What is White Privilege? A Look at the Boston Bombings


Credit: No Borders Zines

The tragic attack last Monday at the Boston Marathon killed three people and injured more than 170. The suspects in the bombing are brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The motives of the brothers are unknown, and details will continue to emerge as Dzhokhar heals (Tamerlan died in a fire fight with police last Friday). In the meantime, the coverage of the tragedy provides a useful backdrop for a discussion about white privilege. Below you’ll find a working definition of white privilege, as well as examples of the racist/xenophobic/Islamophobic coverage of the tragedy in Boston, and the repercussions of that coverage for people of color.

First things first, what is white privilege? Peggy McIntosh describes white privilege as, “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas.” Here are a few examples McIntosh uses to illustrate the concept:

  1. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
  2. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
  3. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

(This summary of white privilege is rudimentary at best, and the works of bell hooks are a great place to start for anyone who wants to learn more.)

What does white privilege have to do with the tragedy in Boston, you ask? We answer that question with another list. If you answer ‘no’ to any of these questions, then you might just have some unexamined white privilege:

  1. Would news anchors attribute the attacks in your town to members of your race before they have ANY evidence to support their claim?
  2. When the explosions happened in Boston did you have a gut-wrenching feeling, and immediately fear reprisal if the responsible parties looked like you?
  3. If you were running from the scene of the tragedy in Boston, would you strangers assume you’re the perpetrator and tackle you?

We couldn’t make the following shit up if we tried. Seriously.

CNN’s John King tweeted out to the world that the suspect was a “dark-skinned man” despite the fact that there was ZERO evidence to support his claim (What does dark-skinned mean? Read: not white, because white people NEVER commit horrible acts of terrorism…) He sent his tweet before we learned that two white dudes actually committed the crimes. Ooopsie?

Fear of reprisals? A man assaulted a Pakistani woman and her friend in Boston (their children were present), and according to the victims, he screamed, “F___ you Muslims! You are terrorists! I hate you! You are involved in the Boston explosions! F___ you!” the whole time. Thanks xenophobic and racist assumptions, you really help make the world a safer place!

Tackled while running from a terrifying explosion? Yeah, that happened too. A young Saudi man who was badly injured during the tragedy was tackled by a stranger because he “looked suspicious.” Why did he look suspicious? He was running. The nerve of that guy, running from an explosion! Doesn’t he know that only white people are allowed to run without being labeled suspects?

We joke to keep from tearing our hair out, but these are just a few examples of the ways in which racist assumptions affect the lives of people everyday. White privilege insulates select people from the terrifying experiences endured by people of color on a daily basis, not to mention the heightened terror experienced during public emergencies. It isn’t acceptable, and it must stop. What can you do to eradicate white privilege?



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