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White Privilege Isn’t What You Think It Is

White privilege is a tough concept to explain, especially to touchy white guys who think that it’s merely another accusation of racism. It’s not. I stumbled upon a very practical example of my own white privilege this week that I hope might clarify the term just a bit.

My family and I are moving across the country in about a month. We’re looking to rent in our new city and conducting our search exclusively via email and  phone.

A tactic that I have found to be very useful in the past and which is already showing signs of success this time around is this: when we find something we really like but which is maybe a little above our price range, we send an email pitching ourselves as great tenants who will take excellent care of the landlord’s investment.

I also attach a picture of the three of us. I do this because I think it’s pretty clear from looking at us that we’re not slobs who will trash the place. I do this to add a corresponding visual to the professional, polite, articulate manner we project via voice and email communication.

Some people—people who don’t look like us, for example—can’t assume the same thing. If you don’t look like us, depending on the particular market, there’s a far greater chance that sending a picture would trigger passive or active biases in the decision maker’s mind. A black or brown person in our position might well decide that sending a picture would be detrimental to their prospects.

Now here’s the key: I haven’t done anything wrong here. My goal is not to show potential landlords that we’re caucasian. My goal is to show that we have clean clothes and friendly faces.

My white privilege in this situation consists of a simple, undeniable fact that has nothing at all to do with my motives or character and that is this: there is an approximately 0.0005% chance that a photo of us will make someone less likely to select us as tenants; it may very well not move the needle at all, but it’s certainly not going to diminish our chances.

In other words, white privilege isn’t what you think it is. It’s not something bad that you’re doing. It’s something that you have as a white person, whether you’re a backwater bigot or a civil rights champion.

So when people ask you to “check your privilege,” don’t worry, they’re not really asking you to give anything up! They’re merely asking you to be reflective in a way that might lead you to better understand the ways in which other people lack your privilege and how that might impact their ability to move up in the world—or even survive.

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