The subtle benefits of privilege

I wrote sometime ago about how race and class influence whether a person benefits from the presumption of innocence. Two days ago I had another example of that.

I went to Target to find a replacement for my old cellphone that had finally given up the ghost and gone to meet its maker, the great Nordic god Nokia. After making my pick, I found that you have to pay for electronics in that department itself and not at the usual checkout counters just before the exits. So after buying the phone, I bypassed the checkout counters and headed out the door, passing through the detector. As I went through, it beeped. So I stopped and went back in. Nobody seemed to be concerned. So I walked through the detector again to make sure that I was the one who triggered it and sure enough it went off again. So I went back inside but no one was paying any attention. I then caught the eye of an employee and asked her what I should do and she told me to just go through and ignore the alarm, which I did.

It struck me that the reason I was ignored is probably because I look ‘respectable’, in that I am an older, not-black man who dresses like someone in the middle class. In light of the Trayvon Marin episode, I wondered what might have happened if I had been a young black man in that same situation. At the very least, I would likely have been asked to show the receipt for my purchase. Coincidentally, later that evening, NPR had a story on ‘the talk’ that young black men get from their parents repeatedly during their adolescent years about how to behave in public and around the police so as to not arouse suspicions, and one of the things that they are told is to always make sure that their shopping items are put in a bag before they leave the store so that they are not suspected of shoplifting.

I recalled that when I bought the cellphone a few hours earlier, the clerk in that department asked me whether I wanted a bag for it. I usually say no since these ubiquitous plastic bags are an environmental menace but I said yes in this case since I knew I had to walk through the big store before heading out and did not want to risk the chance of being considered a shoplifter. It was clear that the clerk (a friendly and helpful young black man who likely had got ‘the talk’ sometime in his life too) felt that there was no chance of me being mistaken for a shoplifter and hence gave me the option. I doubt that he would have given that option to a customer who looked like himself.

As another example, it is extremely unlikely that a person like me would be arrested and strip-searched for a minor offense like the suspected non-payment of a fine, as happened to Albert Florence, a black man. Although he had paid the fine years earlier, the database had not been amended to show it. Even though he carried a letter with him in the car saying that he had paid the fine, he was arrested, jailed for a week, and strip-searched twice.

The presumption of innocence is one of the subtle benefits of privilege. Since we are rarely aware of the things that do not happen, people who are not black are often quite oblivious to how much we benefit from that simple fact.


  1. unbound says

    Appearances can be everything.

    I remember many years ago (when my oldest was an infant) that I had stopped by the local Walmart to pick up some things immediately after work. I was still dressed in professional work clothes, so handing the clerk my CC was a non-event (this was back before you could swipe yourself) with the clerk barely looking at me or my card.

    The very next morning I had to run back to the same Walmart to pick up some formula for my kid. I dress extremely casual on weekends (jeans and tshirt) and didn’t even bother to shave. The treatment I received on check out was drastically different. This clerk wanted my driver’s license and very seriously compared the signature on my driver’s license versus the one on my CC (seriously, a good 15 second examination).

    As a white male, I really can’t imagine having that level of unwarranted scrutiny aimed at me my whole life like a minority has to deal with. I do empathize and really wish the people of this world were better.

  2. Mr Ed says

    Same thing happened to me. When I was in my twenties I went straight from work in a suit to a local mall to do some Christmas shopping. I got a lot of thank you sir and other polite comments. The next day I took off to do some work around the house and went back to the same mall figuring I could save time by shopping during work hours. Dressed in work clothes I was either ignored or watched in the very same stores.

  3. mnb0 says

    Appearances are everything. Everywhere in Europe there is the obligation to carry identification papers. I can recommend MS to walk through some European neighborhoods (with lots of police patrol; Amsterdam South-East is one option) to find out whether his appearances still work to his benefit.
    French Guyana road blocks also apply.

  4. James says

    Everywhere in Europe there is the obligation to carry identification papers.

    That’s certainly not the case in the UK. Perhaps you’re referring to mainland Europe, but if so I’m not aware of it.

    In fact I was stopped by Dutch police once in the early hours of the morning just south of the centre of Amsterdam. I wasn’t asked for any form of ID even though I had been driving on the wrong side of the road! Admittedly I’m white and fairly middle class, but I was unshaven and in a beaten up old car with foreign plates, and although both policemen spoke fluent English, I find it hard to imagine they could judge my accent to be privileged.

  5. joed says

    Robert Jensen and Tim Wise both speak eloquently about white privilege in the U S.
    Most white people refuse to even acknowledge “white privilege”. They become defensive at the mention of white privilege.
    Jensen and Wise both understand and explain WP. They are worth reading and watching. The entire culture in U S is based on this white privilege.
    [This essay builds on the discussion of white privilege from Peggy McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.”]

  6. mnb0 says

    You better do imagine. White, middle class, English (I suppose) plates, more than enough reasons to assume you were a good guy. Of course the policemen knew about that weird British habit to drive on the wrong side of the road. And they are used to unshaven guys in old cars -- Amsterdam is full of Dutch versions.
    Had you been say Hindustani, with a peculiar accent though …..
    So you nicely confirm MS’ statement.

    Indeed I had forgotten about the UK. My not too sincere apologies to all inhabitants to that nation.

  7. joed says

    White Privilege is very difficult for white people in the U S to admit to, acknowledge, or even see. White people have no idea what it means to be on the other side of the white privilege that operates and creates the U S social structure.

  8. James says

    Sorry, amazing linguists as the Dutch undoubtedly are, I still find it hard to believe their police are so fluent as to routinely recognise regional/class accents in foreign tongues.

    Regardless, I don’t doubt I have benefited, and continue to benefit, from white, middle-class privilege, and that it may have contributed to the treatment I received on that occasion. My main point was to take issue with your assertion that “Everywhere in Europe there is an obligation to carry identification papers.”

    You concede: “Indeed I had forgotten about the UK.”

    Will you also concede: Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Sweden, where 5 minutes googling will tell you it’s not illegal to walk around without ID?

    I haven’t the time to check the law in every European country, but your strike rate’s not great so far.

  9. Paul Jarc says

    I still find it hard to believe their police are so fluent as to routinely recognise regional/class accents in foreign tongues.

    No one has claimed that they recognized your accent.

  10. James says

    Me: “I find it hard to imagine they could judge my accent to be privileged.”

    mnbo: “You better do imagine.”

    Paul: “No one has claimed that they recognized your accent.”

    I don’t doubt the existence of privilege, that accent, appearance, etc all contribute. My Dutch anecdote was incidental anyway. The point is

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