By Laura Townsend
Early last week, I accompanied my friend to a tattoo parlor. She wanted me to hold her hand through the pain of the needle. After talking to the artist, though, I was the one who needed hand-squeezing.
An hour into my friend’s tattoo, the artist casually brought up the topic of white privilege. More specifically, he, a young white man, mentioned that he did not believe in the concept. He contended that he did not believe in white privilege because white people did not receive “handouts” just for being white. I had never before heard white privilege described in such a way. Handouts? I had an image of a T-shirt gun labeled “PRIVILEGE” following white people around and shooting prizes at them on the sidewalk.
White privilege occurs in a much subtler form. It is the concept that a white person is able to navigate the world differently from the way people of color.
In an interview with UI student Tayo Ajose, she cited her friend’s definition. White privilege “is the ability to move and live through life without being aware of your identity.” If you are a white person who does not believe white privilege exists, you benefit from it.
One reason that white privilege is such a controversial topic is because not everyone understands what the term means. I talked to three students of different races about white privilege. They shared their stories and definitions. Together, their unique perspectives and experiences highlight how white privilege affects lives every day.
Tayo Ajose, African American, UI student:
I remember a couple years ago, in the midst of hectic midterms as an engineering student, I was prepping for a long night of studying and homework. I went to the gas station to buy some snacks, seeing as all-nighters can only be accompanied by caffeine and junk food … As I was waiting in line, a police officer walked up behind me and seemed to be sniffing me. Seeing as that is a strange human interaction, I looked over my shoulder and awkwardly smiled.
He started the conversation with: “Those are a lot of snacks you got there.”
Me: “Yep … got a long night ahead …”
Him: “Good thing those aren’t munchies.”
Me: “… Yep …”
This is a perfect example of racial profiling and something I hardly ever hear my white friends experience, but [I] definitely have an overhaul of black friends who experience it so much that they’ve almost come to expect it. Even though I never touched a blunt in my life, even though I can’t tell the difference between a [marijuana] plant and poison ivy, even though I was loading up on snacks to do the “right” thing and push forward with my education in pursuit of a good life, I was still racially profiled by a cop for wearing sweats at night and buying snacks. Before he had spoken, that idea had never even crossed my mind.
Trent Bailey, half African American/half white, UI recent grad:
I’ll experience micro moments like when a cashier/receptionist/service person will be super nice to the person in front of me, and then they’ll just be rude/brusque/condescending [to me]. Last summer, my friend (who’s full black) and I went to this convenience store by my apartment in Cleveland that was run by an Arab couple, and I was just looking at this beer I had never seen before, when all of a sudden we hear someone shout, “What are you doing?” At first, we just ignored it because we were literally doing nothing, and the wife and the husband all of a sudden rushed toward us and asked again, and so I just said, “Uhh, looking at beer.” They then demanded to know if we had IDs, which obviously we did, since we were buying beer, so we showed them to them, and they tried to tell us [the IDs] were fake because we’re obviously too young, and they know we were going to steal something. Finally, I managed to persuade them things were legit, but it stuck with me. They had had trouble with some black teenagers before.
William Wysession, white, Washington University recent grad:
I used to drive a beautiful old brown 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. When I first got the car and started driving it around … it seemed like I got pulled over every other week for one thing or another. One time, a police officer pulled me over and walked over to my car. But when he looked inside, “I swear to god,” he said. “Oh sorry, I thought you were someone else,” and turned away and left. I racked up five warnings from police officers over the course of my time with the car, though, for one random thing or another, from the officers that didn’t want to leave without giving me something. And then, when I started driving my father’s blue Prius, I never had any trouble.
Stories like these occur every day as a result of racial profiling. In Wysession’s case, the perception of the police officers was completely altered when he did not meet the stereotype they were expecting. This is white privilege. It is often argued that white privilege does not exist because lower-class white people are not privileged in the same way as upper-class white people. However, lower-class white people do not have to go through each day aware of their race and paranoid because of what they look like. That is what it means to have white privilege. As long as white privilege exists, equality cannot. White people may not be given handouts, but we are given the ability to exist without fear how who we are might be perceived by others.