My head and heart are spinning.
These last couple weeks, I’ve watched people leveling up their discussions about racism, and as painful as it is to face ugly realities, there’s also hope in this surge of willingness to engage!
Then I click the scroll button a couple times on my social media, and feel my heart sink again when I find people still pushing back against the basic idea that white privilege even exists. People who are still offended by talk of white privilege. People who still don’t get it.
Those are the people I’m writing for today. My friends, I hear you say all the time that you’re not racist, that you see equal value in all people with all skin colors, that your intentions are good. I’m choosing to believe you! I choose to believe you do have good intentions and good hearts, so I’m asking you to channel them right now, and dig into this term that you find so aversive. Understanding white privilege is so foundational to understanding racism. To be blunt, you need this to follow and participate in the larger, more complex conversations happening around racism in our country.
Let’s start with something you already know exists: inequality.
(To keep things simple, I’m going to talk about race in terms of Black and White. Obviously that’s a gross oversimplification! But let’s stick with just two races for now.)
You already know that we see all sorts of unequal statistics between Black and White Americans. I don’t need to quote the stats to you; you’ve heard them. You know that White Americans have collected exponentially more wealth than Black Americans. You know that Black kids get in more trouble at school than White kids. You know that White Americans have more leadership positions than Black Americans. You know that our prisons are full of more Black Americans than White Americans.
We could look at all sorts of facets of American life, and we’d keep finding statistics that paint the same picture. In all these different measures of success, we find White Americans thriving far more than Black Americans. Even if you think there are challenges associated with having white skin, you must realize that on the whole, White Americans are objectively doing better in society than Black Americans.
This isn’t news to you; I’m sure of it. You know that racial inequality exists in the United States. You might not realize just how severe that inequality is, but I’m confident you know it exists.
So the question is: why does racial inequality exist in the United States?**
I’m going to take that broad question, and narrow it down for you: does racial inequality exist because of internal or external forces?
Let’s start with option one: internal forces. Maybe it all stems from individual choices, and White Americans are thriving, because we just make better choices. Maybe White Americans work harder, care more about our families, value education more highly, make better money decisions, follow the laws, and are just succeeding overall, because we’re hardwired for success. Maybe we were born genetically superior. Maybe it’s Black Americans’ inability to make good choices like White Americans that keeps them from attaining the same levels of success.
You know that’s all disgustingly racist, right? While there are people in the world with those beliefs, I can’t imagine anyone in my own life who would agree with them. Again, friends, I’m choosing to believe in your good hearts! I’m sure you don’t think that White Americans are inherently better at making life choices than Black Americans.
So option two: external forces. Maybe there are factors in our environment that make success more attainable for White Americans than Black Americans. Maybe our history, maybe our laws, maybe our traditions, maybe our biases… But maybe something in the world around us is giving White Americans a boost and holding Black Americans back. Maybe as White Americans who are no better, smarter, or stronger than Black Americans, the deck is somehow stacked in our favor.
That isn’t so hard to swallow, is it? I mean, at the very least, you know that America has some ugly and undeniable racism in its past at massive scales. I’ve never met a person who would deny that. It isn’t a huge leap–is it?–to then assume that history has some lingering effects.
Doesn’t your good heart tell you that it makes more sense to blame racial inequality on external than internal factors?
That’s white privilege!
That’s all it is!
Recognizing white privilege is basically just acknowledging that something in our environment creates more successful outcomes for more White Americans than Black Americans.
Having white privilege doesn’t mean that my life is easy! (My life is actually really hard in a lot of ways.) Just like everyone else, I’m a complex equation with more privilege in some areas, and less privilege in others. I’ve made some good choices and some bad ones. I’ve had some good luck and some bad luck. My white privilege doesn’t guarantee me an easy or successful life. There are too many other factors for that. But race is one of the factors.
It’s not my fault that I was born with white privilege. I didn’t create this society, and it’s not my fault that it privileges White Americans over Black Americans. It’s not your fault either. If it makes you feel guilty to think about white privilege, that’s fine and natural, but it’s not the point. I’ve heard so many white people claim, “You just want me to feel guilty!” Frankly, nobody really cares what you feel. Feel guilty, or don’t, that’s for you to work through. I definitely experience some white guilt at times, but that’s not useful or helpful.
