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Dr. King’s Dream Through the Lens of White Privilege

The Blinders of White Privilege

How far have we really come since Dr. King’s passing in 1968?  Could those who argue that we now live in a truly post-racial society be wearing the blinders of white privilege?  Consider the following.

Wasin Pummarin / 123rf
Have we achieved Dr. King’s goal of eradicating racial prejudice?

Wasin Pummarin / 123rf

Some would surely say yes. For example, I dined at a fairly pricey French restaurant the other night whereupon a conversation took place between me and the white woman sitting next to me. She lived in an elite area in Manhattan’s upper east side but also had a vacation home with her husband in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I currently live. I grew up in New York City; that was our common ground.

She said, “Before Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke up supporting the black protest of the choking and killing of Eric Garner, there weren’t really any racial issues in New York. We had gotten past that.” “That’s simply not true,” I retorted. “The racial tension had been there all the time. De Blasio didn’t create it. Many folks, especially black folks, knew it was there all the time.”

From where did this woman derive her perception? I don’t think this woman was mean-spirited; in many ways, she was quite intelligent. However, a certain psychological intelligence was absent—the ability to know that her referent was her own white, wealthy framework.  

She had the unearned privilege of never being disadvantaged by racial stereotypes. She had the privilege of not having to listen and feel the pain of her fellow black New Yorkers, many of whose stories and perspectives clearly wouldn’t match her own. She had the privilege of needing neither data nor experience but, nonetheless, feeling free to issue her definitive interpretation anyway. 

I don’t think this woman was mean-spirited, and,  in many ways, she was quite intelligent. However, a certain psychological intelligence was absent—the ability to know that her referent was her own white, wealthy point of view.

In short, she drew on her unconscious privilege to conclude that racial prejudice was a thing of the past.

Is color-blindness the key to being judged by the content of our character?

Many argue, "If colorblindness was good enough for Martin Luther King. . .then it ought to be good enough for a society that still aspires to the movement's goals of equality and fair treatment.”

Much of the argument for “color blindness” relies on a superficial reading of the “Dream” speech where Dr. King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Proponents of this view argue that King believed that the end of racism would be achieved when Americans no longer saw race.

What allows many folks, especially white folks, to maintain this belief? There is no data that I know of to support the notion that this kind of color blindness helps alleviate racial disparities or racial injustice. In my experience, many who espouse this view, are simply unaware of what it is like to live in a dark-skinned body. They have the unearned privilege of not having to think of themselves racially.

Dr. Beverly Tatum, president of Spellman College, conducted a regular experiment with her psychology students. She asked them to complete the sentence, “I am_____.” [1] She found that while students of color usually mentioned their racial identity, white students rarely mentioned being white. The same was true for gender where women were more likely to mention being female. She concluded that racial identity for white folks is not reflected back to them, and thus remains somewhat unconscious. 

In short, black folks simply don’t have the privilege of not seeing themselves as a color and know they will be seen as such, while many white folks easily enjoy not seeing their own. Trying to not see race before we are truly awake to racism’s ugly present and past, assigns racism to our individual and collective shadow rendering it's harm more insidious as it hides in what presents itself as good heartedness or innocence.

To quote Dr. King, “Nothing in this world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Is affirmative action contrary to Dr. King’s dream of not being judged by the color of our skin?

I recently dialogued with a white man who insisted that Dr. King was opposed to affirmative action. He was immune to my presentation of Dr. King’s views from reading King on the issue. Instead, he said, “I choose to take Dr. King at his word; the man was quite articulate and capable of saying what he meant.” Again, he referred to Dr. King’s Dream speech. He further argued, “It seems pretty clear that for members of any race to expect preferential treatment because of their race is unacceptable. It doesn't matter how noble one's motives, it's wrong.”

He was wrong about Dr. King. In 1964, in “Why We Can't Wait,” King wrote, "Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more.” And later, in 1967, he wrote, "A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him."

However, we must not stop there. Again we must ask, “Why was it so easy for this man, despite my argument about King’s actual words, to maintain his position?” While I confess to not knowing this man’s mind and heart, many white folks I have dialogued with are unaware of the preferential treatment they receive—that we are the beneficiaries of the affirming actions of a racially biased society, while black folks are still the beneficiaries of disconfirming actions. For example, when blacks apply for a job they are less likely to get selected than white folks (even if the applications are identical in every other way). White folks get "extra points"—a kind of affirmative action.

Black folks are more likely to get stopped and frisked than white folks even when what is found is identical. A kind of affirming action for whites; a disconfirming action for blacks.

Black folks are up to three times more likely to get the death sentence than whites in similar cases. I can go on with differential school funding, bank lending, and more. The truth is that whites folks, in general, receive a less overt but quite real and potent benefit that black folks do not.

When a person swims in an ocean of relative affirmation it is almost natural to be unconscious of the fact that their achievements, confidence, and successes are not only a result of their own capacity and efforts. Unconsciousness of these privileges makes it easy to conclude that a more overt policy of affirmative action is a form of preferential treatment to black folks instead of a leveling of the playing field. 

If we are to enrich the national dialogue about race, if we are to make further progress towards Dr. King’s dream, our collective awareness of unconscious privilege must grow and our blinders must come off.

Then we may find what Langston Hughes exhorted us to wake up to: 

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise:

Her bandage hides two festering sores

That once perhaps were eyes. 


[1] Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D., Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 20-21.



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