On Professor Gates and White Privilege


Professor Gates’ interview with The Root on his bogus arrest

Professor Gates’ arrest for having the temerity to enter his own home provides, among other things, a great illustration of what, exactly, white privilege is. So many white people tend to confuse white privilege with socioeconomic privilege, then insist they have no “white privilege” because they were born in crapmagical socioeconomic circumstances. That’s not it at all.

My white privilege works like this: if I had actually broken into Professor Gates’ house, chances are very good that the neighbor, even having spied me doing it, would not have called the police. White women do not break into people’s front doors in broad daylight, but we assume – often unconsciously, being steeped in institutionalized racism, but we assume nonetheless – that black people do.

Assuming the neighbor had called the cops anyway, and I had then answered the door for the police in Professor Gates’ bathrobe and fuzzy slippers*, acted politely and said “what seems to be the problem, officers?” – chances are excellent the officer would have said nothing more than “sorry about the disturbance, ma’am, have a nice day.” Because white women who answer the front door in a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers are not criminals. They are, rather, a paragon of domesticity. Never mind that at this point I have stolen Professor Gates’ bathrobe and fuzzy slippers in addition to breaking and entering.

(For what would have happened if I were a white man, see Kate Harding’s post on the subject.)

This is white privilege. It’s not being born with a silver spoon up your ass or having the brown masses of the world wait on you hand and foot. It’s little, usually unconscious things, like people not immediately assuming you are a criminal even when you are seen breaking into someone else’s house. Here we have a Harvard professor, who has accomplished more at the middling age of 53 than most of us will in our lifetimes, who has friends in places most of us can only dream, who has media and PTB access that can turn any police officer into an unemployed schmuck, and who was nevertheless accused from the get-go of being a felon rather than assumed to be a local. Because he is black.

I would not have been so accused. Not even if I had actually committed a felony. Because I am white.

Before you set your head on fire: I’m not saying all white people can get away with crimes. Very funny. I’m saying that no one, anywhere, ever, in America will ever suspect me of wrongdoing merely because of my skin colouring. That’s white privilege: my skin colour is never an issue. If I were arrested for breaking-and-entering Professor Gates’ house, there would be ZERO DOUBT over whether my skin colour had anything to do with it. THAT is white privilege: the privilege to be arrested because you maybe ACTUALLY DID something, NOT merely because you are being black in the wrong neighborhood.


(*No, I don’t know if he actually owns a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers.)


3 Responses to “On Professor Gates and White Privilege”

  1. 1 Mary

    It looks like you already made up the scenario and how to get out of it as well. 🙂

  2. Very nice piece articulating an important distinction. Nicely done.

    We have three observations about the Harvard professor incident:

    1. We find it interesting that the fact that this was the professor’s home was evidently not established early on way before the dispute escalated;

    2. We find it fascinating that the versions of two members of society, who most would ordinarily view as responsible and honest citizens (this obviously does not include politicians), would vary so dramatically from a factual point of view.

    3. Finally, considering that the reading and viewing public were not present at the scene (and thus have no first hand knowledge), and that there is no video tape to our knowledge of the sequence of events and what was said, how so many have formed conclusions, and made assumptions, about who did what and who was wrong.

    There are some things which Professor Gates might have considered upon the arrival of the police, no matter how incensed he may have been.

  3. Hello, you have a great blog here! I’m definitely going to bookmark you! Thank you for your info. And this is slippers site. It pretty much covers slipper related stuff.

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