“Can you tell us what white privilege means to you and can you give me an example from your life or career when you think you have benefitted from it?” This was the question Thalia Anguiano put to Hillary Clinton, one of the world’s most famous Democrats and the woman who could be America’s next President, last Monday.
Clinton was asked to confront her white privilege at the Iowa Brown and Black Forum. In the bellwether state she was, alongside her fellow Democrat candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders, grilled on a variety of issues – including racial inequality and how they saw their own place in a racially prejudiced society.
Now, before we even get on to Clinton’s answer let’s start with the fact that Anguiano was able to ask this question. The state of race relations in the US is dire. While the bodies of black young men pile up on suburban streets, people who reject the very idea of racism (you know, the ones who think we live in a post-racial world) aren’t difficult to find across the Atlantic. But amidst the depressing realities of a highly divided society it’s undoubtedly a good sign that a college student can question a women who’s in line for one of the most powerful jobs in the world about the privilege her skin colour buys.
We need a similar kind of conversation in the UK, where it often feels that “race” and racism is only on the agenda so politicians can pay lip service to the idea of equality. Then they do the very least they can to challenge the racialised status quo.
But for all the progress that’s been made by anti-racist campaigners in the US, Clinton’s response showed that there’s still a long way to go. After Anguiano finished speaking, things slowly went downhill. Clinton’s answer (which you can watch in full here) left a lot to be desired.
She recognised her wealth, family situation and middle-class upbringing had played a part in her success. Undoubtedly, Clinton’s white privilege made these other areas of privilege more accessible. Due to systemic racism, people of colour in the US and in the UK are more likely to be forced to languish in poverty no matter how hard they work. In the UK, for instance, people from minority ethnic communities are less likely to get into good universities and more likely to miss out on job interviews if they have “ethnic sounding” names. Clinton was right: for people of colour hard work doesn’t necessarily get you places.
But while Clinton didn’t refute Anguiano’s implicit claim that white privilege exists she couldn’t bring herself to use those words. Her answer lacked a nuance that’s often sorely missing when people are confronted with their privilege, and her understanding of the challenges facing people of colour – regardless of their socioeconomic background – proved wanting.
She lamented that life was hard for the migrant family she knew growing up, confusing very real and discriminatory citizenship problems with racial inequality. The two are surely interwoven but conflating them hints at an understanding of the world in which, when you’re put under pressure, all people of colour become the same. Her example of her privilege, which included the admission that she came “from a loving family”, unintentionally read as a slight that disadvantaged people of colour don’t have caring parents. That a stable home life is more likely to be found in white homes. Ultimately, her garbled answer indicated that she hasn’t given the topic enough thought, at least not enough to have prepared a clear answer to this kind of question.
This isn’t just Clinton’s personal shortcoming, it speaks to a need to for a more honest, open conversation that’ll challenge the inability of many people to realise the myriad of ways in which their skin colour buys them a pass. The same pass that lead Clinton and her team to believe it’s ok to publish: 7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela.
While it’s true that people of colour can have privilege too, that privilege is constantly checked. No matter how middle class you are or how much your family love you, your skin colour will – on so many occasions – be used to define you and stereotype you. Look at the ease with which a police officer murdered Prince Jones, documented by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates; the number of black actors overlooked in this year’s Oscars, meaning there are more nominations for white men named Mark than there are for people of colour across all acting categories; the disproportionate number of black people who are stopped and searched in the UK or the journalist who openly admitted they wouldn’t put a black woman on a magazine cover because they said it wouldn’t sell. The endless drip drip drip of evidence shows that regardless of their socioeconomic background people of colour are systematically discriminated against.
White privilege not only exists in the obvious but in the finer points, it thrives as microaggressions that perpetually suppress people of colour. They come in many forms from comments like “Where are you really from?” to instances when people look past people of colour to their white colleague for the answer to a question because they’re assumed as the “expert” by virtue of their skin colour. These paralysing moments exist in pauses between sentences, on the wallpaper of words, in colleagues’ raised eyebrows and unqualified assumptions about a person’s ability and knowledge. It’s an insidious form of discrimination that doesn’t touch white people, and this was so sorely lacking in Clinton’s answer.
This isn’t about the individual; it’s about the system. Admitting white privilege exists is important. But it means little without acknowledging the systematic ways it continues to flourish and questioning how political policies allow it to continue. That is, after all, how we’ll achieve the racial equality so many politicians say they want.
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Maya Goodfellow is a journalist and political commentator. She primarily writes about British politics and has worked as a researcher for a think tank. She also writes about international affairs, with a particular focus on conflict studies. Find her on Twitter: @Mayagoodfellow
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