The Privilege within Pigment
Updated: Jul 23, 2020
"Since the historical beginnings of the United States, white privilege has risen to the forefront of discrimination."
In preschool among stringing macaroni necklaces and singing ABCs, our teachers asked us to draw a self-portrait of ourselves using crayons and finger paint. While my friends today attended preschools where the children were much like themselves — Asians with glossy dark hair and deep brown eyes — I went to preschool hundreds of miles away in Sacramento, California, where my classmates were as white as the princesses in the Disney fairytales I obsessed over. I colored and contoured my self-portrait to mimic their beauty—Cinderella’s blond hair, Snow White’s pale skin, Aurora’s blue eyes. Already, three-year-old me who could barely spell “racism” let alone understand it, internalized critical race theory through the American archetype of beauty, notorious for propagating pigmented privilege reserved for the white. Since the historical beginnings of the United States, white privilege has risen to the forefront of discrimination.
Thirteen years later, following countless discussions in AP English, a Yale seminar on race, and the omnipresent Black Lives Matter movement, I finally found the courage to google “white privilege.” What I discovered via Teaching Tolerance, an organization dedicated to helping educators teach children and youth the value of anti-bias and social justice in a diverse democracy, were the two parents of white privilege: racialization and systemic racism, principles I colored with since I was only in preschool.
According to Teaching Tolerance, “[racialization] is the grouping of people based on perceived physical differences, such as skin tone. This arbitrary grouping of people, historically, fueled biases and became a tool for justifying the cruel treatment and discrimination of non-white people.” Likewise, “systemic racism happens when [individual- and group-level] structures or processes are carried out by groups with power, such as governments, businesses, or schools.”
“In my religion class, the same three white girls would always look down on me and my other classmates as lesser than they were and it was obvious. [The girls] would rather be alone in group projects than dare partner with someone who wasn’t as pretty or popular.”
Even in areas as progressive and demographically diverse as the Bay Area, through our Student Experience Form and subsequently gathered student testimonies, we at Bay Area Uncovered confirmed that the presence of white privilege has firmly anchored itself into modern society, carving a sharp color line particularly in predominantly white schools. According to a Mexican female student at a private Catholic school where popularity and athlete standing determine better student treatment, “In my religion class, the same three white girls would always look down on me and my other classmates as lesser than they were and it was obvious. [The girls] would rather be alone in group projects than dare partner with someone who wasn’t as pretty or popular.” At many Bay Area schools, social status amplified by athlete standing or overall popularity from wealth, pale skin, and blond hair supersedes merit even in the eyes of teachers and administrators. A Filipino female student from the same private Catholic school disclosed that “teachers made racist comments to students [and] favored students according to their status in school. [Almost all] the popular kids were rich and white and made other students feel below them; [prior to 2019] students who were on financial aid had to work for the school and clean the school to compensate for the grant they were given.”
“I wasn’t offered any resources except a class transfer where I would have to be uprooted and placed out of LEAD (an educational program at LGHS) to avoid seeing my abuser. I felt like I was being punished for what he did to me. That’s because I am not essential to the school. I don’t participate in any sports or extracurriculars, my parents aren’t rich nor would argue with the school board, and most importantly, it’s easy to sweep sexual assault under the rug.”
Synthesizing both racialization and systemic racism, Dr. Frances E. Kendall, in her book detailing white privilege, describes it as “having greater access to power and resources than people of color [in the same situation] do” (Kendall). Indeed, “white privilege is both unconsciously enjoyed and consciously perpetuated” (Teaching Tolerance). Evidently, at a private Christian high school where the majority of students are of both white and of high socioeconomic status, a Chinese female testified that “Students from higher-income families are extremely uneducated and ignorant towards students from lower-income families. One of my friends was frequently teased for owning a Dell laptop and not a MacBook. She was also made fun of for having an ‘old’ iPhone. The girl who always teased her was known at our school for being wealthy.” Worse still, in a very wealthy predominately white public high school, an Indian American girl courageously decided to report a case of sexual assault only to find her pleas ineffectual since her abuser was both white and wealthy: “During the summer, I was sexually assaulted by one of my peers. Unfortunately, my abuser is extremely wealthy. He is considered essential at LGHS. Not only does he have a massive house and a superiority complex, but he earned himself a spot on the football team. There’s an unspoken rule at LGHS: ‘If you’re part of the football team, you can do whatever you want’ (specifically to women and minorities).” In response, the school chose to do less than nothing: “I wasn’t offered any resources except a class transfer where I would have to be uprooted and placed out of LEAD (an educational program at LGHS) to avoid seeing my abuser. I felt like I was being punished for what he did to me. That’s because I am not essential to the school. I don’t participate in any sports or extracurriculars, my parents aren’t rich nor would argue with the school board, and most importantly, it’s easy to sweep sexual assault under the rug.” Such is the result of a system of inherited flaws designed to perpetuate a whitewashed legacy.
