This article is an excerpt from chapter four o/When Colorblindness Isn't the Answer: Humanism and the Challenge of Race (Pitchstone Publishing, 2017). This book is part of a series on practical humanism Dr. Pinn is editing for Pitchstone.
Let's start with a basic statement for context: race-based privilege isn't lodged only in wealth and material "stuff" possessed. It isn't simply the ability to buy things or in other ways secure goods. It isn't a matter of financial wellbeing or how much money one has in the bank. So, one can be economically challenged, white, and still privileged because in the United States it isn't assumed that the economic condition of a white person speaks a fundamental truth about their very being, who she or he is in an inherent way. So many assume that acquisition (or class status) defines privilege, due in part to the fact that we have cast progress in terms of economic health. As a consequence, much less attention is given to larger issues of identity that shape how rich or poor people are understood, valued, and appreciated ... or not.
Think about the above in light of questions asked commonly with energy and with sincerity: "My family didn't have slaves ... why is racism my problem?" Or, with even more passion and confusion: "We've had a black president, what more do you want?" I get why people ask these questions and others like them, but I also understand that such questions (sincere or not) fail to recognize the nature of privilege in the United States. That is to say, whiteness comes with a range of perks not deciphered by gauging who owned plantations and who didn't. Some of them are obvious--standards of beauty geared toward that population, and more economic success on average are but two. However, there are also "soft," or less easily articulated, forms of privilege that are often ignored: the assumption the police are there to serve and protect; the assumption you weren't placed near the restroom in the restaurant because of skin color; the belief you should be able to drive a luxury vehicle without people assuming you are a drug dealer; the notion you should be successful and it's a problem if you aren't; the assumption you are included in the "we" that defines citizenship in the United States; and the idea that "making America great again" fundamentally includes your well being.
Sure, not all white Americans are wealthy and protected, but even so their whiteness is not used as proof-positive of inherent inferiority. Whiteness isn't used as the reason why they aren't successful. White Americans aren't defined by the worst of their circumstances. No one says, "Well, that poor behavior is what you can expect ... after all, he's white." Who looks at a white American television character and assumes the character is a true-to form representation of all white Americans?
Privilege is the socially arranged and culturally ingrained...