We Have to Talk About White Privilege

If you have ever driven along an Interstate, searching for the hotel where you have reservations, seeing it seemingly VERY CLOSE but realizing you have to figure out how to get off the interstate, get onto a service road, and find the entrance to your hotel, you know that things are not at all as easy as they first appear. White privilege is like a service road.

I have been wanting to write about intersectionality (and, related, white privilege) ever since I heard the word (yes, it’s been less than a year), but I have hesitated for a variety of reasons. The first reasons that come to mind are:

  1. I don’t understand the topics well enough
  2. I am afraid I will lose friends
  3. I alone can change no minds
  4. I am, as all of us are, so imperfect in my attempts to live life fairly

But those barriers are just going to have to co-exist with my attempt to say my piece on this. In my own home, in conversations with my closest family members, in multiple other environments, it’s time to talk about white privilege even if the attempt is grossly imperfect, if relationships unravel, if no minds are changed.

Because, whether it is a problem for us personally or not, our inability or unwillingness to put our privilege in context and figure out how to be in community with all our fellow people hurts us all in the long run.

White Privilege

One Book That Changed My Understanding About White Privilege

I wrote earlier that it has been within the last twelve months that I have heard the term “intersectionality.” I heard it at the We Won’t Wait 2016 gathering, as presenters explained the inequities faced by women of color. When I got home, I told my husband, “I felt guilty about being white.”

Sitting around feeling guilty about something I clearly can’t change about myself is not exactly constructive, so I set about trying to figure out what those speakers meant and what I could do.

I participated in an online book club about the book Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. Although I never ended up being able to join the group via Facebook live, the experience got me to read the book, and the comments in the Facebook group itself enlightened me.

Here are a few takeaways:

  1. The distribution of VA benefits after World War II, for example, led to inequities for African American returning soldiers. Many African American soldiers did not get access to the same educational or housing benefits that white soldiers received. (More here and here.)
  2. “Hide and seek” has a different meaning for inner city black kids than suburban white kids. Okay, this one could be vulnerable to being a HUGE generalization. But I believe Debby Irving when she says that many black kids are taught not to play hide-and-go-seek because they don’t want to associate being hidden with “fun” — because of the ramifications down the road for their interactions with law enforcement officers.
  3. “Helping” …….. isn’t always. Debby Irving talks a lot about how we as middle- and upper-class white people are brought up to help, to be optimistic (believe me, since me alter ego is the Optimism Light this one got my full attention). I get the irony of the fact that I am raising the issue, lover of causes that I am. But I have to look at myself in the mirror and ask about the lens through which I see my helping choices. Am I being a “white savior” or a “fellow human sharing my resources”? Author Nate Regier, Ph.D., writes, “Non-consensual helping is a personal violation.” Hmmm.
  4. Taking kids out of their environments to expose them to culture doesn’t always have the downstream effects we imagine it will have. One of Debby Irving’s first jobs was being the coordinator for an arts program in Boston. The program would bus children in from disadvantaged areas of the city in order to help them “get culture.” Irving writes convincingly of why that plan did not have the effects organizers hoped — these children didn’t necessarily understand the environment — the imposing buildings, the etiquette expected of them as arts consumers, the very “foreign-ness” of it all.

As a White Person, I Take Ease of Access Totally For Granted

Typically, we would think of interstate highways as helpful to reaching our destination faster. Limited exits so that no one slows down, the ability to drive at relatively higher rates of speed, uniform signage and format. The problem is, if the gas, food, shelter or other services we need are off of a service road, we have to get off.

White privilege is akin to being on the service road, doing whatever we need to do, easily. For people who do not have white privilege, they are speeding along, on a road defined for them by someone who presumed what they wanted, with limited ability to get the basics and extras they need and want in order to live a life equitable to ours because someone blocked the exits.

