One of the main takeaways I gathered from the Kiese Laymon speech on Sept. 26 was this idea of “luck,” and how White people assume that the only reason a Black person could be successful is by ‘luck.” In their minds, it would be absurd for a Black person to attain success by means of an earnest work ethic and determination, so it has to be some unexplainable, supernatural power to help them.
Laymon unpacked this idea when he told the crowd how his white colleagues often cited “luck” as his reason for being at Vassar instead of his intelligence. But who could blame them, right? Any reasonable person would deduce that failure is guaranteed within a system that was methodically constructed against them.
If you haven’t heard the terms white supremacy, systematic oppression, or the prison-industrial complex (and I really want to point out that it would be concerning if you haven’t), let me be the first to give you a brief lesson on their intersections: these constructs are all in place to uphold and protect the cis-gendered, heterosexual, white male narrative that has negatively shaped American history.
Laymon gave an example of this narrative when he talked about Cole in his memoir Heavy. Cole is “a slim, wealthy, Jewish white boy from Connecticut.” Cole not only struggled with addiction, but was a dealer himself and sold anything from weed to cocaine. Yet, if you were to look at Cole, he was having the time of his life writing his thesis at a top-tier liberal arts school, destined to become the “president of an American institution that he chooses.” Meanwhile, people of color spend their lives in prisons for the same crimes (or in some cases, less offensive crimes.)
However, this brings up a good idea. What gives white people this ability to commit the same crimes or even worse crimes than people of color, and still get little to no punishment?
Some people will say it’s privilege, but I want to argue that it’s power. I believe that when we say “white privilege” we really mean “white power.”
When we talk about white privilege, we use it to explain how white people like Cole go to prison for lesser sentences than people of color or how they have the opportunity to get a better education. But these concepts aren’t privileges, they’re forms of power.
It’s not a privilege to not go to prison when you’ve committed a crime. Prisons waere made to house people who didn’t fit into the white narrative in America and reinforce the idea that those people have no power. It’s not a privilege to get a “good education,” especially because the “better schools” with more resources are strategically placed in white neighborhoods.
These are power structures that white people have the ability to change to benefit them. When it came to Cole and drugs, he will most likely get looked at as misunderstood, while a person of color would get labeled by social media as a “thug.” Two people in the same scenario getting completely different, life-altering outcomes is a result of a system that’s made to harm people of color.
The reason why I’m pressing this issue is because when we say “privilege,” we’re making it seem as if it was a happy coincidence, like it was a privilege to get a car on your eighteenth birthday. These systematic oppressions are power structures created to ensure the stability of white dominance in America, and it’s something we have to acknowledge as a country if we ever want true change.