privilege: a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most
white privilege: a term for societal privileges that benefit people identified as white in Western countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances
Kids by their nature have little trouble seeing stark contrast in the world. This innate point of view is the reason every Disney film has a hero and a villain and why fables come with a moral for the story.
In their microcosm of society things are either fair or not fair without much wiggle room in between, and kids will voice their displeasure pretty loudly when the latter is the case. They don’t want to hear why different situations require different reactions; for kids fair=same, and it’s an uphill battle to convince them otherwise.
Add in the nuance of privilege and race and you’re really entering unchartered territory.
T-man and Bear are old enough to pick up on many of the inequities surrounding them. They see the dilapidated apartments, trailer parks, and housing projects. They know there are kids who eat breakfast and lunch at school every single day, and they know why some of them need to do that. They also see the kids who get every blessed thing under the sun – new iPhones in fifth grade, dirt bikes, go karts, Wiis and Xboxes – kids for whom Christmas comes all year round.
Don’t get me wrong, we hear plenty of “but all the kids have blah blah blah” around here. T-man and Bear seem to grasp that there are kids who get everything they ask for and that it isn’t necessarily a good thing, but I’m sure there’s a tiny part of them that wishes their life was like that. But oh well, tough cookies, they’re stuck with us.
My point is that T-man and Bear see the spectrum and understand that they’re blessed. They have a roof over their heads, more than enough food to eat, clean water, heat in the winter, A/C in the summer, and a hundred other things that get taken for granted. We talk about people who have trouble with any number of these, and why that might be so.
But I struggle when it comes to explaining white privilege to kids who still see things in black and white, so to speak.
Hard work is rewarded in a fair world. So how do I explain it’s possible to work just as hard or harder than a white classmate and still end up with a lower project grade? Teachers are our heroes, our champions, but the reality is they’re also imperfect human beings and that makes unintentional bias entirely possible.
Telling the truth is always the best defense. Getting caught in a lie at our house will always land our kids in ten times the trouble. But how do I teach T-man and Bear that in a he said, she said situation another person’s truth might be more readily accepted than theirs? How do I explain that someone may unconsciously believe the word of a white classmate over theirs, regardless of both parties’ history with honesty? I can’t quite find the words to capture the subtleties of skin color’s influence on perception, especially for a ten- and twelve-year-old.
In this country you’re presumed innocent until proven guilty, and we’re provided certain protections under the law against unreasonable search and seizure. Except those protections might work a little bit differently for a brown skinned person, but there’s no way to explain what the ‘brown’ rules are because it’s entirely dependent on the person who pulls you over. So while T-man and Bear see me reach into my purse without thinking twice at a license check, I have to teach them to wait with hands in plain sight until directed by an officer. To respond respectfully to authority. That holding their tongue, no matter how offensive the demands, could actually save their lives one day.
How on earth does one explain all of this to a tween who still argues that their bedtime is unfair? I know adults who refuse to consider the possibility that white privilege exists. That years of subtle conditioning by a society which celebrates white beauty as the ideal and honors predominantly white figures throughout history just might have sunk into their subconscious. That these tiny splinters of influence could affect any number of instinctive reactions.
If I can’t even convince the adults to consider it, how am I supposed to make sense of it to my kids?