I don’t believe in White Privilege.
The phrase became popular when Peggy McIntosh wrote “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in 1988. She explains how, as a white woman, privilege allows her to escape the suspicious scrutiny of corner shop owners when she walks into a convenience store, or how privilege ensures that she can move into any neighborhood or building she can afford. It all sounds reasonable until you realize—wait, those aren’t privileges, those are rights. All the things we describe as “privileges” are actually rights that society has robbed Black people of even the expectation of enjoying.
When someone is born with an immunity to a disease, it would be dumb to vilify the immunity and ignore the disease. Racism is a disease. White privilege is simply immunity to racism.
Last week, when the greatest Black man who ever lived shed his mortal body to forever dwell in immortality, all of America united in sorrow and celebration for the life of Muhammad Ali. One of the most common themes heard during the round-the-clock eulogizing of the legend was how he taught America that race, religion, and color was unimportant. From there emerged the idea that Ali has transcended race. That he was not a Black man. That he was not a Muslim. That he was an American, as we are all Americans regardless of the color of our skin, where we were born, or to which god we prayed. Muhammad Ali showed us that we are all one people who should embrace our differences and move past them to connect with the universal love and humanity that exists inside us all. That’s how you transcend race. That’s not Black. That’s American.
Then Orlando happened.
When Omar Mateen walked into Pulse nightclub and stole the lives of dozens of club goers, the gust of love and universal togetherness that Ali’s death had blown under America’s gossamer wings suddenly stopped. We were fractured again. We were again pieces of puzzles from different boxes wondering if we could somehow fit together. We were no longer Americans—we were shelves on which to lay blame.
We were gay or straight. Muslim or Christian. Democrat or Republican. Brown or White. American or foreigner. Racism is a disease, and we were sick again…
Except for the ones who are immune.
Fear is a privilege. People seeking immunity from fear have always manifested itself in nasty ways throughout America’s history. When Nat Turner revolted, fear made White folks hang every Black person for miles—guilty or not. After Pearl Harbor, our president locked Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, for… you know… just in case. After 9/11, law enforcement officers began monitoring mosques. Immediately after the attacks in Paris and Brussels, a certain presidential candidate proposed banning Muslims from entering this country.
The “loving admirers” who wrapped their arms around the memory of Muhammad Ali are the same ones who are now wondering why President Obama, the person most responsible for understanding nuance and specificity, doesn’t paint with the broad brush by screaming “radical Islam” into international microphones. They are wondering which crayon goes best when coloring the Orlando shooting in their mind—hate crime crimson or terrorist attack lack?
That’s how privilege works.
Privilege gives you a voice loud and important enough to co-opt goodness and humanity by assimilating slivers of beauty and peace from whomever you want, whenever it pleases you. But you still get to lock brown people in cages and stiff-arm any religion, color or creed whenever you have the heebie-jeebies because you’re a little jittery. When privilege comes face-to-face with fear, it will kick love, equality, and humanity in the throat to get to safety.
Privilege rejects Visas. Privilege sends refugees back to Syria. Privilege vetoes plans for mosques near “Ground Zero.” Privilege sends Army battalions to Ferguson and Baltimore, but chills out during armed standoffs in Oregon towns or the Bundy Ranch. Privilege shoots fire hoses at nonviolent resistors. Privilege wants gun laws after Sandy Hook, but Kanye shrugs its shoulders about Chicago summer slaughters. America can love Ali but not “Allahu Akbar.” Privilege will step on any neck, slice any throat and smother any freedom when it feels threatened, because—they can.
That’s why privilege is not real. It is a euphemism for prejudice. It is an excuse for using racism to placate fear. Privilege is the ability to circle your wagons, withdraw your humanity and gut-punch anyone who doesn’t look, act or pray like you. I don’t believe in it like I don’t believe in reneging in spades or hating my fellow man.
For the next few days you will hear a lot about Islam, homophobia, and how we need to make this county safe again. We should not allow the lessons we learned from Muhammad Ali to dissolve into thin air because of Omar Mateen’s few minutes of hate. We are stronger than fear. We are bigger than privilege. We are better than racism.
They are symptoms of a sickness.
Ali had already given us the cure.