Need a phrase to silence a crowd quickly? “White privilege exists.” Seriously, try it. You will see people stop in their tracks. They will stop then look around and become seemingly pre-occupied with any possible distraction.
Today, the term, White privilege, is on mainstream media like never before. For me, it is not new. White privilege became an important part of my life, in 2004 as a graduate student. (I know, grad school is a privilege). White privilege is a phrase invoking a spectrum of emotions and it demands our attention, especially yours White people I am writing this article for White people because we must talk about White privilege and commit to doing better. We must better understand our White privilege, think about it and commit to using it to make positive change toward equity.
Authors Note Before We Start
Let me start by sharing with you my awareness this is a hard topic to address. I have taught and trained on White Privilege long enough to realize it can invoke feelings of anger, defensiveness, and shame. I also realize these feelings manifest in varying ways for people. Shit, if I am honest, I still get these feelings at times. Especially when I take a misstep, face new challenges or come across information demanding further understanding. I am here with you, this is not a journey in isolation. I see you and acknowledge the difficulty of the topic. Thank you for reading, I appreciate it.
White Privilege Exists
White privilege exists, it does. I don’t just think this, I know this. The distinction of think vs. know is important. I frequently ask my children when they share things with me, “Do you THINK this or do you KNOW this?” This is the equivalent response a former professor would demand if you disagreed with him in class, “cite your source,” he would say. While needing to know your source was annoying as hell, it carried a great lesson and relevance when engaging in conversations. When you share ideas in defense of a stance, your opinion cannot be the only source of information. Knowing the why and having facts to establish your point of view is important so that you can critically think about how the facts fit into your perspective. Your perspective should grow and change over time – it means you are gaining knowledge!
I have and continue to research, and learn about White privilege in great depth. It is not comforting, or easy and I continue because I know it is important to create a better future. I am willing to sit in community and talk, read, and listen about this topic with anyone willing to engage in productive conversation. It is important to say “productive conversation” because without it, words can be futile. Productive conversation means engaging in talk with intentions of listening, learning and gaining a better understanding. It is a two way street and requires listening…let me say that again, it requires listening! I don’t believe you could ever convince me White privilege doesn’t exist, and I am willing to hear other perspectives to understand. I am willing to listen and continue learning. Remember, I will ask you to cite your sources and not just think your opinion is enough!
Talking about White Privilege is Important
While I think it is extremely important to establish White privilege exists, I only briefly touch on this here because that is not the intention of this article. I encourage anyone having visceral reactions to this content to reach out for resources, and gain understanding regarding White privilege. I am happy to provide content or a Google search is a great way to start, you can hit that link to access great resources.
The purpose of this article is to share my story and encourage others to step out of their comfort zones and demand more of themselves. What do you have to lose to know more about White Privilege? If you disagree in its existence, be sure you have done all the research you can to establish your point of view. Your opinions and feelings, while important, are not necessarily fact. Seek out those that disagree and engage with them in kind, respectful conversation. These conversations can happen and do everyday! This is how we learn and do the work to do better.
My Why for My Work around Privilege
I know it is important to write this and share my story because my goal in life is to interact from a place of kindness and respect in all situations. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t always do this. I screw up. I am a work in progress and I work everyday to know better and do better in order to practice kindness and respect toward others. As I have come to gain knowledge and experience with White Privilege, I know this is not something I can ignore if I truly believe I want to live with the guiding principles of kindness and respect.
Not doing anything about the inequities that exist in my community, my state, and my nation is taking a stance of support for continued inequity. When you see something happening that is wrong and you watch it happen without doing anything about it, you are culpable for its continuation. I am not saying everyone has to do the same things to address inequity and racism. Actions can and must vary. Some people actively protest, some donate funds to organizations doing work and others participate in the work. I use my privilege and voice to talk to people about the why. Simply put, this is important because I want to do good in my life and I cannot do the good if I allow the bad to continue without doing my part to make it better! Being a good person means interrupting the bad and racial inequity is the bad.
