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Gregg Popovich’s speech about white privilege felt like a personal rebuke

But now I’m starting to understand what it means

White Privilege: (noun). The fact of people with white skin having advantages in society that other people do not have.

Monday afternoon in downtown Washington, D.C., and every one of the overhead office televisions is leading with NFL franchises responding to the 45th president of the United States, who called anthem-protesting players “sons of bitches” last week and implored owners to tell these kneeling men, reality TV-style, “You’re fired!”

Then Gregg Popovich’s cloudy-white visage filled the screen, making me feel like crap.

“We still have no clue of what being born white means,” the coach of the San Antonio Spurs said in the middle of a three-minute, Check Your Privilege, Mr. President, scolding. “It’s like you’re at the 50-meter mark in a 100-meter dash. And you’ve got that kind of a lead because, yes, you were born white. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically there. And they have been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.”

My colleagues, almost all of whom are black, nodded approvingly because Pop “gets it,” and some vowed to become Spurs fans simply because of his comments. I did the same.

But I also had this pang gnawing at me all day and into the night.

The truth: Many well-intentioned white people I know lose their minds when they hear about their “white privilege.” It’s not that we haven’t acknowledged our ancestors’ original sin — the dehumanization of a people, manifested in tragically being able to call another human being “property.” We have.

But fully accepting that the color of our skin benefits us today is often too much to unpack.

When we hear, “Check your privilege,” we feel ostracized from the people we thought shared the common purpose of equality with us. Further, if we are directly confronting racism in our online and physical worlds, we don’t want to hear, “Thanks, but there is no extra credit for doing what is right.”

We want an impossible validation: to be told that, unlike those Confederate-lovin’ nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, we don’t have white privilege.

And that gets to dissecting the meaning of privilege — separating the feelings of personal slight from a systemic inequity. Which is flat-out hard. We either a) don’t believe it; b) don’t think we are participants in it; or c) will engage to a point but ultimately decide, “I’m sorry, I don’t share this outlook on the world.”

It was only after hearing Popovich that I realized that we who continue to bullheadedly think that way represent a real obstacle toward achieving this elusive better place we always talk about.

Look, this isn’t something Colin Kaepernick or Michael Bennett can fix alone, just as Tommie Smith and John Carlos couldn’t fix it in 1968. This isn’t something any person of color can change by himself.

This is a difficult white-person-to-white-person conversation that has to happen between white men and women of all classes for any lasting change to occur. Black and brown people already know this. It’s not news to them that we have advantages bestowed at birth that they don’t.

If you can’t accept that white people have it easier, then you will never accept why someone would kneel during the national anthem. And until those two are reconciled, we shouldn’t expect people to stand — especially those most adversely affected by society’s unfair constructs.

We want an impossible validation: to be told that, unlike those Confederate-lovin’ nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, we don’t have white privilege.

The display of unity on Sunday, with some NFL owners linking arms with their players, was indeed an act of togetherness. But it was in response to the president crudely calling out their employees — not black men being killed by police. They were standing up for the NFL, not human rights. If Sunday was it, all they did was participate in a photo op that made everyone feel good.

We don’t need to feel good right now; we need to feel uncomfortable.

It’s a process. For one, hearing we have “white privilege” feels like it carries a stigma, as if we have been branded “racist” and don’t know why. It’s almost like a virus one needs to be inoculated from at a CVS pharmacy each fall.

But, of course, it doesn’t work like that. We don’t have a disease — society does.

Author and consultant Frances E. Kendall’s 2002 essay Understanding White Privilege put it this way: “For me, the confusion and pain of this knowledge is somewhat eased by reminding myself that this system is not based on each individual white person’s intention to harm but on our racial group’s determination to preserve what we believe is rightly ours. This distinction is, on one hand, important, and, on the other hand, not important at all because, regardless of personal intent, the impact is the same.”

In other words, hearing you have “white privilege” shouldn’t carry an ounce of baggage, even if the language feels accusatory. I know it took me a while to get there.

I have, for much of my life, failed to acknowledge that privilege. I rationalized that I did not have it because my papa-was-a-rolling-stone father moved us to a rural area of Hawaii when I was 12 — and I faced ugly prejudice for being white. (Everyone, by the way, should be on the other side of the fence at least once in their life to see what it’s like.) Given my own life circumstances, I reasoned it didn’t apply to me, that my own broken-home, abusive childhood didn’t involve any suburban cul-de-sacs or regular visits to the dentist, so what do I know about privilege?

But when you begin to think deeply about your own life experiences compared with your friends of color, it’s harder to dismiss.

I’ve never had to educate my young sons to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection, to warn them of law enforcement officers who might not give them the benefit of the doubt.

I’ve never applied for a home loan and suspected that I was turned down because some of my prospective neighbors only want to live next to and around people who look and think like them.

Privilege is when a deranged racist murders multiple black worshippers at a church Bible study and, upon seeing the race of the individual who did it, you did not have to say to your friend, “Damn, now they’re going to think all of us white folk are racist killers.”

The biggest benefit of being white: Our problems are far less likely to be attributed to some racial/cultural failure. Our government will hear our cries and not tell us to get over it but rather, in point of fact, ask us how it can help (even if the help doesn’t always come).

If Popovich is honest, white privilege is what allows him to make those statements in the first place. Meanwhile, coach Mike Tomlin, who’s never had a losing season, has been to two Super Bowls, won one and has guided the Pittsburgh Steelers to more wins the past decade than any team except the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots, is walking a tightrope at this minute, trying to keep his protest-torn team together while not being shunned by his boss and the team’s customers.

“People get bored. ‘Oh, is it that again? They’re pulling the race card again, why do we have to talk about that again?’ ” Popovich said. “Well, it’s because it’s uncomfortable and there has to be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change. People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people — because we are comfortable.”

I don’t like hearing this. It forces me to confront truths I don’t necessarily want to accept, because I don’t remember any breaks given me or job opportunities offered because of my complexion. But I’d be in denial to not believe that in numerous situations my race has helped me — in ways I never even notice.

Popovich’s statements are a piece of a conversation between white people that needs to happen more frequently. Whether there are enough people who look like me willing to engage in that conversation is an open question.

At least this week, though, his gruffness and often-annoying certainty about everything turned out to be good for more than just lighting a fire under Tim Duncan’s tush:

“Many people can’t look at it because it’s too difficult. It can’t be something that is on their plate on a daily basis,” he said. “People want to hold their position. People want the status quo. People don’t want to give that up. And until it’s given up, it’s not going to be fixed.”

Anyone else white want to take a stab at it? It’s the only way the work of everyone from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick will ever get done.

Mike Wise is a senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated. Barack Obama once got to meet him.