Trayvon Martin: How the absence of “skin privilege” might have did him in
April 10, 2012
Just thought I’d share a detailed explanation on skin privilege I gave to a commenter on my post at The Washington Times. In the article, I highlight a recent YouTube video that has gone viral of a young white girl exclaiming that because of white skin privilege white people would never be in the position where they will be mistaken as a criminal simply by wearing a hoodie. One of my readers disagreed and seemed to think that the videomaker (and by extension I) were advocating that whites cannot empathize with blacks or have suffered as they have. To that I felt compelled to offer examples to clarify the point:
Rather, skin privilege means that persons who are perceived to be primarily of European descent are afforded certain presumptions and benefit of the doubt when it comes to certain characteristics. I think of the privilege of being articulate, honest, creditworthy, honorable and good. Before even opening their mouths to prove otherwise, once dressed in decent clothing, and looking mainstream, they are afforded the presumption of being well spoken, of middle class means and to be honest.
For illustration purposes, let me share my own PERSONAL EXAMPLES of how the absence of this privilege has affected me.
1. Privilege of being honest - During a visit to a smoothie booth, I used my credit card to pay. The clerk asked for my ID. I thought it peculiar but obliged thinking perhaps there had been a problem with stolen cards. Of course, I waited patiently to see if the white customers behind me also using their credit cards would be asked to show their ID. The white woman behind me, similarly dressed as me was NOT asked. I addressed the clerk and he had no answer. Why?
2. Privilege of being creditworthy – While preparing to move into our first home after marrying, my husband and I stopped at a manned mall kiosk where several homes for sale were listed and tacked up along the display. The person manning the booth noticed us but never once asked if we needed help. A white couple walked up to the kiosk after us and before even gazing up at one listing, the clerk popped up and asked if they were looking for a home. I overheard the woman say, no, they couldn’t afford those prices but are always just curious at how much rich people pay for homes. Meanwhile, my husband and I, who are both attorneys were not presumed to be able to afford the homes.
3. Privilege of being considered honorable – I recall once walking up behind a woman in grocery line with my little girl in hand. I am dressed casually and nothing about me should scream I am a crook. She immediately moves her purse to the front of her body. Something about me must breed distrust and I am presumed to be a possible thief. Similarly, while in law school, a class mate of mine had left her purse in the open work room all day unattended. At some point, I had to go into the room to print out cases. She came back in to grab a pen from her purse and after leaving it unattended all day when anyone could have walked off with it, only after seeing that I was in the room alone did she think it was best she not leave her purse there.
4. Privilege of being thought to be well-spoken, articulate and to have a certain pedigree – On several occasions, I have had folks of all races tell me they are impressed that my children speak English well perhaps because they assume they will not. I also recall a few times when I was introduced to a person alongside a colleague with a less distinguished background and the person who is meeting us would turn to my blonde friend and look admiringly assuming she is the more accomplished one of the two being introduced. The one with the more impressive background could not possibly be me.
It can get draining, but thus is life in America and I am not angry at anyone who has certain prejudices and preconceived notions in their heads based on race. But I do understand how some people have HUGE chips on their shoulders because of occasional incidents like the ones I’ve experienced or who unfortunately, draw the race card too soon and too often.
Acknowledging that doesn’t make anyone wrong or a race baiter, but not challenging oneself on these actions and behaviors or justifying them is.
Thus, it was not necessarily the hoodie that made Trayvon suspicious but that combined with the skin he was in. You can elect to agree or disagree. No one can force you to accept a reality that has existed for many people of color in America.
You can read the article over on my blog, The Politics of Raising Children, that appear at Communities at The Washington Times. I addressed how black politicians are hampered from the absence of skin privilege on an article from Politic365.