What is white privilege.

Trayvon Martin

When my husband and I came to Chicago from Israel so that I could go to graduate school, we had no intention of staying here permanently.

But then the second Palestinian intifada happened, and the Israeli government’s entirely irresponsible and deadly response to same, and we came to a conclusion: We no longer wanted to raise children in Israel.

At the time, we only had the one child, a round-cheeked toddler boy, but the fact of his boy-ness sharpened the point. Our choice came mostly out of a desire to educate him differently, to not sacrifice his up-bringing and our values on the altar of occupation and settlement, but there was an unavoidable sense of having also snatched our son from the jaws of war — because in Israel, of course, every 18 year old boy is drafted into the military. Girls go, too, but they don’t see combat. They don’t die.

I bring this up now because I’ve been thinking a lot about all the parents of African American boys who are holding their sons a little closer today in the wake of the horrible, heartbreaking Trayvon Martin case.

My aunt is one of those moms — white as me, but mom to a black man who was once young, a young black man who was stopped for jogging in his own neighborhood, a young black man for whom she would tremble a little whenever he went into the city.

Like every other parent of a young black man, my aunt knew that my cousin could be frisked, arrested, and even killed for little but his youth, gender, and skin.

Like Trayvon Martin.

Like Travares McGill.

Like Sean Bell.

Like Timothy Stansbury, Jr.

Like Amadou Diallo.

Like Oscar Grant.

Like Orlando Barlow.

Like Aaron Campbell.

Like Steven Eugene Washington.

Like Kiwane Carrington.

Kiwane Carrington was 15 when he was killed. Steven Eugene Washington was autistic. Orlando Barlow “was surrendering and on his knees.”

All were killed by people charged with protecting them, whether as law enforcement or law enforcement support of one kind or another. None were armed.

When I look at my boy — on the cusp of adolescence, at the brink of a teenager’s certainty and stupidity, about to try on the world in the guise of a boy-man — I can imagine what might have been: We might have sent him to the Israeli military, he might have worn that uniform, we might have sat by the phone and trembled in fear.

But we removed him and ourselves from those might-haves. We stayed in a place where just being a young man did not by definition mean offering yourself up to die.

For Trayvon Martin, Travares McGill, Sean Bell, Timothy Stansbury, Jr., Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Orlando Barlow, Aaron Campbell, Steven Eugene Washington, Kiwane Carrington, and countless others, however, there was never a choice.

These days, Americans spent a lot of time arguing about “white privilege” — if it exists, what it means, what its consequences might be.

But I think I know what white privilege is.

White privilege is never being frightened for my son’s life, simply because of the color of his skin.


Update – please also see: 

What is white privilege, pt II – “If you watch the following and realize that you have never needed to share any of these tips with anyone you love, you’re living with a very particular kind of privilege.”


  1. You can add the name Wendell Allen to that list:

    Wendell Allen was killed Wednesday evening, March 7th in the stairwell of a Gentilly house by a single gunshot to the chest, fired by Officer Joshua Colclough. Police officials have acknowledged that Allen, a former high school basketball standout, was unarmed.

    So much humanity treated as no more than grist for the mill of hatred. A harvest with which to bake bitter bread to feed our sable brethren the poison that is racism. He who wears the “wrong” skin is marked from birth, and it is only a matter of time before Hades takes his due in innocent blood.

    I am sick, now.

  2. SWNC

     /  March 22, 2012

    Thank you for this.

  3. Standing On Shaky Ground | My Ready Room

    Emily L. Hauser with a clear, bottom-line description of white privilege as regards the Trayvon Martin case (and many others):

    ETA: I also added you to my blogroll. Thank you for writing this.

  4. I posted a similar statement on Facebook.
    Yours was more eloquent, as usual.

    -Dr Mike

  5. socioprof

     /  March 22, 2012

    Thank you so much for this, Emily.

  6. White privilege is also, I think, that complete unawareness of the privilege. Not a sense of entitlement, because you don’t even know it’s going on.

    It takes a lot of work to see yourself in your privilege. Not that you are nasty or selfish or anything bad; just that you’re not thinking or feeling at all that you are in a protected bubble.

    It’s a life of the assumption of happiness, that the universe is always going to bend your way; the arc of human life – your life – is a long one of upward success.

    It’s looking at these situations (unarmed black male gunned down by a police officer) as isolated incidents, never thinking or feeling that there’s something wrong. Never seeing it as a pattern. Seeing it as “well, what do you expect when you don’t comply with a police officer.” Never feeling anything but safe when a police officer comes into view.

    Really, people holding unconscious white privilege aren’t necessarily bad. Good people can be unconscious.

    What’s bad is being informed of it, being shown it, seeing it displayed in a way that clicks -“that could be my child lying in a morgue for three days while his cell phone rang and rang in the police officer’s desk” – and then turning away, back to the safety of white privilege.

    It can’t happen here, not in my safe white America.

    I’m sorry it’s like this. And I’m sorry to say that I don’t see a lot of hope that it can be overturned easily or soon.

    But I do believe it’s something that good people can learn about and use that knowledge in their attempts to be better people.

    I am very, very grateful for the kind people who took it upon themselves to confront me and talk to me. It’s possible to change.

