When I sat down in a restaurant the other day with a fellow white person, the food was good and the service was wonderful. The conversation was too, and so I felt good afterwards.
However, since I try to remain conscious about my whiteness, I also realized that the service, and maybe even the food, could easily have been different if the two of us were not white.
As I’ve noted before, a bad dynamic often exists between non-white people and those who serve them. Also, even today, many restaurants are notorious for providing worse service to non-white customers than the service that white people expect in any restaurant.
Because I am white, I tend to get better treatment in many, many other ways. And I understand now that my racial status itself has helped to make me feel entitled to good treatment. I have also come to understand that being white discourages me from realizing that many non-white people don’t expect such things in the largely white world. Those folks tend to know that because they’re not white, the treatment they receive in most areas of their lives can be hit or miss.
Many non-white people, that is, do not feel a general sense of entitlement that white people feel. White folks rarely realize that their general sense of being entitled to good treatment is a white sense of entitlement. As fair-minded people, they tend to think instead that everyone should be entitled to that which they have come to expect. What they also tend to think, falsely, is that with the exception of blatant, extremely uncommon incidents of racism, all Americans are entitled to the same treatment that they enjoy on a daily basis.
As a result of this delusional sense of entitlement, white people don't often realize that much of what comes to them does so because they are white. As I pointed out with my example above, if they go to a restaurant, they expect to almost always receive friendly, polite, reasonably quick service, something that non-white people have learned not to automatically expect. If white folks seek a mortgage or a car loan, they rarely realize that their race tends to register favorably in the eyes of the loan officer or the car salesman.
Most whites are fair-minded enough to believe that all Americans should be entitled to such things. Again, though, what they often fail to realize is that both conscious and unconscious racial discrimination is still common, and that as a result, what tends to come to whites automatically comes less often to non-whites.
So much of what whites feel entitled to, non-whites don’t.
Some of the people who best understand what being white means are those with “white” skin and features, but a non-white background. Artist and philosopher Adrian Piper, who thinks of herself as African American but can pass for white, has produced many insightful artworks and writings that explicate the ways of white folks.
In her essay “Passing for White, Passing for Black,” Piper explains the white sense of entitlement that tends to come over her while being (mis)taken for white:
A benefit and a disadvantage of looking white is that most people treat you as though you were white. And so, because of how you've been treated, you come to expect this sort of treatment, not perhaps, realizing that you're being treated this way because people think you're white, but rather falsely supposing that you're being treated this way because people think you are a valuable person.
So, for example, you come to expect a certain level of respect, a certain degree of attention to your voice and opinions, certain liberties of action and self-expression to which you falsely suppose yourself to be entitled because your voice, your opinion, and your conduct are valuable in themselves. To those who in fact believe (even though they would never voice this belief to themselves) that black people are not entitled to this degree of respect, attention, and liberty, the sight of a black person behaving as though she were can, indeed, look very much like arrogance. It may not occur to them that she simply does not realize that her blackness should make any difference.
Because this white form of understanding, about what comes to oneself versus what comes to others, amounts to a false view of the world, the social work scholar Ronald E. Hall has diagnosed it with an appropriate term, “Entitlement Disorder.” As Hall explains, this disorder is a delusional state inflicted upon white people (especially white men) by their having been trained into a false sense of their own individuality. The result is a “sense of entitlement that distorts their perception of fairness and impartiality.”
So if you look “white,” you might try keeping your eyes and mind open to how others treat you. And to how you expect to be treated. And to how others know they can’t expect to be treated.
You could start with your next restaurant meal. All you have to lose is your disorder.