A study performed by the Pew Research Center revealed that “in 2014, the median net worth of a white household was $141,900; for black and Hispanic households, that dropped to $11,000 and $13,700, respectively. Wealth is inherited by white people from one generation to the next which also builds their social reputation and cultural influence.”
Yet even as Harvard University’s research on critical race theory provided “statistical evidence suggest[ing] crime by whites is more serious, more common, and more hurtful,” white people lavish in the power to remain silent in the face of racial inequity, the power to weigh the need for protest or confrontation against the discomfort or inconvenience of speaking up, and the ability to choose when and where to take a stand (The Bridge Project).
However, this abundance of privilege which people of color have fought entire wars and marched endless miles to distribute equally among everyone seems still to be unable to satiate the power of some white students. The same Filipino female student who reported her teachers’ blatant favoritism toward the wealthy, popular white students highlighted an even more bitter reality—that some white students have rallied to ridicule the sharp fears that come with not being white, which their peers of color battle every day. In fact according to her testimony, in the past month, white students have “made a meme page mocking George Floyd’s death [and] the Black Lives Matter movement [while spreading] rape jokes and other skin color related jokes.” Thirteen years after my first encounters with race through crayons and finger paint, white privilege became a weapon against people of color.
"Within this society that defines privilege by pigment rather than by merit, we must find the pigments of truth beneath our skin."
Perhaps if my preschool teacher had said something, if Disney had created more princesses of color, if the paradigm of protagonists were not so blonde-haired and blue-eyed, we might have resolved one color complex. But even then, we as a society would have failed to account for the thousands of people who fall victim to a culture that seemingly defends color but says grace in blank space for the white. We must continue to tell stories of color, to push white people toward recognizing their privilege, and to increase minority representation in organizations from the local private schools to the global multi-billion-dollar corporations. In high schools across the nation, altering the content of humanities courses such as AP US History, AP World History, and AP European History to reflect the voices and visions of people of color would help to change the whitewashed narrative so deeply embedded within the society’s skin. For more information about this initiative, refer to the “End APUSH Whitewashing” petition. Even on the microscopic local scale, the addition of more teachers and students of color into campus faculty and the student body could significantly benefit the cultural narrative inherited from one generation to the next. By holding our public schools to state anti-discrimination standards by means of grassroots pressure from students, parents, and district residents alike, we can enforce policies to neutralize white privilege. Within this society that defines privilege by pigment rather than by merit, we must find the pigments of truth beneath our skin.
At Bay Area Uncovered, we are working to compile reports to bring to district and country boards for this very purpose. Submit your message at tinyurl.com/bayareauncovered.
Collins, Cory. “What Is White Privilege, Really?” Teaching Tolerance. 2018. <www.tolerance.org/magazine/fall-2018/what-is-white-privilege-really>
Kendall, Frances E. Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships across Race. Routledge, 2013. Print.
Kochhar, Rakesh, and Richard Fry. “Wealth Inequality Has Widened Along Racial, Ethnic Lines since the End of the Great Recession.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center. 30 May 2020. <www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/12/12/racial-wealth-gaps-great-recession/>
The Bridge Project. “Critical Race Theory.” The Bridge, Harvard University. 2020. <https://cyber.harvard.edu/bridge/CriticalTheory/critical4.htm>