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Owning my privilege - one white woman's perspective

Guest post by Erin

A couple Saturdays ago I attended an anti-racism meet-up in Boston.  I was struck by a number of things, but the first thing that made me pause was the meeting space itself.  The Yvonne Pappenheim Library on Racism is hidden gem tucked just off of Boston Common, with walls lined from floor to ceiling with books about our country’s history of racism.  Thousands of books written on a topic that even I, a self-described liberal, progressive woman, will only discuss in highly guarded environments.  Here’s a topic that I’m able to dance around because of my privilege.  I’ve tried my damnedest to shift discussions that veer too close to race to subjects of class, socioeconomic status, under-privileged, underrepresented minorities without addressing the role that white privilege plays in our society. Yet, there I was, surrounded by thousands of published accounts of the reality in which we live.

Cartoon from:
I believe it’s guilt that has kept me from exploring this for so long.  The notion that I am in some way to blame for something I feel I’ve not personally contributed to.  It doesn’t feel good to look at the ways I’ve benefited from my whiteness and privilege.  In her well known essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh, PhD, refers to privilege as “unearned power conferred systemically”. I’d always thought of my advantages as earned, e.g. I’ve worked so hard to get to this point.  I’d not thought about the fact that I can stand before a school board and present an idea without my words being generalized to represent those of all white people.  I’d not considered that I can seek medical help without my race working against me, or there being doubt about my ability to pay for services. And while I may have earned respect along the way for the merit of my work, I was a beneficiary of systematic advantage granted to me by nothing more than the color of my skin.

Those who know me best will tell you that I’m a peace-keeper, a bridge-builder---a lover, not a fighter. Sometimes this is to a fault. When I’m real with myself, I can see that because of this I’ve thought of myself as more virtuous than many white people. I’ve guess I’ve thought of myself as a member of a separate group of white people whose love is not limited to those with a predetermined level of melanin in their skin. After all, I married a Black man!

A friend of mine likes to remind me that I’m not a poster-child for interracial marriage. She makes me laugh, but the essence of her jest is so right. I’m still a white woman, and that’s how the world sees me. What I mean is that yes, I deeply love and am committed to share my life with a Black man. We have two brilliant and beautiful boys. But these facts of my life don't give me a "pass" on issues of race. Because I'm white, I am in a position to challenge instances where subtle acts of racism play out in various interactions.

From the
On the other hand, as a white person I’m able to read about things like the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and then close that browser tab and think about those officers as “not my people”.  But, indeed, those sworn to protect and serve murdered a young man in cold blood. Because of my privilege I’m able to think about this and talk about it in a way that keeps distance between myself and the officers who shot an unarmed teenager. I’m able to think about them in a way that divides me from them.  Doing so comforts me and helps me sleep at night. But choosing to draw a distinction between myself and those who commit acts of racism helps me feel that the world my boys live in is somehow better, more colorblind. It’s only the most heinous acts of racism that get media attention. But the daily micro-aggressions towards people of color don’t even register for me or other white people unless we choose to enter a given situation asking ourselves, “how does my whiteness affect me?" This approach is very new to me.

But people of color don’t have this privilege.  A young black man in 2014 doesn’t share my privilege. My husband does not have this privilege.  My sons will not have this privilege.   And that scares the shit out of me, because my love is not enough to protect them. And the people I want to protect them from are my people. And as long as I'm being honest, I threw up in my mouth a little bit when I wrote that last sentence. This truth is jarring to me.

White people don’t think of ourselves as having privilege. Or as beneficiaries of a system of privilege. As a matter of fact, we do everything we can to think of ourselves as normal. We are individuals. We are taught about the American dream and the value of hard work from such a young age that we never question the reality that this is not available to all Americans. We are taught that our parents worked hard, and therefore were able to save up enough money to purchase a home in a “nice” neighborhood with a relatively low amount of surrounding poverty.
From Anti-Racism Discussion & Support Group

But for many years in the Houston-area, working-class neighborhood where I grew up had deed restrictions that  prohibited non-whites from purchasing homes within its boundaries. My parents' ability to purchase a home in the US when they did is a marker of my privilege. Denying this may make me feel better, but doesn’t make it any less true. Until reading Seeing White: An Introduction to White Privilege, Understanding White Privilege, White Like Me, watching clips of lectures by Tim Wise like Pathology of Privilege, and through frank and uncomfortable discussions in which I regularly struggle to not take things personally, that I am becoming more and more conscious of the real systemic privilege that exists.

Back to the anti-racism meet-up: 15 people, 11 white, 4 black gathered in the library to engage in “real talk.” It felt simultaneously terrifying and wonderful.  Terrifying in that I knew that my thinking would be challenged, and that I might say something that would make someone think of me as racist. Wonderful in that it was a place that encouraged discussion that white people, myself included, avoid at all costs. For purposes of confidentiality, they use the motto “What’s said here, stays here. What’s learned here, leaves here.

How can I translate these learnings into actions for life as I move forward?  A few ideas with which I’m starting:

  • Acknowledge your shared humanity with a person of color - Initiate a friendly conversation with someone of color. Make eye contact and smile. Take off your headphones and say hello to the person you see every day on the train.
  • I'm white. Don't take it personally. But at the same time, take it VERY personally. I have to fight the urge to defend my privilege when it arises in conversation. I remind myself that the question posed is not an accusation, and dig in for the deeper meaning and understanding. I regularly ask myself, "How does my whiteness affect this conversation." It's the intentional insertion of this reverse "WTF_was_that_racist" background process that helps me understand the lived experience of those I love so dearly.
  • Ask uncomfortable questions. If a white woman can't question a person's rationale for moving to a segregated community, who can? This is a struggle for me (remember, I'm no trouble-maker) but that's exactly why I'm committed to do it. There's a risk here of people not liking me, but there's also a freedom that comes with honest conversation.
  • Seek out others doing this work in your community. Maybe it's a group, maybe it's a book club examining racism. Maybe it's a class at your local community college. Find people who share this awareness and learn from one another.


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