Sunday, July 21st, 2024

Are you willing to explore your ‘White Privilege’ in the wake of George Floyd’s death?

“Changing your mindset and taking action now can help kill the roots of racism,” says Hossain.

The following column was written by Dr. Kazi Hossain and published in the York Daily Record on June 23, 2020.

Changing your mindset and taking action now can help kill the roots of racism.

We have been witnessing protests, outrage, and demands for justice following the killing of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis. Some are participating directly by going out on the streets and joining the protests while others are raising their voices through the stroke of a pen or appearing on various media outlets. The goal of all participants on this, collectively, is to demand justice for George Floyd, his family, and countless others who were unnecessarily killed by the police but did not get the justice they deserved.

The death of George Floyd not only reflects the injustices faced by African Americans and minorities, but it also reflects how prevalent society’s “White Privileges” are. We as a country not only have to seriously start talking about the race relations amongst ourselves, but it is also imperative that white people discuss amongst themselves the issue of unearned “White Privileges.” Unfortunately, a significant percentage of the white population refuse to acknowledge the existences of “White Privilege” in our society. Unless we as a nation recognize the existence of this special privilege, or as Peggy McIntosh called it “Invisible Knapsack”, we cannot make any progress in race relations.

The tragic death of George Floyd opens up the opportunity to reveal the existence of “White Privileges” enjoyed by a particular group of people in the country. Due to this special privilege, white people can storm into a state capitol building with an AR-15 and not face any negative consequences. They did this to demand that the government opens up businesses so that “these people” can get a haircut or eat at a restaurant – neither of which are essential to survive in this COVID–19 environment. Why did the police not arrest these white people for carrying guns inside the state capitol building? Because it is the Second Amendment right of “these people.” However, this Second Amendment right is not essential to survive, but to “breathe” freely is essential to survive as a human. The ability to breathe freely is a “human right” but the ability to carry an AR-15 is not! Certain constitutional rights should not supersede “human rights” as that of George Floyd.

In the United States, the Constitution has gone through 27 amendments since its inception in 1787. Among these amendments, the most talked about one is the Second Amendment – the right to bear arms. This amendment seems more sacred to people in America than any of the others – even the 13th Amendment. However, implementation of the Second Amendment varies depending on the skin color of the person who is exercising the right. The case of Philando Castile is an example of such variation. Castile had a license to carry a gun like any law-abiding citizen, and he informed the police about it when he was stopped. When Castile was asked to show his license and registration, he reached out to the glovebox to get these documents and was shot seven times because a police officer was “afraid for his life.” In this case the Second Amendment right of Philando Castile was trumped by the human rights of the police officer for self defense. The internet is full of examples of incidents regarding how police officers treat white men legally carrying guns vs. Black men legally carrying guns. Both are exercising their Second Amendment rights, but police handle the situations in two completely different ways, as if one is a criminal and the other is not. Needless to say, the Black man is always “perceived” as a criminal.

In every corner of the world, kids of all ages have the right to play in a park or in a playground. The kids can roam freely or play with a toy, even if that toy is a toy gun. This is a human right for all children. Unfortunately, Tamir Rice, a Black 12-year-old boy, did not have that human right when playing with a toy gun in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2014. He was gunned down by a white police officer because the officer was fearful for his life even though Tamir Rice never pointed the toy gun towards the officer. The self-defense rights of the police officer overtook the Human Rights of Tamir Rice to play freely in a park.

The above three incidents are examples of “White Privilege” in the area of the Criminal Justice System in America. Unfortunately, White Privilege does not exist in the Criminal Justice System alone; it exists in every American system one can imagine.

One of the ways to fulfil one’s American dream is to go to college, earn a degree, and get a job. Most Americans, from all backgrounds, do their best to achieve the American dream by following this path. But certain sections of the population hit a wall in the middle of this path especially when they start applying for a job. Again, people of color, especially Black individuals, face roadblocks in the process of searching for a job. Numerous studies have shown that applicants with Black sounding names get less calls from the recruiters than their counterparts with White sounding names, even though the resumes reflect similar qualifications for both the Black and White candidates.

The effects of different sounding names go far beyond the job market. In the academic setting, especially in the K-12 environment, teachers identify students with Black sounding names as troublemakers more frequently than they identify students with White sounding names. In a recent study at the UCLA Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture, researchers found that that people with Black sounding names are more likely to be perceived as physically large, dangerous, and violent than those with stereotypically white sounding names. The results of this study completely contradict the killers of Ahmaud Arbery in 2020 as well as the killers of Emmett Till in 1955. Similar cases are easy to find.

In American society, the color of skin plays a huge role in everyday lives. This is a sad statement but a reality of life. Children at a very early age start to realize the significance of one’s skin color. By age 3, children come to the sense that they are different based on their skin color. Many families of color who raise children experience a very similar interaction where their children wish to have “white” skin. Raising a child, I have also experienced this myself. I remember one day when I picked up my daughter from preschool, she expressed her own desire to be “white.” When I asked her why she wanted to be “white,” she said, “Then my teacher would have put sunscreen on me.” Even though we had already given the Child Care Center sunscreen for my child, the caregiver still did not use it on her that day. Instead the caregiver said to my child, “Your skin is dark, you do not need the sunscreen.” This incident helped me realize back then that my child, and many children like her, come to understand that being “white” has an advantage and will affect the treatment they receive by society. Children’s preference for “white” is nothing new. The well-known “Doll Experiment” conducted in the 1940s by famous African-American Psychologist, Dr. Kenneth Clark, shows this. This classic experiment was replicated many times over the years, and every time the results have turned out to be the same; children of all races prefer “white” dolls over “black” dolls. The results ultimately prove that kids realize society’s different treatment of people based on one’s skin color.

The existence of racism is nothing new, whether it is in America or in any part of the world. However, racism in America stuns the world because America is seen as the beacon of equality and justice which every country wants to emulate. However, systemic racism can only be eradicated when we can also raise awareness about systemic “White Privilege.” One of the ways to make this happen is for white people to start talking about this amongst themselves. This conversation may be difficult for many parents, but it needs to take place if true change is desired. They need to teach their kids how “White Privilege” impacts their lives and what it really looks like in everyday life. Many white people, especially among the middle class and the poor SES groups, strongly believe that they work hard and no one gave them what they have earned, and therefore they do not enjoy the “White Privilege.” These white people are correct in their assumption, however, they fail to realize that “White Privilege” does not mean that White people do not work hard and that everything is given to them automatically. “White Privilege” means that white people are treated better in their everyday lives compared to the way minorities are treated. Examples of such include: how white people will not be stopped by police unnecessarily, how they will not be followed by the store employee for suspicion of possible shop lifting when shopping, and how when they pay for their purchases, the associate at the sales desk will not verify their signature with that on the card. Furthermore, when white people apply for a job, their name will not be a roadblock in getting the position. If you are a teacher in a higher education setting, your qualifications will not be questioned if you want to teach a new course even though you may have 20+ years of teaching experience.

Social injustice or systemic racism, whatever terminology we use, is intertwined with “White Privilege.” One cannot be separated from the other. Raising awareness about “White Privilege” will hopefully change the mindset of people; ideally, they will be able to take action so that the roots of racism do not get the chance to germinate in the future.

We need to take advantage of the current movement that stemmed from George Floyd’s tragic death, not only to eliminate systemic racism but to also make people aware of the existence of “White Privilege” and its impact on society because the world is watching us!

Dr. Kazi Hossain is an associate professor in the Department of Early, Middle & Exceptional Education at Millersville University. 

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