SAN DIEGO — Unsure about how to start this column about a topic that is on a lot of people's minds these days, I asked my wife:
"What do you think about when you hear the phrase, white privilege?"
For a Mexican woman born in Guadalajara who has lived in the United States most of her life, the phrase is about cluelessness.
"It means being in the dark about what people of color experience," she responded. "That includes how your kids are treated in school, people asking you where you were born or mentioning your accent. They never have to worry about joining the club because they're automatically part of it."
It'll be difficult to improve on that, but I'll try.
The killing of a black man named George Floyd by four white former police officers in Minneapolis has sparked yet another national conversation about race in America.
In truth, Americans never stop talking about race. The problem is that we don't hear one another when race is being talked about.
And one thing that white people don't want to hear about is "white privilege." For them, the concept is just another way to penalize them for being white and dismiss whatever they accomplish in life.
The privilege deniers include Rush Limbaugh. The nationally syndicated radio host registered his outrage over Floyd's death after seeing the video of the 46-year-old man taking his last breath. "It makes me so mad, I can't see straight," Limbaugh told his audience.
A few days later, Limbaugh invited onto his show the African American co-hosts of the morning radio show, "The Breakfast Club."
While Limbaugh gave the co-hosts — Charlamagne tha God, DJ Envy, and Angela Yee — credit for their success, the black hosts were not so gracious. The way they see it, Limbaugh has had it easy. That's not so. But that's how they see it.
"How are you going to use your privilege as a white male to combat this prejudice?" asked Charlamagne tha God.
"I don't buy into the notion of white privilege," Limbaugh responded. "That's a liberal, political construct. It's designed to intimidate and get people to shut up and admit they're guilty of doing things they haven't done. I don't have any white privilege."
See, there. The first sign that you have white privilege is when you can say: "I don't have any white privilege." It's like when someone who has money assures you that money isn't important.
Charlamagne snapped back at Limbaugh: "You know what white privilege is? White privilege is that what happened to George Floyd would not have happened to a white man."
Incorrect. White people do, in fact, die after a confrontation with police. In July 2011, two police officers in Fullerton, California — Cpl. Jay Patrick Cicinelli and Officer Manuel Ramos — were accused of beating to death Kelly Thomas, a 37-year-old white man who was homeless and suffered from schizophrenia. Cicinelli was charged with excessive use of force and involuntary manslaughter, and Ramos was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Both were acquitted at trial, but the city did pay out $4.9 million to settle a civil lawsuit brought by Thomas' family.
At the same time, Limbaugh is wrong that white privilege is a "liberal, political construct" that doesn't really exist.
Some white people think that because they personally haven't had it easy in life, or because they grew up poor, or because they've lost jobs or homes, that they don't qualify for white privilege. What they miss is that white privilege is NOT about how life has treated you but how society, and its institutions — like the police — treat you.
For me, white privilege means going to elementary school and not being tracked into less challenging classes because of your surname or skin color, and not being subjected to a disproportionate amount of discipline. It means going to high school and not having your guidance counselor try to dissuade you from applying to an Ivy League school because he doesn't think you'll get in, or — when you do get in — having white friends gripe that you were only accepted because of affirmative action. It means going to a prestigious and predominantly white university feeling at ease, confident that you belong there, and not feeling like you have to educate white classmates about the minority experience. And finally, in the workforce, it means being paid what you're worth, promoted like white people, and not being treated as second-class by both liberals and conservatives who want to put you in your place.
White privilege. The struggle is real. And if you can't see that, then you've got it bad.
Ruben Navarrette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.