Team Westport, a town-sponsored diversity committee in predominantly white Westport, Connecticut, recently caused an uproar by sponsoring an essay contest for high school students. An essay contest — how could something so innocuous incite anyone? But this was no ordinary contest. No, it was one that asked students to — gasp — consider white privilege and search for any marks it may have left upon their lives.
One resident of this wealthy Manhattan suburb, Bari Reiner, 72, denounced the contest as offensive. “It’s an open town,” Reiner told the Associated Press. “There are no barricades here. Nobody says if you’re black or whatever, you can’t move here.”
That this white enclave permits a “black or whatever person” to reside there disproves nothing about white privilege, of course. Denying white privilege while misunderstanding the concept, well, that song has blared throughout American history. This land is ripe with Bari Reiners.
This ordeal led me to ponder a question relevant to our race conversation, to the extent such a conversation takes place: Why do the white folk who deny white privilege think that way? The answer, I believe, is that American culture conditions white folk to not fully grasp how society privileges them. They are surrounded by the pieces of the puzzle. But they have been miseducated on how to complete the image that portrays their racial group in an unflattering light.
Many white people rebut the notion that white privilege augments their lives. That’s because they consume the world in a specific manner, through what sociologist Joe Feagin calls the “white racial frame.” Think of a frame as the process by which people take in new information, sift through the data, sort the important from the unimportant and decide how to feel about it all.
Feagin argues that American culture has taught whites to believe they represent the intellectual and cultural vanguard, to conclude that racial inequalities cannot be traced to their past or present behavior and to view their dominant status — their privilege — as natural and yet invisible.
An example of how white people view their privilege as natural and invisible appears in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land. She interviews working-class and middle-class white people in Louisiana and learns they’re disenchanted with their government and no longer recognize their country. They feel as if black folk, other minorities, immigrants and refugees have cut ahead of them in line, meaning the government caters to others before them. The line-cutting angers them, although they never question why they should occupy the first position. That implicit assumption — I should be tended to before all others — encapsulates how they view white privilege as natural and invisible.
The white folk who most view the world through the white racial frame will interpret events to defend racial injustice and a whites-on-top racial hierarchy. The wealth of evidence demonstrating police officers often brutalize black people, for instance, establishes that black people deserve the blame. The white racial frame deludes white folk into believing the system is operating as it should when it advantages them and disadvantages people of color.
Believing the system, when the system favors them, warrants vociferous defense, has become a cultural-family heirloom, much like grandma’s pearl necklace or grandpa’s gold pocket watch. Thus, when many white people hear requests to scour their lives for signs of white privilege, they are being asked to execute a mental routine they have been trained to perform poorly. White privilege is unconsciously considered both normative and normal — meaning, the system should privilege them and the daily privileges they receive never register as special.