Becoming Aware of My White Privilege
I started graduate school to complete my masters in 2002. At the time I was approaching my mid 20’s, married, and a mom to a 2 year old. I had no idea what social justice was or how White privilege played a role in my life. Yes, I was fortunate, with my middle class life, an education, a job and marriage. Because of my job, I was attending graduate school with little to no cost and I was blissfully unaware. Why? It was because I never had to acknowledge how I got all the good in my life. I put in hard work for my achievements and these accomplishments did not come as a surprise, there was some expectation of them. This expectation is an example that White Privilege exists.
The article disrupting my blissful ignorance is an article every White person should read with contemplation. Peggy McIntosh’s, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack“ is soul stirring, if you are willing to absorb its contents. Reading it made me feel defensive, pissed and confused. I read it for a class discussion, a discussion I felt simultaneously excited to talk about it and terrified to start. I wanted to shut the article’s contents back into the Pandora’s box it opened and forget the existence of this perspective. For me, the article brings to light how my Whiteness influences my experiences. I was newly aware of my reception of certain advantages simply because of the color of my skin. This is a hard reality to hear and it is difficult to fully prepare for this wake-up call.
Working Through Your Privilege is Hard
While the actual class discussion or proceeding readings from the class are no longer in my easy to recall memory, I will never forget the feelings exposed as a by-product of the experience. Nor will I ignore the attention and understanding the content demanded of me. I grew defensive and ashamed of my Whiteness. It wasn’t my fault I was White. I had absolutely nothing to do with it. My family’s financial status or opportunities were not my doing. These are all true statements and accepting I am the recipient of White privilege does not dismiss any difficulty or hard work it took to reach my status or achievements.
White Privilege doesn’t mean White people have easy lives. Read that again, White Privilege does not mean White people have easy lives. It means it is unlikely your White racial identity is contributing to the difficulties you have in your life. I have tried to figure out how to make this more tangible. So bear with me as I walk through a couple of things to get there.
Being White is an identity much like your gender identity, religious identity, ableness identity, socio-economic identity (ie. class), marital identity. It is one piece that makes you who you are. Some of these identities are more salient or dominant in your life and others you may rarely acknowledge. I often share my identities and include that I am a White, mothering, educated, straight, Christian, middle class woman. My most salient identities are being a White, Christian, mothering woman. I choose these identities because they are the most relevant identities in my current every day existence. Sometimes these change depending on what I am doing and where I am doing it.
Being White is something I think of often because of the work I do specifically addressing White Privilege. Before working in this field I rarely, if ever, thought about being White. Why? I didn’t have to think about it. In my life, I seldom experienced situations when my race was relevant. Whiteness is commonly the status quo, especially when it is the majority in situations. For those counting, this is another example that White privilege exists, being White often means I don’t have to think about being White.
A Privilege Analogy
Here is an analogy for privilege. Think about your able-ness. What I mean by this, is to think about how you are able-bodied and this allows you to exist in environments. Can you see, hear, read this blog? Can you walk, talk, move? We primarily design our environment with the able-bodied in mind and space can be more difficult to navigate if you have different abilities in sight, hearing, mobility or health. Therefore, when compared with differently abled people, those who are able-bodied have advantages (privilege) in the navigation of the world around them. This is able-bodied privilege.
This does not mean able-bodied people are bad, it simply means they move through life with greater ease than those with different abilities. It does not mean life is easy or without difficulty if you are able-bodied, it means your ability is not one of the reasons you encounter difficulty.
You can use the same analogy with wealth. People with more money have advantages/access/privilege people with less money do not have. It does not mean people with money are bad or don’t have struggles in their life. It means having money to spend is not one of the reasons they have challenges in their life.
Are you still with me? I hope so, I am about to say some things that could be hard to read and can make some of you want to deny its truth. Read on and if your initial reaction is, “that can’t be true” think about why and let me know, again I am happy to talk further!