Things I Still Haven’t Made Peace With

  1. Reparations. Slavery was wrong. What’s a stronger word for wrong? Let’s go with reprehensible. Slavery created the foundation of the inequities toward black people that still ripple through our society today, in ways big and small. My challenge with reparations is two-fold: I don’t understand how they would work and I am not sure what positive difference they would make. The United Nations thinks they are a good idea, though, so that carries some substantial weight with me. (More about the recommendation from the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent in this Washington Post article.)
  2. Decisions Like the One Bill Proctor Made. Bill Proctor is an African-American county commissioner here in Leon County. He boycotted a commission retreat last December because slaves had been used on the property in the 1800s. While I am sensitive to the issues slavery poses to him, I guess this is one of those things that, taken to an extreme, could mean none of us could meet (or live) anywhere. Taking the example further, I should surrender the deed to my house and the property I live on to the Native Americans. It never really was mine to begin with and it probably was not handed over by them willingly or without sacrifice on the part of an entire people.
  3. Statues/Historical Monuments. It is a good thing that we are all so much more sensitive to the effects of monuments glorifying people who perpetuated racism. I struggle with the fact that removing the tangible evidence that these people were once celebrated doesn’t remove the fact that these people were once celebrated or the lessons we should learn from that. One article with more on the topic hereEditor’s note 8/22/17: This topic gained prominence recently, as the people around the nation reacted to the Charlottesville violence. I am coming to realize that the best route is (often) eliminating these statues. I still feel the process must be done deliberately, with context. ~ pk
  4. Language Hypersensitivity. Have you looked at any house plans lately? Notice anything different? Some designers are re-naming the master bedroom the “owner’s suite” or “mastre bedroom,” believing the term “master bedroom” carries too many negative connotations from a historical and gender perspective. Words evolve. Did you know the word “bully” started out with a positive connotation, meaning “sweetheart”? The word “sarcasm” has as one of its root meanings “stripping off of flesh” (ouch …. sarcasm can feel that way sometimes). Language hypersensitivity could render us all mute.

What Can One Person Do?

I ask that question multiple times every day. I think Father Tim Holeda’s Awareness-Understanding-Action model may be a good guide.

To increase your awareness, start with an open mind then read things and talk to people who will help you expand your perspective. Here are some recommendations.

Book: Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving

Site: Being Black at School (personal note: this site and its mission are the brainchild of my friend Kelly. Feel free to fast forward past the other 1700 words in this post and donate to BBAS. It’s that relevant and necessary.)

Site: I’m Not the Nanny (especially the Multicultural Resources page)

Site: Black Girl in Maine and Blog Post: ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ IS MORE THAN A MERE SLOGAN

Article: Black Americans are Killed at 12 Times the Rate of People in Other Developed Countries

Article: How Redlining’s Racist Effects Lasted for Decades

Article: Native American Council Offers Amnesty to 240 Million Undocumented White (Note: I am still processing this article but I think it really needs to be included as it presents a “what if?” that is thought-provoking.)

Article: What White Children Need to Know About Race

Article: White kids are bullying minority students using Trump’s words

Article: Why “All Lives Matter” is Such a Perilous Phrase

Article: Why Is It So Difficult for White People to Let Serena Williams Be Great?

Blog Post: 5 Truths About White Privilege for White People

Blog Post: 10 Ways to Practice Institutional Racism at Your Non-Profit Organization

Blog Post: All right, “color-blind” colleagues, we need to have a talk

Blog Post: Beware of Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: The Tale of A Progressive Professor Who Forgot To Hide Her Racism And Got Her Ass Fired

Blog Post: How To Be A Better White Woman To Your Black Friend

Blog Post: I Don’t Discuss Racism With White People

Blog Post: Nebraska high school A.D. writes column about the racism his students face

Blog Post: Othering

Blog Post: One Life at a Time: A Different Angle on #BlackLivesMatter

Blog Post: Please stop requiring anti-racism and diversity trainings for POC in the workplace

Blog Post: Police officer’s daughter asked to remove ‘Blue Lives Matter’ flag

Blog Post: Taboo Sex, Racism, and Gay Men: A Chat in Black and White

Blog Post: This is What White People Can Do to Support #BlackLivesMatter

Blog Post: Welcome to the Anti-Racism Movement — Here’s What You’ve Missed

Blog Post: Why I’m Absolutely an Angry Black Woman

Book Review: A Powerful, Disturbing History of Residential Segregation in America

Blog Post: Books About Indigenous Peoples

Article: Our church was named for Robert E. Lee — here is how we changed it

Blog Post: Privileged

Article: Opinion: I Don’t Need a DNA Test to Tell Me How Black I Am

Blog Post: Dismantling White Supremacy in Nonprofits: a starting point

Blog Post: Owning My Whiteness

Article: What We Can All Learn from the Fat Sex Therapist

Article (Paywall): A Latina novelist spoke about white privilege. Students burned her book in response

