On Black Privilege

So a few weeks ago, a friend of mine–T–invited me to join a secret Facebook group of “cool” Cleveland women.

I accepted the invitation and immediately my feed was flooded with all sorts of posts.

I enjoyed most of the ones I read, though I must say, I’m not a big cat person, and I’m not that big on oversharing, so some of them either did nothing for me or turned me off a little. Whatever. No big deal.

Tonight, though, a black transwoman member of the group posted a very angry status that grew into a very intense, lengthy thread about cultural appropriation, bullying, policing, and white privilege.

This women apparently criticized a white member for having dreadlocks in a comment and found, later, that the thread with her comment had been erased.

This made her feel like she was being silenced–that the space wasn’t safe for her honesty in the same way it was safe for other people’s.

Now, the language with which I’m describing the incident, and her post, is the opposite of the language that she used–the angry black member.

She cursed. She accused. She fully occupied her right to be hurt and say she was hurt. She pulled no punches.

She articulated very clearly that she felt the erasure of her comment was an act of discrimination.

This led to a lot of the other women in the group cheering her on, and a lot of other women in the group reprimanding her for being disrespectful and discriminating against the white woman with the dreadlocks.

All sorts of explanations, extrapolations, and extrications followed, much of them revolving around the question of whether white people should be “allowed” to have dreadlocks or not.

This is a conversation that I’ve heard repeated so many times as a Gen-Xer. Because during the 90s, when a lot of young black people embraced Afrocentricity and diasporic black thought and started wearing dreadlocks as a statement, some young white people started wearing dreadlocks, too

And I remember as an undergrad (this was ’94-’98) debating with black classmates about whether white people should or should not be locking their hair–whether they were taking away from the political and cultural significance of dreadlocks by wearing them for fashion or aesthetic shock value.

Not surprisingly, the thread on the Facebook page that grew out of the black woman’s post contained echoes of these same old conversations. Should they or shouldn’t they?

I’m not going to try to answer that question. But I am impelled to explain why some black people are offended by white people wearing dreadlocks or performing other acts that are typically categorized or characterized as “black.”

White people have so much. It’s not necessarily the fault of every white person in America that white people as a demographic fare so much better than every other demographic, but it’s undeniable that they do. They are the inarguable “haves” in our culture.

And black people are largely “have-nots.” We are fewer in number, poorer, less visible, less free, less protected, and less respected.

For many of us, the only things that we have that we feel proud of are our color, our lineage, our history, our belonging to a race and ethnicity that is known (if not credited) for its genius, resilience, and tenacity.

Being a perpetual victim of institutional racism sucks. Being stereotyped as angry, violent, ugly, stupid, lazy, immoral, and inhuman sucks.

Watching as police murder people that look like you and get away with it sucks. Watching as Trump supporters attack people that look like you and get cheered on by a man that may become the President sucks.

We–Americans–talk about white privilege. But there is such a thing as black privilege, and it’s one of the only conciliations that we have for being so brutally oppressed.

Black privilege is being able to talk about other black people in a tone that we don’t allow white people to use, the way that family members do.

Black privilege is being able to use the word “nigger” when we want, how we want, because it’s a word that’s been used to designate us after all, and being able to use that word when whites “can’t” is one of the only exclusive freedoms we have.

Black privilege is having hair that white people don’t have. Color that white people don’t have. Lips and asses that white people don’t have.

It’s talking in a way that doesn’t come organically to white people, having music that speaks to us in the way we speak, and customs that are a product of our history.

These things may seem superficial, but they become extremely important when they are just about all that you have to bolster the way you feel about yourself–when you don’t have a lot of money or material comfort or social status or political power or acceptance or even just tolerance outside of your own community.

And that’s not to say that black people comprise this happy, all-encompassing monolith because we don’t. We do a lot of infighting. We have a lot of drama amongst ourselves. But we also have the wonder of our blackness. We share that with each other.

And there are simply parts of it that many of us don’t want white people to have. Because then it becomes another thing that’s been taken from us.

For so many black people, style–swag–is a very real and reifying force in our lives. We make ourselves into transcendent entities–something more than victims or villains–by walking a certain way, talking a certain way, wearing certain things, and doing certain things with our hair.

No–we can’t lay actual or legal claim to things like hairstyles, but, for a lot of us, they really are statements–ways of showing that we love what has been deemed unlovable about ourselves or we don’t need to look like anything other than the black people that we are.

We know white people have problems, but they are not the same as ours, so when they take our tools of survival and use them for a different purpose, these tools lose something of their power and might I say sacredness. And that feels needless to us.

Again, white people have so much. So many black people can’t help but think, “Why do they have to have that too?”

It’s not right, but it’s not wrong. It’s true. It’s real. We can be very possessive of certain aspects of our culture because they are some of the only positive or affirming parts of being a black person in America.

Being black while other people can’t is our privilege.

We feel as stingy about it as white people feel about theirs.










17 thoughts on “On Black Privilege

  1. Wow.

    You are the first person, or author, who has so eloquently articulated the frustration and possessiveness many of us feel, about the things that really and truly belong to us alone…..our culture and heritage.