This White World
It is well documented that the founding of our nation came amidst a backdrop of clear racial inequity and racism. We continue to work, with great turmoil, to right the wrongs etched into our nation’s beginning. We change language, add amendments and work to improve a system with roots of racism. Our nation, our systems, our communities have origins in segregation, race delineation and while we refuse this reality, its existence cannot be denied. Our systems have heritage in the perspective of Whiteness and we must be willing to understand this.
This perspective of Whiteness continues to be our status quo. A status quo that is predominantly White in positions of power, money and influence. (This is obviously a blanket statement and this forum does not provide for my complete articulation on this matter! I acknowledge this and ask you to reach out to me for greater explanation should you desire to do so.) There are movements and leaders working to interrupt and change this (again a discussion for another time). My point is; our culture creates situations in which Whiteness is the expectation and non-Whiteness is the “other”. This othering demonstrates a place built for the perpetuation of success for Whiteness and therefore a space in which being White brings privilege. This is White Privilege in our society, you are either White or non-White.
If our country has its foundation of systems rooted in Whiteness, those not identifying as white face greater challenges than White people and White privilege exists. This doesn’t mean White people are bad, it does not mean White people have no challenges. It means being White is not one of the reasons White people experience difficulty.
White Privilege in my Life
Being White affords me opportunities to move about my life easier than if I were a person of color. For instance:
- My White children don’t hear me talk about what other people might assume of them because of the color of their skin.
- My White husband and I can walk in my predominately White, middle class neighborhood in a hoodie and sweats without someone calling the police because we look suspicious.
- I do not fear my White sons identities include automatic labels of troublemakers, instigators, or bad influences by others. My sons don’t need to learn how to appear less threatening to strangers.
- Store employees do not follow me through a store to ensure I am not taking anything.
- I often don’t have to show my receipt at stores to prove I paid for the items in my cart because, I don’t “look” like someone who would steal.
These are not all things people of color experience but many do. I don’t because I am White. White privilege exists.
I share all of this as perspective and something I hope you will sit with and think about. Are you a White person who lives a life showing kindness and care for others? Can you do more and do better to be a positive sphere of influence to make things better? Are you willing to hear the hard reality and work through your feelings of defensiveness, anger, guilt, fear and vulnerability? I hope so because if we commit to doing this work, we will begin to create a better, more equitable existence.
Acknowledging the existence of White privilege is important. We must learn to understand and accept it, and use it for good. White privilege exists. Explore it, learn and be willing to know better and do better. White privilege is not about shame, guilt or responsibility. You become responsible for the negative impacts of White privilege when you knowingly use it to harm others. Once you have received information regarding its existence and impact, you become responsible for the impact you have with yours.
There is a lot we can do to move forward and learn more. We need to find a safe, supportive space to seek more information. Read different books than you usually do, teach yourself the history you haven’t learned, find White people you can talk to that can walk beside you on this journey. You can find community programs, and private businesses doing the work. Join them and research diversity equity and inclusion in your community to find out how you can learn more and become an active seeker of equity. Check out a number of recent The We Podcast episodes to learn more about race, privilege and equity. Reach out to me and we can talk, learn and work through understanding our White privilege together.
Keep Going, You’ve Got This
l warn you, you will screw up. You will say the wrong thing, or ask a question and receive a response that stings. You are going to have to struggle through feelings, actions and hurt, not only yours but others and you will probably realize the other times in your life when you caused harm, not intentionally and harm none the less. That is okay, that is part of the process. Know that the challenge is coming and know you will get through it and you must keep going. In Dr. Maura Cullen’s book 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say, Dr. Cullen shares, “The true test of consciousness happens after we mess up, and how well we respond to our mistakes and the action we take.” This is the truth! What are you going to do differently?
Learning is a never ending opportunity we receive with each new day we wake up to live. Keep learning and keep going, you’ve got this!
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This is excellent! I grew up in a tiny, southern town with zero diversity of any kind, thus I’ve always been very sensitive to the things that get whispered, if spoken at all, doubly so a wheelchair user. Being the whitest white girl ever AND having a marginalized identity has added weight to questions of privilege lately, and I want everyone to TALK about it!! Thank you.