Article: (Paywall): Philanthropists Bench Women of Color, the M.V.P.s of Social Change: And we all lose out

Article: Black Women Have Never Had the Privilege of Rage

Article: How To Talk to Your Coworkers About White Privilege

Article: Social worker: Solution to youth violence starts with addressing ‘generational trauma,’ racism

Blog Post: Got Internalized White Superiority? The Danger of Denial and the Promise of Another Way

Blog Post: Amy Cooper’s Anti-Black Wisdom

Reality: Really watch what is going on in your family, your office, your community, our nation. Sometime there is no book, blog post, or article more informative than real life

To increase your understanding, all I can say is that understanding often follows from awareness. Try step one, and I’m pretty sure you’ll make progress.

Regarding action, most of the links under “awareness” also have suggested actions. For me, much of the past year has been about opening my mouth when it would be easier to be silent. I was being shuttled from home to Enterprise Rental Car a few months ago by a driver who decided to pontificate on “Muslims lying in roads” and why white people will never get along with “them” (black people). I think his words to me, I suppose born out of the fact that I was younger than him, were “just wait and see.” UMMMMM. Short of jumping out of the moving car, I wasn’t sure what to say to indicate that absolutely nothing he was saying was appropriate, EVER. I managed something like “everyone has the right to express their opinion” (about the Muslims) and “that hasn’t been my experience” (about black/white relations). I am sure I didn’t change his mind, but I had to speak up.(I also shared the conversation’s content in my feedback email to Enterprise. I never received a response.)

I love a line in Korbett Mosesly’s piece (linked to above).

I realize that institutional racism may not be your goal or intention. You may not even be aware of the complexities of racism at your organization. I hope this post moves you from unintentional racism to intentional allyship.

I, for one, intend not to intentionally block any more of the “interstate exits” and do my part to help everyone have access to the things they need, especially, and the things they want, as an intentional ally.

White Privilege

(This post is a response to two Mama’s Losin It Prompts: “book review” and “share a quote you love.”)

26 thoughts on “We Have to Talk About White Privilege

  1. Some good thoughts & references there, Paula. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as well.

    Two things that struck me, one is how important it is for someone other than the person experiencing the blocked lane to talk about it. Part of combating racism is making sure that it’s not an Asian / Black / Hispanic etc. person’s responsibility alone to address instances, and I personally appreciate the choice (and reminder) that you’ve made here.

    The other thing is action, and that it requires some thought and practice to figure out when and where you’re going to be able to actually have a good effect. For me, working on something is the first part before I even begin to talk publicly about it. So if I offer an opinion on how someone is experiencing homelessness, for example, that’s because I’ve been there myself and/or worked with people in that environment. Not all of us can take action whenever we feel a real sense of “hey, yeah, I get that this person is experiencing something I’m not and could use support” but we can pick and choose to act and than share what we’ve learned from it.

    • Wow. GREAT insights, Joe. I have actually been sitting on the bits and pieces that ended up being this post for a LONG time. In many conversations I have been a part of, I have heard some version of “how could a white person presume to know how a person of color feels?” …… that’s ridiculously valid. I suppose ultimately the need to reflect on the inequities I see people of color in my life and the world in general experiencing, ESPECIALLY children, and ……… try to enter the dialogue respectfully and thoughtfully.

  2. Wow, Paula. What an excellent job of pulling together your thoughts on a, to put it mildly, tough and huge subject. As a woman who benefits by white privilege I’ve been working on myself on this for many years. I’ve participated in a workshop specifically titled, “What White People Can do About Racism.” I took a course on Diversity Facilitation that kicked my butt. I’m getting ready to say I am still trying to wrap my head around my privilege, the legacy I live with because of my skin color, and current events, and at the same time don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses or playing dumb. I pledge to remain on the journey. Thank YOU for stepping out.

    • Hi Mary. Despite my previous comment that I would need time to formulate my response, I think it simply and succinctly needs to be “I pledge to remain on the journey too.” Thank you for being my fellow traveler.