    Keep these posts coming.

    I’m hooked.


  2. I am seeing and appreciating the truth of this. So so helpful to me. Grateful that the internet has so many amazing writers like you that can help me understand and appreciate everyone in my beautiful (and tragic) country better.


  3. This was a really amazing way to let us “white people” understand where you are coming from. I have adopted 5 children, 3 are biracial , one African American, and one white. I try my very best to learn your cultures and have spent hours upon hours reading about how to care for my daughters hair. I am on several fb pages that teach me a lot but sometimes the conversations get very heated about white privilege and why you do or don’t do something. This helps me out a lot. It is not all about “you cant because you are white”. Its more about holding onto who you are, your culture, and history.I am not eloquent with words because if I was I would write I whole lot more. So, with that being said……thank you so much for helping me to understand!


  4. And are you also calling for Mickey Guyton, Carl Ray, Dwight Quick, Arron Neville, Charley Pride, Cowboy Roy and Trini Triggs (among others) to give up performing country music?

    Perhaps what you need to do is embrace multiculturalism. In the United States, the right to freedom of expression is sacrosanct. You may express your individuality however you wish, and you owe nothing to any culture you borrowed your style from. Very recently, a young man was actually assaulted at SFSU for wearing dreadlocks, because his assailant was under the mistaken idea that they “belonged” to her culture. (Dreadlocks actually date back to ancient Greece and no culture owns them. Any hair that is unwashed and uncombed will “dread” itself.) And ironically, his assailant was dressed in a decidedly European style.

    Or is it just white people can commit this bogus offense of cultural appropriation, while minorities can take whatever they want?


    1. First of all, I wasn’t “calling on” white people to do anything in response to this post, so your question, of whether I would call on these country singers to stop singing country music, is disjunctive. Although I know you didn’t ask it seriously–only to illustrate how idiotic you think my post is. And you’re entitled to that opinion. However, to be clear, let me say this. I didn’t admonish white people, or any people, for borrowing from anyone’s culture. Everyone does it all the time. It’s the way that America came to be. I get it. For that reason, I didn’t say cultural appropriation is “wrong.” In fact, I made a point of saying that it isn’t. But, as you said, the “right to freedom of expression is sacrosanct.” So what I did was “explain why some black people are offended by white people wearing dreadlocks or performing other acts that are typically categorized or characterized as ‘black.'” The objective of the post was to discuss how it feels to be black in America, honestly. I wanted to discuss how many of us feel about our blackness and why so many of us are seemingly possessive of it. I didn’t ask anyone that isn’t black to like what I had to say or accept what I had to say. So I don’t understand where all of your hostility is coming from. If a young black woman assaulted a young white man for wearing dreadlocks at SFSU, then that black woman was out of order. Because, again, as I said, “we can’t lay actual or legal claim to things like hairstyles.” Dreadlocks do date back to the ancient Romans, but they also date back to the 19th century Senegalese, so black people have a historical claim to them that some of us take very seriously, but why that should translate into violence, I don’t understand. Nor do I condone that. I don’t think cultural appropriation is necessarily an offense, but I do think that black people’s feelings of wanting something that is theirs, other than a history of oppression and legacy of discrimination, are valid. I don’t care what you say. And I wouldn’t wear a bindi or hijab or dress up like a Geisha for Halloween because I don’t think that traditions should be watered down to trends. But that’s probably because I know how it feels to have someone wear your hairstyle for “fun” or “fashion.” I don’t have my afro because it’s trendy. I have my afro because after 18 years of relaxing my hair, I finally decided to shuck my conditioning (that “European” beauty is the superlative sort of beauty) and embrace the hair texture with which I was born. I have my afro because after 18 years of relaxing my hair, I actually have a condition–central centrifugal cicatricial alopecia–from poisoning my scalp with chemical straighteners. I wear my hair natural in defiance of that condition and the racist messages about kinky black hair and blackness that compelled me to risk my health to have hair more like a white person’s. Wearing my afro is a conscious choice to be–in an aesthetic sense–the black woman that I am. You say that I need to embrace multiculturalism. YOU embrace multiculturalism. Because I would think that would include space for everyone’s individual feelings about their ethnicity or racial identity, including mine. People kill me–using buzz words like that to shut down people that have strong feelings of attachment or belonging to their minority group or status. I am entitled to love my blackness and inhabit it however I wish as long as I’m not hurting anyone because they’re different than me. I don’t personally care whether white people wear dreadlocks, rap, or eat soul food. I get it. Black people and black culture are fucking AWESOME. If I weren’t black, I’d want to be black. So since you can’t change races, you borrow. If that’s what you need to do, do it. But don’t insist that the people from which you’re borrowing be flattered by your imitation. Especially when they are profiled, stereotyped, degraded, and also assaulted for doing the exact same things but with black or brown skin. Oh–and in response to that initial question of yours–country music is European folk music infused with blues notes, which are influenced by AFRICAN music. So black people actually have a stake in the country music legacy. And it’s AARON Neville. Thanks for reading.


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