care about the lives and rights of people other than yourself. Party lines and ideologies can't stand in the way of something as big as life itself. And getting involved is so much easier than you think:

  • Show up. Attend peaceful protests to show your solidarity with your black community and let your government know that you're demanding change.

  • Educate. Yourself, your friends, your family, anyone else you can think of. Pick one person a day to talk to (or show this post to) to try to spread awareness.

  • Donate. Organizations

  • Sign. Petitions are an easy and effective way to make your voice heard in your local and/or state government. Sign here to demand justice for Breonna Taylor, here to voice your demand for California police reform, or here to browse and see what other petitions are out there (there are a ton!).

  • Vote with your dollars. I once heard someone say that where you choose to spend your money is the same as voting. What you vote for will continue, unlike the things you don't vote for.

  • Vote at the polls. Changes in legislation can only happen with the interest and support of voters at the polls. Get registered and get out there to make your voice heard.


"That problem is way too big to solve. You're just one person. You can't change an entire system."

Ah, finally, the point they always get to. First of all, why do people keep saying that one person can't make a difference? Have any of you ever heard of Martin Luther King, Jr.? Nelson Mandela? Malala Yousafzai? Rosa Parks? Jesus Christ?! People are changing the world every day. And as I like to repeat "the people that are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do." (Steve Jobs).

Sometimes, you don't have to change the entire world. Sometimes, if you just change the world around you, it sets off a ripple effect big enough to make a change in the whole. If you drop a pebble into a still pond, although it may not be much, every inch of the water will move. So just commit to moving one person today. Make one little splash. This may be an ocean we're trying to move, but we've got to work on one drop at a time.