  3. Thanks for stepping out of your comfort zone Paula. This is a difficult subject to be sure. I am a white momma to 4 children that are various shades of brown. My kids range in age from 20 to 11. The two in the middle are teenage boys. Racial things are often discussed in our home. Especially in light of the events in recent years. I probably hold a bit different view than most. We have raised our children to be respectful and responsible. We have not focused on the differences in their skin color. Except maybe to tease them when they were younger, especially, about me eatin’ them up because I love my chocolate babies 🙂 We talk about how beautiful their skin is…and how God gave it and their hair to them. Yes, hair is a big issue in our home; especially with my girls.

    I pity the man that refused to attend an event because it was held on property that had been home to slaves in the 1800’s. It’s sad that he is harboring bitterness and angst toward people that are long buried and gone and taking it out on those that had nothing to do with it. Holding “us” responsible for what happened in the past is not justice, it is itself a form of biased and and unfair one. We cannot go back and change that slavery happened. It has been happening almost since the beginning of time. Some slaves were treated poorly, others were not. But holding the past against those in the present serves no purpose except to stir the pot. And the pot don’t need stirrin’ 🙂

    If this is true about the hide and seek (not doubting you) I think it’s sad that children are not allowed to be children because of what might happen in their future. My experience is that when one is raised to respect those in authority, and treat those in authority with respect they rarely have run ins with the law. Sadly, many teach their kids that law enforcement is the enemy (and not just those with brown skin).

    When I was in college, I spent a summer working with a downtown church in Memphis. I walked through some of the worst neighborhoods in Memphis that summer One of the sayings those folks had was “God don’t see no color.” It didn’t have a thing to do with skin color. It meant that we’re all people worthy of dignity and respect. We treated those folks with dignity and respect and they did likewise. I feel this is key to getting along. When it’s “us” and “them” it naturally separates us and leads to feelings of superiority and inferiority.

    I fear the knee jerk reactions I see today. I personally don’t believe it’s as hard as people are making it to be. It’s the golden rule really. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Respect people and treat them with dignity. No one is better than anyone else. No skin color, sex, sexual orientation,nationality, etc. We’re all created equal in God’s sight with certain features, personalities and attributes. Different? Yes, but not better.

    I was raised in the 70’s and remember t.v. shows like All in the Family. Archie Bunker was a bigot; maybe. Or maybe he was just learning to adjust to a new normal? It was a scary normal because it was new. I think t.v. shows like this helped people think through their feelings on the matter. Today, I fear we are too sensitive and ready to pounce on people instead of giving them grace and understanding.

    Forgive me for writing a small book.

    • I appreciate your small book, Christy! I think I could write one in response — so many thoughts to turn over in your comments. For now, I’ll just express my gratitude for you reading the post and your thoughtful sharing. Lots of work lies ahead for all of us.

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  5. I think it’s so important for more people to challenge their thoughts and beliefs when it comes to race and white privilege. So glad to see you working your own thoughts out here!

    • I agree (on the importance of challenging ourselves). Thanks for prompts that helped me do that in a public way. I’ve written to some of your prompts that led me to write humorous posts that were purely for fun, but this one was the opposite. The beauty of writing – the frivolous, the serious, and everything in between.

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  10. Very interesting read. Being Australian we don’t hear a lot about “white privilege”, although I know it obviously exists. I had never really thought about it much until I kept seeing it pop up online. I grew up with a very multi-cultural environment, a lot of the kids we went to school with were Italian, Greek, Macedonian. It had never occurred to me that they were any different to me, except that their families had more money than mine did. My parents were quite poor and we lived in a bad neighborhood, our aboriginal neighbours were our friends. That said, a lot of my friends (white and coloured) are quite racist toward pretty much anyone who didn’t “come from Australia”, and I’ve always felt it strange and it’s always made me uncomfortable.

    I wish there was a way that we could get past it, and see each other just as humans. Although I understand the importance of acknowledging the past (slavery, murder, the theft of land, the loss of lives and families), I also think it’s equally as important to find a way to move on, as I tell my daughter, hanging onto the past prevents you from moving on into the future. Perhaps that’s a really naive thought, I don’t know. Obviously the issue is a lot more complex than that.

    I don’t know that there is a solution to be honest.

    • Hi Vicki. I am sorry I didn’t respond to your comment sooner — I had missed it! I hope there is a solution — the only way I know to make progress is to raise the issue and try to keep talking about it. Thanks so much for sharing your experience and thoughts.

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