25 Oct 2000 
by Mark Hertzberg 

"Not that it matters, but what color was the guy, anyway?"

That's not an uncommon question in some circles, and it is one that has come to mind since I wrote a column about Robert, a 10-year-old boy who had sized me up and called me a racist within seconds of meeting me earlier this year. I got a lot of feedback after the column was published, most of it from white people, and most of it positive. Now let's look at the other side of the question of how people play the race card.

By the way, did you hear about that gas station robbery the other day?

If you're white, did you first conjure up the image of a young black man?

If you're white, how many times have you or a friend asked, "Not that it matters, but what color was the guy, anyway?"

A (white) friend of mine calls this banter between white folks "White Privilege." She says she hears it fairly often.

She was at the doctor's office recently, talking to a staff member about the deterioration of Rogers Park, a neighborhood they had both lived in on the north side of Chicago.  She commented on the seemingly larger number of drug addicts on the street. The staff member agreed, adding, "It's the blacks."

Wink, wink, and "you know what I mean, don't you" were the understood body language and the missing words, according to my friend. She didn't say anything, though she debated pulling a picture of her bi-racial son out of her wallet and asking the woman to elaborate.

White Privilege.

White Privilege means that if you're black and you call someone a racist, you're bad because you've played the race card. However, if you're white and play the race card, it's OK, because that's White Privilege. It means that you don't mind if They sit next to you at the lunch counter, but that if you hear that someone robbed the lunch counter, you'd be pretty darned sure that it was one of Them who did it. White Privilege means that if you're telling a story with a negative connotation about a person of color, you'll mention that the person is black or Hispanic, even if that fact has absolutely no bearing on the events being described.

I lament the fact that if Robert wasn't just being a snotty jerk, something has so poisoned him that he would so easily call me a racist, which is why I wrote about our encounter. I can't just call a 10-year-old kid a jerk for having the "r-word" to the tip of his tongue, if it's from being around White Privilege his whole life. 

"Not that it matters, but what color was the guy, anyway?"

Come to think of it, I've never heard any white person ask that question when they've been told about a good deed that's been done. White Privilege. Indeed.

Mark Hertzberg is Director of Photography of The Journal Times. 
He can be reached at mhertzberg@journaltimes.com or at


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