  7. Thank you for this beautiful, awful, heartbreaking post.

  8. Rae

     /  March 22, 2012

    I don’t know what to do, I can’t even begin to formulate the change I want to see.

  9. Donna Britt and her sons were on NPR this morning, talking about “The Talk,” the conversation parents of black boys have with them when they’re 12 or so, the age when they step off from “adorable” into “frightening” [to some]. Steve Inskeep asked the now grown men how they responded when people asked, in situations like Martin’s and the others you’ve detailed above, if there wasn’t something the dead might have or should have done differently. “Not being black isn’t really an option,” one of them replied.

    Donna Britt’s brother, Darrell, killed by a policeman 30 years ago when she was still in school, should be added to your roll.

    Story here

    • “‘Not being black isn’t really an option,’ one of them replied.”

      I deleted a long response to this. The summary is: I want to stop being sad about this & start working so this is objectively no longer a consideration.

    • watson42

       /  March 22, 2012

      That was a really good segment. I liked how Britt’s sons pointed out how differently their white friends act when pulled over by the cops and how differently they exist in the world.

  10. corkingiron

     /  March 22, 2012

    Nicely done Emily. I want to say that I value my privilege. In fact, I believe in this privilege so much I want everyone to have some.

    • I get what you’re saying, but spreading privilege around is kinda like saying that in Lake Wobegone all the children are above average. “Privilege” only works so long as it’s something that some people have and some people don’t. Sometimes that’s innocuous, like the privilege your closest friends have to, say, come into your garage without asking permission, a privilege not granted to strangers or acquaintances. But in the case of not ending up dead for just being in the world, to say that’s a privilege that should be extended to everyone makes it not a privilege, but a right, which I think is the point.

  11. caoil

     /  March 22, 2012

    Tim Wise did a good writeup as well*, and I’m going to link both of you on my FB later.

    *although his didn’t make me tear up like this one did!

  12. Ash Can

     /  March 22, 2012

    I honestly don’t know how I’d handle being in an environment, a life situation, in which I’d have to give my son this kind of talk, and fear for him every day like this. The normal day-to-day concerns of a white parent seem pretty trivial in comparison. And I really have to admire Trayvon’s parents. I can guarantee that there is no way I’d handle such a situation with the restraint and aplomb that they have. In fact, my husband and I would probably long since have made a horrific situation even worse.

    And another thing occurs to me — if I were a person of color living in Florida, I’d most likely be seriously considering leaving the state right now, or at the very least moving somewhere where all the people around me looked like me, and I wouldn’t stand out and be noticed by anyone who assumed I was a criminal and was potentially packing heat. In light of that, I can now see how the proponents of “stand your ground” legislation could very well be enamored with this legislation, at least in part, because of it being de facto segregation legislation.

    The more I think of this whole situation, the worse it appears.

  13. Darth Thulhu

     /  March 22, 2012

    Dynamite post.

    The host of my weekly RPG night has a sister raising two black boys right at that cusp of “adorkable” to “frightening-to-bigots”. It is not acceptable that they cannot safely be dumb teenagers. It is not acceptable that they cannot make silly and harmless bad choices (worthy of being grounded but no more) without also putting their very lives in danger.

    Having the blondest mom in the Midwest and the most ginger dad conceivable and the cutest little unexpected ginger sister won’t save them from the bullet of a frightened bigot. Being smart and kind and generous won’t save them either. Nothing will save them, other than luck and rare grace.

    Parents of white children occasionally have to fear 1-in-a-million events like sniper shootings, but they can take calm solace in the velvet gauntlet of omnipresent law enforcement.

    Parents of black children, however, have to fear omnipresent law enforcement itself.

  14. taylor16

     /  March 22, 2012

    Great post. I just wish it didn’t have to be said.

  15. lillygoren

     /  March 25, 2012

    I am skeptical about this information, but I wanted to pass it along to those who might be able to ferret out any validity about it and the sources for it. http://www.myfoxtampabay.com/dpp/news/state/witness-martin-attacked-zimmerman-03232012
    I am very much enjoying reading your blog.

    • I don’t have to be skeptical; even if true, it changes nothing. The whole sequence of events started when Zimmerman left his vehicle. As soon as he did that, he declared his intent to pursue Trayvon Martin, to stalk him, in contravention of a directive not to by the 911 operator. He was the aggressor, and no doubt the altercation came about as a result of the intent to pursue. If anything, Trayvon Martin may have attacked Zimmerman in fear of his life. He might simply have been “standing his ground.”

  16. sv

     /  August 31, 2012

    Hi, I post at TNC sometimes. I know this is an old post (I was led to it from your post about the despicable peanut-throwing thing), but I just wanted to add to the chorus and say that this is insightful. Cheers.

  17. My husband is from Africa. A few years ago, I was complaining that my son’s friend had been harassed by a police officer during a routine stop for exceeding the speed limit. The young man was screamed at, forced to step out of his car, accused of selling drugs, and forced to sit in the back of a police car for an hour while the car was thoroughly searched. I told my husband it was a case of discrimination based on race. My husband disagreed saying, that’s what always happens when you’re pulled over. I had to explain to him that it had never happened to me, and in fact, as a white woman, I usually skate by without even a ticket. Sadly, enduring poor treatment by a police officer is something that is only routine when you’re black.

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