When I first saw the photos of the march through the University of Virginia’s campus, of white faces oiled by sweat and contorted by rage and chants, lit by the flames of tiki torches, a small flicker of surprise almost went unnoticed amidst the chill of horror that climbed up my spine.
Brief surprise that white supremacists, Nazis, would march through the streets, unhooded, uncovered – unabashed because they were so certain in their rise. And then just as quickly, that flicker of surprise turned to sickness and shame in my stomach. I should not be surprised by the evilness and callousness of people. As a gay man, I have been groped, harassed, called “faggot” and “queer”, unfriended by people whose parents did not want me in their home. I write on the Internet – I was once called a faggot for an article I had written on the CW show Riverdale. I know how cruel and vicious people can be.
I should not be surprised that white supremacists felt comfortable enough to march in the streets, but I was. I was surprised because of my own white privilege.
I was allowed to be surprised that they would do this. White privilege is something that academically and rationally I can acknowledge and discuss, but to be reminded how much I benefit from white privilege in such a visceral, dark way shows me that however much I thought I was doing to combat and account for my own white privilege, I was not, and am not, doing nearly enough.
Peggy McIntosh, author of White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, described white privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets.”
That means that we have varied and nuanced representation, from The Bachelor to the Supreme Court. That means we have never had to worry if our names would get our resumes thrown out without being viewed. We have never had to witness racial “firsts” (first white baseball player, or first white judge or first white business-owner); for all intents and purposes, we have always just been. White privilege is believing that one character of color in an otherwise-white line-up in a television show is diversity. White privilege is believing that racism is dead.
It doesn’t matter if our families came to America a few months ago, or a few years, or hundreds of years ago. By virtue of our skin color, we are benefitting from the slavery that other white people inflicted upon black people, from the white people who sailed in boats across oceans and spread disease and shackles onto the indigenous people.
We benefit from unearned assets simply because we looked like those people who committed unspeakable atrocities. That is the bloody mantle that every single white person wears in America, whether we realize it or not; whether we acknowledge it or not.
But by not acknowledging it, we are actively participating in it. And the sooner we come to grips with that, that despite our own racism (whether we believe it’s there or not), despite our lack of participation in slavery or conquering, we reap the rewards, however savage and bloody and uncomfortable they are.
White privilege is powerful and intoxicating; and pretending it doesn’t exist, or we don’t benefit from it creates immeasurable harm. It ignores that black people in America have had to come from slavery to freedom in a few hundred years. It ignores the very real political, socioeconomic stresses and barriers that emerging from that toxic legacy carries. White privilege is believing that we are being discriminated against just because minority groups are fighting for equality.
I did not hold up a tiki torch. I did not march across the UVA campus. But I still benefit from white privilege. And to ignore that – to deny the power of white privilege – would be as detrimental to the fight for equality as those white people who screamed “White Lives Matter” and “Blood and Soil.”
Acknowledging your white privilege does not mean that you are a bad person. It does not mean that you are racist. It does not mean that you are those people who walked unhooded and unafraid, their faces contorted with rage.
It means that you, like everyone, are operating within a system that prioritizes white people over everyone else. It means that you have received benefits – however invisible – for your skin color. It does not mean that you actively knew of those benefits, or realized what they were at the time. It means that you can take that white privilege and use it as access into spaces where people are racist, where people do think that the equality of others is the detriment to them. White privilege means that we can use it to help others see the truth. It means that you, that I, have a voice and platform that other, more disenfranchised people, were not given in our society.
We can do something with this white privilege, this ugly backpack of benefits and this bloody mantle. We can use it to be of service to people of color, to those who are discriminated against, to those who need our alliance. Follow people of color on Twitter; talk to your friends of color. Listen to their stories and their advice. Don’t expect them to do the work for you of educating you on white privilege or racism. Read everything. Educate yourself. Learn. Don’t be afraid to be afraid. Don’t be scared of being uncomfortable, of confronting your own racism or your own privilege. Realize that while you can never truly understand what it’s like to be a person of color in America, you can empathize and you can offer your help in whatever way they need.
You can be outraged at the tragedy that happened in Charlottesville and still benefit from white privilege. You can be disgusted at the white supremacists and still benefit from white privilege. But what can make you, make us, different is what we chose to do with that white privilege. Will we cosset ourselves up in it, and be blind to the world? Or will we use to access platforms and spaces and open the minds of those who have them closed against equality, against equity?
Indecision is a decision. Silence is violence. Cease being shocked that America could get this ugly. It has been this ugly. It will keep being this ugly unless we quell our surprise and turn our hand-wringing into action. And in this fight, I want there to be no ambivalence about my position. I choose the side that is firmly against Nazis. I am against white supremacy. I am against those men and women who marched across UVA’s campus holding tiki torches alight.
I will use this white privilege, this horrific privilege, and I will not ignore its power. I will use it for good.