May 24, 2019

White Privilege Is Trending on Twitter

“Prompt Twitter is back at it again. On Saturday, Twitter user @freeyourmindkid asked white people to share “the most outrageous thing that you’ve gotten away with as a white person that you know damn well a black or brown person would have never gotten away with?” and asked respondents to tag their stories with #MyWhitePrivilege. The tweet went viral, trending over the weekend and garnering almost 10,000 replies as of the time of writing. A fair amount of the replies were of the conservative troll variety: “Faking a hate crime on the national stage to frame 63 million people of being racist. …oh, wait #JussieSmollette [sic] #MyWhitePrivilege is to be accused of crimes I didn’t commit & hatred I do not possess, to have my wages decreased by mass immigration while I pay all the bills.” But most seem to be sincere acknowledgments of the various benefits afforded to white people. A particularly large subset of the tweets involved some sort of encounter with the criminal justice system where, as most encounters with the police should go, no one was hurt or assumed guilty by virtue of existing. Some touched on the disparities in the health care system, where black patients’ pain is taken less seriously than their white counterparts. All were infuriating in that very specific way that structural racism always is.

And yet as I scrolled through the hashtag, all I could think was the same thing I think whenever presented with earnest admissions of white privilege: Who is this exercise for? The question is not to undermine the fact that thousands of white people apparently recognize the ways in which privilege operates in their day-to-day life. That is, unfortunately, no small feat. At its best, this sort of acknowledgement by the privileged can do more than say, a black person explaining ad nauseum why saying there are a “few bad apples” in the police force is reductive. At its worst, though, it can feel like a performance of self-flagellation in an effort to get ~ good ally ~ points from people of color.

The difference, ultimately, comes down to whom these stories are being told, and on Twitter, that’s hard to parse. It’s possible that the responses indexed under #MyWhitePrivilege are of the former variety, the digital equivalent of the conversations these white people are having with the other white people in their life about structural inequality, in which case, kudos. Not being privy to those conversations myself (for good reason), I can say that when I encounter these sort of admissions in real life, they are mostly in the latter category. And there is little more irritating than being on the receiving end of a story of how a self-avowed liberal white person got away with shoplifting or speeding or what have you. What am I to gain by knowing this? These stories, unprompted and told in person, feel more often like self-congratulatory disclosures designed to signal that the white person telling it is down for the anti-racist cause. Or an effort to get me to absolve them of their white guilt because they’re one of the “good ones.””

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