Leutz: On White Privilege

A call to recognize an undeniable reality.

by Peter Leutz | 5/9/19 2:00am

I was in high school the first time I heard the term “white privilege.” A 90 percent white faculty taught me and my mostly white classmates about the wrongs of racism in an American history course. Racism felt like something out of the past. Once I arrived at college, though, I suddenly faced the reality that racial issues in our nation should not be seen through the rose-tinted lens of “history.” 

At my first meeting as a staff columnist for The Dartmouth, the Editorial Board discussed writing a piece about how minorities are underrepresented on the College’s faculty. I learned about Dartmouth’s past of denying tenure to minority professors, but I still left the conversation discouraged because I felt as if I had nothing to contribute. I never had to think about this issue. I am a kid from a wealthy, predominately white Chicago suburb. I’m a Catholic, heterosexual man who leans Republican; I even teach tennis at a local country club during the summers. I am exactly what white privilege looks like. Because of the privilege my skin color affords me, I have the choice whether to participate in conversations on race. This ability is white privilege in its most basic form, a privilege that I unknowingly enjoyed for eighteen years. 

Last month, Kyle Korver published an article titled “Privileged” in The Players Tribune, a publication featuring articles by professional athletes. Korver is an NBA shooting guard for the Utah Jazz, a white guy who plays in a league in which only 20 percent of players are white. In the piece, Korver admits: “What I’m realizing is, no matter how passionately I commit to being an ally ... I’m still in this conversation from the privileged perspective of opting in to it.” I’ve experienced just what Korver describes: that as a white guy, I am able to “opt out” of conversations on race and view racism through binoculars. I appreciated Korver’s column because America needs more white guys to put down the binoculars and opt in. 

Opting in at the most basic level requires recognizing that certain inequities are in fact racial injustices — redlining, wealth inequality and mass incarceration, to name a few. Progress will not be achieved when people who look like me still argue over whether such issues really exist. That ignorance is the most basic manifestation of white privilege — which, if anything, is too soft a term.  

Opting out of conversations about race is precisely what grants white America the ability to ignore and even deny the existence of racial injustices. From a distant vantage point, one where racism seems like a thing of the past, white privilege itself can be easily denied. The fact that people can deny it, despite the clear evidence for persistent racial inequalities, is one of the strongest proofs of its existence. 

What I have learned is that privilege perpetuates racial inequality by suppressing the dialogue surrounding the barriers that discrimination presents. While I am not personally responsible for the injustices of this nation’s past, given that I receive an undeniable level of privilege from such injustices, I have a responsibility to support actions and policies that advance racial equality. Anything less is complicity in structural oppression. I may disagree with others on what the solutions to longstanding injustices should look like. And that’s okay. But for me to opt out and deny the existence of the problem altogether is hardly a political opinion. It’s an evasion of reality, and an abdication of responsibility — and it’s all of our’s responsibility to recognize that.