We often talk about White Privilege and how those benefiting from it need to use their privilege to speak out on certain topics; after all, they have the power to be listened to. But are white people the only ones with privilege? Can we in the black community also hold some privilege over other races? I don’t believe so, but I do think that there are some privileges that are upheld by different groups within the black community which, if they continue to go unacknowledged or unresolved, can hinder our progression in society.
Let’s take a look at the differences in the ways that black men and women are treated. It’s no secret that both groups face their own stereotypes due to their gender, regardless of the ones they already deal with as a result of their race. But the way in which the oppression of black people has been gendered allows for an interesting analysis of the privileges held by black men and women.
Black men don’t face being stereotyped like black women who can be identified as the “angry black woman.” We risk having this label thrust upon us when we have strong opinions and vocalise them. Instead of the expression of our views being regarded as passionate, we are seen as aggressive or difficult. Black women are also hyper-sexualised but equally are often de-sexualised. It’s confusing but basically means that whilst our physiological features are popular, and sexualised, we are still deemed unattractive. Studies of online dating sites and apps have shown that when it comes to racial preference, black women are continuously at the bottom of the list and are even disregarded by their black male peers, whilst black men are deemed as more desirable.
Black male privilege often comes at the expense of black women and despite it sounding very much like an oxymoron, we cannot move forward as a community if black men do not come to terms with the fact that they uphold such a privilege. Acknowledging their black male privilege does not deny the fact that black men face their own discrimination. We know they are often feared due to their masculinity and have had violent stereotypes attached to them, as well as being historically targeted. Due to this, they are more likely to face police brutality and more likely to be imprisoned. However, this does not deny the fact that gender plays an important tool in the creation and establishment of power.
Despite all their disadvantages, it is still true that black men have their male privilege. As a black woman, sometimes it can feel as if it has to be a choice between our race or gender. We deal with both racism and sexism, but in order for the world to hear us on either of those issues, we have to separate the two. For example, with the gender pay gap, there is little talk about the differences in pay depending on a woman’s race. Discussing this issue is tough enough as a woman, but if we wish to bring light on the discrepancies between races, we are met with accusations of playing the race card and being divisive. We end up not being given the chance to truly express the complexity of the challenges that we face being both black and a woman. We are loyal to our black men, continuously rallying around and supporting them, despite the plenty of times we are disrespected by them.
Whilst black men are more likely to face troubles with the police, they are still more romantically and sexually desired than black women. Yes, black women are less likely to be imprisoned than their male counterparts, but in society’s eyes, they are deemed less desirable. Comparing the challenges of being a black man and black woman in today’s society is like comparing abuse and neglect; it’s not a competition as to who has it worse but the nuances between both genders experiences of racism must be recognised for us to have a meaningful discussion about privilege.
Another sense of privilege that exists amongst some black people comes down to their skin tone. This is a concept widely known as colourism. Colourism is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.” The issue of light skin versus dark skin within the black community is not new. The systemic preference for someone who has a light skin tone is a part of structural racism that has woven itself into the black community since slavery. It is a divisive concept which still affects individuals in terms of socio-economic status, career progression, the dating scene and beauty standards.
When we look at the world of entertainment and see the influencers that have been elevated as symbols of the black lives matter movement and other political issues affecting the black community, we see the likes of Amandla Stenberg, Zendaya, Yara Shahidi and Jesse Williams taking centre stage, all of them having lighter skin. Just because they are of fairer skin does not deny them of their lived experience as a black man or woman, but it is important to acknowledge that due to their skin tone and European features, there exists a privilege that allows them to speak up on matters and to be heard more than their darker skinned counterparts. We can’t deny that colourism exists and so need to address the systems of power that give one group of people access over another, who are looked over simply due to the shade of their skin.
When it comes to class, black people make up a disproportionate amount of the working class population. Here in the UK, it can be argued that there is an emerging black middle class. It’s no secret that in all societies, the middle class have an upper hand and benefit from social and economic privileges, but is that truly the same occurrence when comparing the black working and middle class?
I’m going to draw upon the journalist and writer, Afua Hirsch, to discuss the complex situation of class. Her story is one of privilege as she grew up in a middle-class family in Wimbledon, received a private education, attended the University of Oxford and since then, has led an impressive career in international development, law and journalism. But if you have a read of her book, Brit(ish), or read many of her other articles, you can see that she too, like many other black British people, has faced racism, prejudice and inequality. Many have criticised her, both on her book and when speaking out on television about her experiences with racial inequality, due to the fact that she comes from a middle-class background, which for some seems to negate the fact that she could ever face any hardship as a result of her race.
Yes, Afua Hirsch comes from a privileged background, but by being able to occupy certain spaces due to her class and exposure, she is using her Class Privilege to give recognition to issues that affect the black community. I find criticisms of her lived experience due to her class a little unfair, as it’s almost saying that because she comes from a middle-class background, she is unable to identify with certain issues that affect the black population. We will all live through the same institutional and systemic racism that exists in this country, but a difference in class means a difference in life experiences: a black middle-class person won’t necessarily face the same discrimination and challenges as a black working class individual. Yet, we can’t deny Afua of her lived experience but should listen to what she has to say as she uses her class privilege to bring light to various issues facing the black community in Britain today.
The concept of black privilege might sound odd to many, but when it comes to the different intersections within our community, it’s necessary that we recognise and own that some of us have a privilege over others, or in some circumstances. This is not to deny the experiences of any of the groups of people within the black community with regards to their race, gender, class, sexuality, religion and the list goes on. In order for our community to progress, we need to listen to each other, disregarding the stereotypes we may have about one another. We need to acknowledge the experiences of other groups, and not just try to compete over who has it the hardest. We need to use our privilege, be it as a black, middle class, light skin man and help dismantle the inequalities in our society. If those with the privilege make these concerted efforts, collectively we have the power to change the narrative.
Written by Aisha Rimi