Me and White Privilege
Updated: Mar 8, 2021
I started reading Layla F. Saad's book, Me and White Supremacy, initially because I wanted to better understand the language of racism, and how I might begin to hold up a mirror to my own white privilege, with an open mind. Ms. Saad, with a profound heart and a velvet glove, is leading me on a 28-day anti-racism journey. She says that I will need three things to do this work: my truth, my love and my commitment. Maybe even my desire to become a good ancestor. I can do that, I say to myself. She prefaces the work as challenging, even so far as to recommend self-care best practices as you move through. I'm thinking, I got this. I'm ready.
But I can tell you that while her narrative is powerful, her 'reflective journaling prompts' at the end of each chapter are transformative. It's where truth and love intersect. It's where vulnerability takes over, and I somehow find the courage to show up. It's the moment where I stop reading and start feeling. And it's where I understand why this work for me is both heart breaking and heart expanding.
The first chapter is called 'You and White Privilege.' Ms. Saad goes on to explain what white privilege is and how it shows up. She introduces me to Peggy McIntosh, an anti-racism scholar, who penned a series of essays when she was studying 'White Privilege and Male Privilege.' How I'd never heard of Peggy McIntosh in my lifetime is a testament to the power of white privilege, in that it has allowed me to be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms. But Ms. Saad references her work as a great place to start, and indeed it is.
There's quite a bit more to unpack, but the heart of McIntosh's work examines assumptions or 'unearned privileges' that are passed along to white people like me, that serve to protect me and give me unearned power, while at the same time train me to work systematically to disempower others. She goes on to identify a list of some of the daily effects of white privilege in our lives. Conditions that she believed are attached more to skin-color privileges than any other status. Conditions that she believed her Black friends or co-workers could not count on in their daily lives.
So I went through the list. And 'white privilege' went from from a term I'd known, to the life I live. In journaling this chapter, Ms. Saad asks the simple question, 'in what ways do you hold white privilege?' In referencing McIntosh's list, which though published in 1989 is remarkably on point, my heart broke with every assumption I knew in my heart I'd 'earned' unwittingly and in doing so, had taken away from others. The privileges that spoke most resoundingly in my life will differ from others, but here's me and my white privilege:
I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
I can avoid spending time with people I was trained to mistrust.
If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford, in which I would want to live, and where my neighbors would be neutral or pleasant to me.
I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
I can turn on the TV or read the news and see people of my race widely represented.
When I am told about our national heritage, I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
I can be sure that my kids will be given curriculum that testifies to the existence of their race.
My voice will be heard, even if I'm the only white person
I can go into any music store and count on finding the music of my race represented, any supermarket any find the staple foods that fit with my cultural traditions, any salon and find someone who can cut my hair.
Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of my financial reliability.
I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them
I do not have to educate my kids on systemic racism
I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes without having people attribute these choices to bad morals, poverty or illiteracy of my race.
I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
I am never asked to speak for all the people in my racial group.
I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world's majority, without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
If a traffic cop pulls me over, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race.
I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of race.
I can choose public accommodations without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
All of these assumptions are mine. Some, as a mother, are particularly painful. Most of them have served their purpose of making me feel more comfortable, confident and oblivious. These privileges, while they look and have felt like strengths, have only given me permission to avoid the truth that becomes painstakingly clear to anyone who might care about love and equality. These aren't advantages gained in a vacuum, they are gained from other's disadvantages, through a denial and protection of the advantages. I was raised to see racism as something that has put others at a disadvantage, not realizing that white privilege is fuel for this social construct, and that I am part of the root cause.
I sit still with all of this, so incredibly uncomfortable with my ignorance, shameful and guilty in the role I play, as I build my glass castle to try to figure out what I can do. At times, I'm overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. How can I possibly begin to dismantle centuries of accumulated privilege and the righteous anger that goes with it? I honestly don't know, but I'm starting with a few truths that I'm hoping will help guide me:
If the only reason racism still exists is that white people continue to benefit from it, how does my personal life contribute to, benefit from the support of it, and how can I adjust my life to change that?
If avoiding this truth is killing people of color, how can I stay silent every time another Black life doesn't matter?
If I have been able to spend the better part of my life as a full functioning professional adult completely ignorant about racism, what can I do every day to learn and unlearn the truth of our history, and it's lingering effects on how Black people continue to be mistreated?
If I have friends or family who are entrenched in racist ideology or 'of a different generation,' what can I do to pave the way for greater consciousness and understanding?
If I am truly committed to equality, who are the people, what are policies that I should make sure that I'm supporting with my vote and my voice?
I'm certain that my thoughts and actions will not be enough. But I also feel that just because I can't do everything, doesn't mean I shouldn't do something.
And while I am most certainly uncomfortable in turning my attention to hearing what people of color have been saying for centuries, I believe in a universe built upon a different set of assumptions, where all lives truly matter because Black lives will finally matter.
I am still learning.