Photo credit: Rodrigo Gianesi/Flickr

Racism is like an invasive species. As a mindset and expression of larger cultural attitudes, it tries to overwhelm its competitors wherever it sets seed. Defining victory as someone else’s oppression, racism causes imbalance and conflict in societies in which multiple races or ethnicities of people live and work. It promotes hostility within a culture, and ultimately leads to hatred and violence.

Why are people racist? Why can’t we all just get along?

Racism and Racial Groups in America

There are many causes of racism; not all apply in all situations. Additionally, the primary victims of racism change over time. However, in the United States, racism is primarily rooted in the relative dominance of light-skinned individuals, called ’white’ people, over darker-skinned ethnic and racial minorities.

In America, white people are the dominant race in the social pecking order, as evidenced by their access to the lion’s share of wealth, education and status, and their relative insulation from racialized discrimination, stereotypes and hateful assumptions; crime, police brutality, incarceration and injustice in the criminal justice system; crumbling infrastructure, housing discrimination, environmental toxins; low-wage work, unemployment, poverty, and more.

This doesn’t mean every single white person succeeds, while every single person of color fails. Yet on the whole, white dominance is a clear and persistent trend. This pecking order means whites enjoy greater access and success on average compared to people of color – whether they realize it or not. Such benefits are known as ”white privilege.”

From Privilege to Entitlement and Racism

White privilege is a major cause of racism in the United States. As members of the dominant racial group, whites experience the privilege normally accorded their racial group as the default. Often, they are not consciously aware of these benefits. Notes the Southern Poverty Law Center, “White skin privilege is not something that white people necessarily do, create or enjoy on purpose.”

White privilege is like a mental blind spot; you can recognize it in what is not acknowledged in a situation. Both racist and non-racist white Americans are taught to ignore white privilege, social theorists say, but it is operative nonetheless.

For example, you might be a white American if:

  • You buy “nude” panty hose or “flesh-colored” band-aids and they match your skin tone
  • Your skin color doesn’t come up when people evaluate your financial responsibility
  • Your race doesn’t seem relevant to the way you dress
  • People assume you advanced professionally because of your merits
  • You don’t worry about being stopped and frisked by police for no apparent reason
  • You don’t worry about being perceived as a shoplifter when you patronize a business

White privilege is not exactly the same as racism, but it is at the heart of racism. It makes the sense of entitlement underlying racism possible. Because white people continually benefit from their race’s social dominance, and because these social benefits are automatic and appear to be the default, white people learn to expect white privileges. They learn to feel entitled to them because they don’t see them as privileges, but as rights.

When you believe you have a right to something, you become angry when you don’t get it. This is the root of white racism in America. Sometimes, whites don’t get the job they want. Sometimes, they don’t get into the college they prefer. Sometimes, they are ‘forced’ to listen to “thug music” at a gas station. When a minority receives a social benefit instead of a white person, it can provoke white rage due the underlying sense of racial entitlement.

When a white person receives a social benefit, it is invisible. Racist whites don’t get upset over racial injustice unless their own sense of entitlement has been violated. Contrary to racist assertions, people of color do not have a sense of racial entitlement. Confronted with a world biased against them, they only feel threatened.

Racial Reconciliation: Welcome Back To Society

Despite racist assertions, white entitlement is the prevailing source of unfairness – not affirmative action, nor any other partial effort to reduce society’s built-in white bias.

White people inherit the seeds of entitlement through the culture. But as individuals, each white person may choose to cultivate these seeds or leave them be. Courageous anti-racist white individuals go even further, joining together to smother the seeds of racism before they sprout into an invasive species that wipes out social peace.

Many white people deny instances of white privilege simply because they do not want to be considered racist. This is a positive attitude to start with, but it is necessary to move beyond it.

White Americans must set aside their egos and explicitly acknowledge that they do, in fact, benefit from white privilege. Overcoming the common denial of white privilege is a key first step in the movement to roll back American racism in the name of fairness and democracy.