You know those people who make a really big show about telling the world they know they have white privilege? You think those people are annoying, right? Well, guess what–they are! I agree with you. It’s an obnoxious behavior.
We don’t talk about white privilege to make people feel ashamed. And we don’t talk about white privilege to virtue signal our enlightenment.
We should talk about white privilege because it’s our responsibility to do something about it.
Our good hearts don’t want to live in a world where white privilege exists, right? We all want to live in a world of equal opportunity, yes? It’s wildly unfair that a person’s race has any power to influence their life. You know it’s unfair. That’s why the term “white privilege” was so troubling to you in the first place. The thought of injustice makes you uncomfortable, and it should! But not thinking or talking about it won’t make it go away. We have to accept the discomfort and figure out what role we can play in dismantling white privilege. We need to spread the privilege around, so White Americans no longer have more than our share.
If your next question is, So what can I do? How do I help dismantle white privilege?, then I appreciate your good intentions, and I’m going to ask you to set those questions aside, just for a while.
If I’ve done my job in this piece, then I may have persuaded you that white privilege exists. I’ve hopefully opened your mind to the idea that external factors in our environment influence American lives differently depending on race. But I haven’t explained what those factors are! I haven’t described what that privilege looks like!
And I’m not going to. This is where I’m going to invite you to do your own homework. I’m super willing to have follow-up conversations, but please don’t ask me to teach you Racism 101. And absolutely do not ask your Black friend to teach you Racism 101!! This little chat we’ve had here in this blog post? This isn’t 101. This is more like the prerequisite seminar, preparing you for 101.
Put in some work now, and find out what white privilege looks like. Find out what “systemic racism” is referring to. Find out what “implicit bias” is all about, where it comes from, how it manifests. I guarantee you that any education you received in school about America’s history with racism and segregation was extremely incomplete, so find out more about our history. Find out how it influences our present.
There are so many resources out there to help you learn more about racism in the United States. Google is your friend, and will lead you to whatever you feel you have the capacity to digest right now. Maybe you want to read a book. Join a discussion group. Take a class. Watch some TED Talks. Read a couple articles. Listen to some podcasts. Watch a documentary. There’s an overwhelming amount of good stuff to dig into! Don’t worry about doing it all. Just pick one thing to feed your curiosity, and then another thing. Stretch your comfort zone a little bit at a time.
I’m not an expert on all things racial, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I’m also not a beginner anymore. I grew up in a “colorblind” delusion, and then entered a profession that demanded better of me. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into learning more about racism and antiracism. It’s been hard work, and there have been some mental blocks I’ve had to get past. There still are. I have immense appreciation and respect for the kind souls that help me learn better and do better!
If you’re willing to seek out some resources and learning on your own, I’m willing to talk about whatever comes up for you. It helps to have people you can process this learning with! You probably have other people in your life who are working on their racial awareness journey, and would be willing to talk stuff through with you. If your “Black friend” is someone that you’re actually close with, someone that you regularly have reciprocal “deep talk” with, then they might be willing to discuss with you. Don’t ask them stuff you can Google. Don’t pester them. But if you’re putting in the work on your end, they might be willing to talk and add some layers to your understanding. You’re asking for a very generous gift of vulnerability, though, so they aren’t obligated to engage. If the truth is that your “Black friend” is just a friendly acquaintance, not someone you’re close to? Then please don’t bother them.
Eventually, you will pick up the “So what can I do?” question again. The more you learn about racism, the more you’ll see it. That’s the hard news. The good news is you’ll also see more opportunities to combat it in your own way, in your own circle of influence, with your own skills.
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**It’s easy to deflect here into ideas like “It’s not about race; it’s about economics. Poor people tend to struggle more…” To that, I have two responses: 1) When studies examine people in the same economic bracket, racial differences still exist. 2) Ask yourself why those economic differences exist between the races. It’s fundamentally the same question.