We can’t have an honest reckoning about race until we start to recognize all the ways in which privilege and prejudice creep into our lives, says author and digital strategist Luvvie Ajayi.
There comes a time in every upwardly mobile Black person’s life when they encounter someone who tells them how “well-spoken” and “articulate” they are. It is usually a white person who is earnest and honest in their admiration of your verbal abilities, and in that moment, you swing between being appreciative and being totally offended. It’s a backhanded compliment at best, but mostly it’s a put-down, because no matter how much you’ve studied, how nice your clothes are, or how impressive your body of work is, people still expect little from you (because: minority).
Microaggressions and instances of casual racism like this pepper our daily lives, leaving a terrible taste in our collective mouths. If you want to correct their “articulate” comments, you will often be met with, “Oh, I didn’t mean it like that!” Ma’am. Sir. How did you mean it? Have you ever given a white colleague a pat on the back for knowing how to speak in complete sentences? No? Okay.
Sometimes, the person will go on the defensive. This might be where they bring up that one Black friend they have, using them as proof that “I’m not racist.” I assure you that the possibility of you socializing with Black people does nothing to take the sting away.
Being able to live without having to be defined by your skin color is the hallmark of privilege.
Racism is easier to recognize and call out when it’s KKK-Style Original Recipe. But when the form it takes isn’t slurs and hate speech thrown in your face, people don’t always see it, want to acknowledge it, or understand how much it affects the everyday lives of others. Some white people believe that because their motives aren’t malicious, they surely cannot be racist or harbor prejudices.
Some well-meaning folks think if we stop talking about racism, it’ll magically disappear, like the smell of an errant fart. But like a fart, people might try to be polite and ignore it but everyone knows it’s there. Avoidance has never been a great tactic in solving any problem. For most situations in life, not addressing what’s going on only makes matters worse. It’s like someone breaks your arm, and the person who slammed the baseball bat into it is saying, “The only reason it won’t heal is because you keep complaining it hurts.” America does not want to put the effort into providing this cast. This is why we must talk about race, and we must do it openly.
As we rage about the system that privileges white people over people of color, a system that has been allowed, encouraged and state sanctioned, we get pushback saying that not all white people are racist. Listen. We didn’t say all white people are racist, but racism is real, bigots are plenty, and we’re not just making this up to make white folks feel bad. We’re saying that white people benefit from an automatic position of privilege because of their skin color in a larger racist society.
Racism is not just perpetuated by the people in white hoods. It’s also the well-meaning “I have Black friends” people who help it remain upright and unmovable. They refuse to see the part they play in the system because they’re too busy making sure everyone knows how not racist they are. Listening to Black music and loving Beyoncé does not give you a free hall pass out of the system of structural racism. Just because I enjoy a salad from time to time doesn’t mean I’m a vegetarian. Being able to live without having to be defined by your skin color is the hallmark of privilege.
We need to admit that some of us had a head start and aren’t just flourishing on our strength alone.
So let’s talk about privilege. This word feels accusatory to many, and they feel assaulted (or insulted) by the idea of possessing it. In reality, it’s not about you; it’s about your actual factual societally-supported white privilege. Our privileges are the things not within our control that push us forward and move us ahead from that starting line. Acknowledging them does not mean you are admitting to doing something to purposefully contribute to someone else’s oppression or marginalization. It means you recognize that some part of your identity puts you in a better position than others. It means something about you assists your progress in the race of life. It also means that whatever majority group you belong to has likely contributed to the oppression of another.
Knowing our privilege does not make us villains, but it should make us more conscious about the parts we play in systems that are greater than us. It should make us be more thoughtful; it should humble us. We need to admit that some of us had a head start and aren’t just flourishing on our strength alone. The most glaring aspect of white privilege is that when someone is described neutrally — without indicating color or ethnicity — more often than not, people will assume that the person is white. That assumption indicates an uncomfortable truth: In our society, whiteness determines humanity.
Unfortunately, people are so ill equipped to deal with race that some are not only unwilling to see their privilege, they’re unwilling to even admit that we’re all different colors. They say they don’t even see color at all. I call shenanigans. Colorblindness isn’t a thing. Well, medically it is. (Random fact for you: If you ever end up on Jeopardy! and your Daily Double depends on it — the reason Facebook’s logo is blue is because Mark Zuckerberg is red-green colorblind, and shades of blue are the richest ones he can see. But I bet even Zuck can tell the difference between my skin and his.)
Classifications and categories aren’t bad in and of themselves. What’s bad are the stereotypes that come with some of the categories we’re a part of.
For people to sit on some delusional “more evolved” throne and proclaim themselves colorblind, and therefore unable to be prejudiced or racist, is abuse at best, cowardice at medium (yes, medium), and dangerous at worst. The point of trying to be “colorblind” is not so we can deny what is obviously there; it’s so we don’t treat people as less-than because of their color. But classifications and categories aren’t bad in and of themselves. What’s bad are the stereotypes and degradation that come with some of the categories we’re a part of.
Furthermore, eschewing our cultural differences doesn’t make America — or anyplace — a salad bowl. It erases our history and the very relevant events of the past that have led to our present situation. It dishonors our ancestors and the work they’ve done, and it lets people off the hook for centuries of race-based injustice. Saying you don’t see race is saying you have nothing to fix. “Colorblindness” and cultural erasure help perpetuate this system of oppression because forced politeness and fear of the “race card” trump actual work and progress.
In the words of my beloved cousin (in my heart) Kerry Washington, “I’m not interested in living in a world where my race is not a part of who I am. I am interested in living in a world where our races, no matter what they are, don’t define our trajectory in life.” I want people to see my color and my culture written all over me, because I am proud of the skin I’m in. It is an important part of my identity. What I don’t want them to do is mistreat me because of it.
People were like, “Why do we need to change the racist slur that represents our sports franchise?” Here’s why: Because it’s what good people do.
I’m not sure who I side-eye more, though: Team “I Don’t See Color” or Team “Let Me Honor You by Painting My Face Black for Halloween.” One group thinks they’re laudable for not acknowledging racial differences, and the other thinks being represented by face paint should make us feel appreciated. If there is anything that gets my blood pressure sky-high in two seconds flat, it is blackface-wearing white folks who think they’re somehow paying homage to us even as they look more like creatures out of horror movies.
It’s not okay for the same reason that it’s not okay that there’s still a sports team called “Redskins.” My alma mater is the University of Illinois, and up until my junior year in undergrad, Chief Illiniwek was our mascot. He was always portrayed by a white student wearing a feathered headdress who’d hop around during halftime yelling, “Oskee Wow Wow!” When they got rid of him, people were in tears, saying, “He’s a tradition!” I was floored.
These people were seriously like, “Why do I need to stop painting myself black, red, brown and yellow for laughs? Why do we need to change the racist slur that represents our sports franchise?” Here’s why: Because it’s what good people do. They care about our feelings of hurt and pain, attached to centuries of denigration, genocide, slavery and smallpox.
So, go ahead and forge some real friendships with people who don’t look like you. Stop saying you don’t see color and acknowledge your privilege. Also, if you’ve already figured all of this out, check your friends and family who have not.
Excerpted with permission from the book I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi. Published by Henry Holt and Co. Copyright © 2016, 2017 Luvvie Ajayi.