The Invisibility of White Privilege

(Parts of this post were published on some weeks ago.)

I was in New Haven a month or so ago and it was 87F and humid. I had to dress up because I was going to an event in the federal courthouse that afternoon, but it was hotter than hell out there. On a day like that I would normally be wearing a T-shirt, shorts (yes, cargo shorts), and sandals if I didn’t have to go to court. But that day…well, at least I could leave my jacket in the car until later.  And so it was that, looking like this (see below), I got a lesson in white privilege.


I needed to meet a marshal to drop off a subpoena, and the marshal’s office happened to be in a rather nice office building downtown. I strolled in off the sidewalk, slid on through the lobby, saw the sign that said “All Visitors Must Sign In” just as I was reaching the elevator, and went “awe, fuck it” and went up. No questions asked then, or when I walked past the guard in the elevator lobby on my way out a few minutes later.

That’s when I realized that being white and wearing a suit made me invisible. The guard was looking for people to talk to, but not for people like me. Had I been wearing flip flops, or had my skin not been white, I’d bet dollars to doughnuts I would have been stopped.

White privilege isn’t like a credit card.  It isn’t something you pull out of your pocket when you want to use it.  It’s always there, and it’s as invisible as I was to that guard.  It’s a shield that permits some people to see you (you have priority with sales assistance in stores, for example) and some not to (police generally won’t bug you if you’re white and halfway reasonably groomed).  It shielded me from that guard’s attention.  It shields you, if you’re light-skinned.

Now, briefly, think about what life would be like if you didn’t have white privilege.  If it went away, and suddenly you were confronted with police who noticed you, guards who noticed you, sales assistants who didn’t notice you.  Police who assumed that you were not terribly valuable and who thus were more inclined than they might otherwise be to shoot you.  Imagine if your neighborhood lost white privilege.  Imagine if your children did.  And if you’re white, you realize, deep down, that the odds of what happened to Trayvon Martin, et al. happening to your child are pretty close to zero, thanks to that invisible shield.  And that the odds of it happening to any given kid who isn’t white are so much greater that the event isn’t even surprising when you hear it or read about it on the news.

That should make you angry.  It really, really should.



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5 Responses to The Invisibility of White Privilege

  1. Arnie Mouse says:

    How do you know this situation was about white privilege? Maybe the guard just wasn’t very good at his job, maybe he was racist, maybe he was instructed to let besuited people by. Labeling something white privilege is reductionistic and less than helpful. It describes a possible correlation between skin color and a perceived privilege, but does nothing to address the root problem.

    Maybe it isn’t about white privilege at all, maybe it is really about poverty (including generational poverty), single parent families, and/or lack of education?

    Your life without white privilege would probably be similar to what it is now. I’m guessing you dress nicely/appropriately for situations, speak politely, are knowledgeable about relevant issues/topics, and you know how to act respectfully. Therefore your choice of clothing and behavior would make you as invisible as in this situation.

    • I think that the root problem is that there ISN’T really a root problem…wait, let me try again. The problem is that people judge on appearances. I spend a lot of time going into and out of courts, and I see the difference in the way people are treated, whether they’re reasonably well-dressed or not. Lawyers who are black tend to get a closer inspection by white marshals than lawyers who are white.

      It’s certainly true that clothes make a huge difference. I have noticed this many times, but especially telling was one occasion when I needed to grab some records at a courthouse when I happened to be in the neighborhood in my “civvies.” I learned what clients learn every day. (For those who are wondering, even if you’re a client, come in wearing a suit and have all of your pocket materials ready for the marshal to X-ray. You’ll get through a lot easier.)

      Poverty may well be at the root of much of what I was seeing, Single-parent families and lack of education? Unlikely to be factors in this setting. But wipe out poverty–dress a well-groomed black man and a well-groomed white man in the same clothes. I guarantee you that these two people will NOT receive the same kind of attention.

      I’ve seen enough behavior on the part of authorities (toward me and toward others, in Minneapolis, in Chicago, in Wisconsin, New York, and Connecticut) to be certain beyond a reasonable doubt that white privilege has played a significant role in making my life the way it is.

  2. Arnie Mouse says:

    I guess I would call the root problem sin, others might call it the human condition. I agree white privilege exists. The problem I have is with over-simplification. Often times calling something white privilege or racist stops the conversation. Instead of looking at what can/should be done to improve the situation – it is ended and all sides are angry or resentful.

    When I worked for a big delivery company I noticed how clothes can make someone invisible. Try wearing a USPS, UPS, or FedEx uniform and walk into a place like you know what you’re doing and you can go anywhere! It would be interesting to see how skin color plays into that.

    As far as wiping out poverty – what would happen? It would be the beginning of erasing judgements based on skin color. There would be one less thing to separate people into an out-group. So over time, racist behavior would be more obvious and become more stigmatized.

    I apologize for conflating your original article with issues of behavior and how I see that played out in the school district I teach at.

    • I think eliminating poverty would be a good thing overall, but I suspect that it would INCREASE judgments based on skin color rather than decrease them. It becomes a question of how you distinguish one from another, a la Durkheim’s notions of boundary settings–that boundaries are not there to keep people out so much as they are there to keep people IN.

      As for uniforms, non-white soldiers in WWII (and Viet Nam) wore the same uniforms as their brethren, but those didn’t make color invisible either at war or on the return home.

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