Dear White Friend: What White Privilege Really Means
Dear White Friend,
Maybe you’re not sure how you feel about being called “white”, and you’re pretty sure you and I are not friends. But we could be friends, or friends of friends…I saw your social media comment about how white privilege isn’t a thing, how all lives matter, and what about black-on-black crime anyway?
I hear you. I get it.
The first time I heard about white privilege was during a training I attended as part of my work with domestic violence survivors. We did an exercise where we all stood on a line in the center of the yard and took steps forward for every level of education we had, another step or two forward or back for income, a step back for being queer, a few steps forward for being white, a few back for being a person of color. At the end of the exercise, I was shocked to find myself standing on the privileged side of the line. Every fiber of my being resisted the idea that my life had benefits other folks didn’t have. My mind started complaining: “What about my eating disorder? I was molested as a child, you know! And bullied. My parents worked hard for their money. We sometimes had cereal for dinner. My life hasn’t been a piece of cake. Plus I’m a woman! I know what oppression is like–I’ve been put down by men my whole life. I’ve struggled! Hell, I’m still struggling.”
I believed that anyone who saw the whole of my failures and rejections could never say I’m privileged.
Sure, I got that racism was real, (especially with those people in the South, I imagined) but wasn’t that all behind us? Didn’t we have a level playing field now? I mean there’s affirmative action…and people aren’t allowed to discriminate anymore, right? In private moments I even occasionally wondered if affirmative action counted as discrimination against white people.
More Radical Reads: Because We Want to Be the Hero: Why We Get Defensive about Privilege
But I wasn’t racist, I was sure. I believed all people should be treated equally and thought often of the words of Rodney King, the black motorist whose beating at the hands of police led to rioting in LA: “Can’t we all just get along?”
I was a good person. A person who cared about other people, whatever race they were. I wanted to be treated fairly and I wanted other people to be treated fairly. I was disgusted by the KKK, of course slavery was wrong, and anyone who argued that Martin Luther King Jr. was anything less than a national hero must have forgotten their moral compass, if they ever had one.
More Radical Reads: What I Said When My White Friend Asked for My Black Opinion on White Privilege
What I didn’t understand is this:
You can have white privilege AND not know it. It’s not your fault you don’t know it. Our culture is based on white folks like you and me not even thinking of ourselves as having a race. The books we read, the history we’re taught, our whole educational system, they all hide the truth about how white privilege is built into our society. It was a surprise for me too, and I’m a history buff. Blame the stuff they didn’t teach us in high school. Ask why they don’t spend more time analyzing Reconstruction after the Civil War–how the federal government deserted black folks, leaving them to the ministrations of their slavery-minded white overseers. I never heard a peep in high school of college about the Great Migration–the diaspora of black families escaping terror in the South, heading north and west in a sweeping change that altered urban life for good–and the discrimination and ghettoization that was imposed on them in their new homes. Want to find out more? Read Isabelle Wilkerson’s beautiful book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” and it will change the way you look at US history forever. It’s not your fault you haven’t seen your own privilege. But you can do something about it.
You can have white privilege AND be a good person. And care deeply about other people. Acknowledging that you are white and that your whiteness confers visible and invisible benefits in our society does not diminish your worthiness in any way. White privilege isn’t personal. It’s honestly not about you. It’s about how the rest of the country consciously and unconsciously responds to your skin color by letting things slide for you in ways neither you nor they are necessarily aware of. Like how I can go into almost any drugstore in any neighborhood in the U.S. and be confident that I can find makeup appropriate for my skin color. And I rarely worry that I’m going to be followed by store security. It’s subtle, and you have no control over it. Want a visceral taste of what it’s like to live without white privilege? Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s amazing book, “Between the World and Me.”
You can have white privilege AND feel like an underdog. Your childhood may have been hell, you may have had to fight tooth and nail for everything you’ve achieved, you may be miserable and pissed off and persecuted. And that sucks. Nobody should have to go through the shit you’ve been through, it’s true. You deserve empathy and support and connection–no question. Recognizing white privilege only means that the color of your skin is unlikely to have had anything to do with your difficulties. It doesn’t mean your suffering isn’t real. It doesn’t mean you’re not oppressed in many other ways. You can have white privilege and not feel privileged over anyone at all.
Acknowledging your privilege IS a step towards being the kind of white person you want to be in the world. You don’t want to be oblivious, right? You don’t want to unconsciously offend people or be insensitive and inconsiderate, I know. It’s humbling and tender to acknowledge the ways in which whiteness has benefited us in large and small ways in our lives. It’s good that you feel resistance to this idea. You’re right, it shouldn’t be this way. Instead of resisting the reality of white privilege, resist its invisibility. Own it. Talk about it. Look for it. Take responsibility for it, and learn how to turn it into constructive anti-racist action in the world. Recognizing your white privilege helps you move towards being the change you want to see in the world.