Research and Reflections of a Mixed Girl in Mississippi: White Privilege, Colorism, & Affirmative Action

There’s a color in the 24-pack box of Crayola crayons called “apricot”. However, when I was growing up, we called that “skin color”. It didn’t matter what your race was; that is what we all called it. Maybe it was because we didn’t know how to read yet, and apricot wasn’t on the list of colors we had to learn, so we just associated it with the most common of flesh colors. We were blinded by our ignorant innocence. We saw no flaws in this, and while it may not seem like a big deal, looking back, it was. We called the color white, white, and brown was brown and black was black, but apricot was always “skin color”. I don’t know why I never stopped to question the fact that it didn’t look like my skin color, but now, it’s something I think of often, but I bet none of my white peers even remember that. 

Kaali Changemakers

What is White Privilege?

Having white privilege means that people who are Caucasian get advantages simply because they are the majority race, and most of the time, don’t even realize they have it.

A columnist for The Washington Post, Christine Emba, wrote an article debunking white privilege, in depth. She also included a video with Karen Attiah, of The Washington Post’s opinion section, to further explain the meaning. In the video, she and Attiah discuss what it means to have white privilege and the misconceptions that society has about the issue.

In 1989, professor, Peggy McIntosh, wrote a piece called “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“.  In it, she describes examples of the daily effects of white privilege in her everyday life. Here are some of her examples:

  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
  • I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
  • I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  • If my day, week, or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it has racial overtones.
  • I can choose a blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more than less match my skin.
  • I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.

Those are just a few of the 26 privileges that McIntosh listed. Since then, many people have spoken out about white privilege.

Rapper, Macklemore, released a song in 2016, titled “White Privilege Ⅱ”. You can find the song on any music media app or on YouTube. I recommend looking at the lyrics as you listen. The song explores themes of police brutality, white supremacy, and the social movement, Black Lives Matter. In the song, Macklemore struggles with his own white privilege and his place in the BLM movement. The song switches between various artists, narrators, news reports, sirens, gunshots, and chants.

“White supremacy isn’t just a white dude in Idaho

White supremacy protects the privilege I hold

White supremacy is the soil, the foundation, the cement and the flag that flies outside of my home

White supremacy is our country’s lineage, designed for us to be indifferent

My success is the product of the same system that let off Darren Wilson – guilty

We want to dress like, walk like, talk like, dance like, yet we just stand by

We take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for black lives?

We want to dress like, walk like, talk like, dance like, yet we just stand by

We take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for black lives?”

In these lines, Macklemore addresses white supremacy, which is the belief that white people are the superior race. He says the system of his success is the same one that didn’t indict Darren Wilson for the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. in 2014. He then goes on to explain how this is cultural appropriation because many white people have gained from the culture of black people, but aren’t willing to support them in their times of need. He assesses this and then relates it to the famous Black Lives Matter movement when he says, “We take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for black lives?”.

In 2012, the Black Lives Matter hashtag began in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin. The campaign is used in protests to speak out against police brutality, systematic racism, and racial inequality/discrimination. There is much controversy surrounding the campaign. However, the most common is the similar hashtag of “All Lives Matter”.

Cartoonist, Kris Straub, published a cartoon depicting an analogy to clear up the misconceptions many people had about the original movement causing them to want to create a new one that promoted “true equality”.

Kris Straub

Straub compares the movement to a burning house. “If a house is on fire, you wouldn’t hose down every house, but the one that’s on fire.” He says this is the case with Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter, not that any race is any more important than the other.

Colorism

Colorism is similar to white privilege, except it only affects people of color. It is a type of discrimination in which lighter skinned African-Americans or multiracial people are treated better or more favorably than African-Americans with darker skin.

When I was thirteen, my mother took me to an art gallery in New Orleans. There was a piece that stood out to me. I don’t remember the name of it, but it was just a brown paper bag sitting upright. There was shadowing and shading, but no context to the significance of this brown paper bag. I asked my mom why there was a painting of this bag, and what was so significant about it that it hung in this gallery— that’s when she told me the paper bag story.

Between 1900-1950, African-Americans would host parties and hang a brown paper bag on the door. If you were darker than the bag, you weren’t permitted entrance to that event. It was also this way for acceptance into any HBCU. If you had a lighter skin tone, that was your ticket to the top schools, like Howard. Black people had created their own form of segregation. The closer your skin color was to that of white people, the more European you were said to have been, which was understood as a higher social standing. The paper bag test may no longer exist, but its basic principles still linger in modern day colorism.

After my mom told me the story, I immediately felt sick to my stomach. My mother is darker than me, and because I am mixed and have lighter skin, I would’ve gotten more rights and privileges than my own mother; things that she could not get based solely on the color of her skin and not the content of her character. It shook me to my core. While they say ignorance is bliss, sometimes it’s not. I’m grateful to have a mother that informs me of our history because it’s not something that’s taught in everyday history classes.

Furthermore, I don’t take my advantages for granted. I can’t change them, nor can I change society, but I am aware now. And I think that’s a big part of it— for people to just be aware of the privileges that they have for whatever reason that they have them.

Affirmative Action

According to Teen Vogue, “Affirmative action is a policy used in areas such as education, employment, and housing to improve the opportunities for minority groups (including minority races, genders, and sexual orientations) that are commonly and historically discriminated against.”

In my fifth grade English class, we were asked to debate if affirmative action was effective or not. At the time, I was dead-set against it. I thought that my skills and excellence should be my only ticket into any school or job I apply for, not my race. I was only 11-years-old, but I was solid in my stance.

One afternoon, I decided to ask my mom what she thought, and I just knew she’d agree with me on this one. When she didn’t, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that my own mother would agree with affirmative action because she always taught me to work hard, earn the things I want, and to never accept free handouts, but she told me that some people need help getting their foot in the door, and affirmative action was sometimes their only way. At the time, I had no idea what that meant.

Affirmative action is a hot button issue, especially now. Many people believe that it is needed for the sake of equality while others think it’s unfair and outdated.

Some say that it is unfair to the majority and causes reverse discrimination. Peter Cookson, senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, says this, “If there are two students with equal qualifications and one happens to be African American and one happens to be Caucasian, the African American will have an advantage over the Caucasian. There isn’t really much evidence of this, but that’s the argument that’s made.”

Adversaries believe that it’s not necessary anymore; that it once was needed, but now is not.

People like Grant Jefferson, a student at NYU, disagree, “I don’t think we’ve reached that point in our culture economically or socially where we can afford not to have affirmative action. I think a lot of people will miss out on a lot of really important jobs and educational opportunities,” he says. Similarly, Ama Codjoe, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Brown University, says, “Stripping away affirmative action is violent. And it impacts people because they won’t even be able to get in the door. I know that I deserve to be where I am. I also know there needs to be a system in place to address systemic racism, a system to ensure that people who are smart, capable, and willing to work hard can have a place in higher education.”

However, some believe that it gives minority students an unfair advantage and that schools don’t really care who is admitted, as long as their diversity quota is met. Although there is no evidence to support this claim, many people swear by it.

Honestly, I still don’t know where I stand on this issue. I still want to be that 11-year-old girl who had this false sense of reality that racism was over and that white privilege didn’t exist, but it does. Therefore, I do have to consider that without affirmative action, because of my race, I could get passed over for an opportunity, even with substantial qualifications. It’s something that we shouldn’t have to have, but do, because of the circumstances in our country right now.

No matter what you believe— white privilege, colorism, and affirmative action are 3 things that are very real, and I don’t see them going away anytime soon. So, talk about them, research, try to understand something that you didn’t know before; educate yourself, and take from it what you will.

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