On Being White and Privileged

 

 

A few days ago I learned about a new anti-racist campaign, Un-Fair, the mission of which is to raise awareness about white privilege in hopes of creating systemic and structural change for racial justice. The tagline of the campaign, if that’s what you would call it, is “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white.”

I’m not sure how I’m just now learning about this campaign, as it’s been around since last year, but I hadn’t even heard of it until I read this article titled “Fellow White People: I assure You This Anti-Racist Campaign Video is Not Trying to Make You Feel Guilty.” I immediately watched the video, read the article avidly, and then clicked over to learn more about the actual Un-Fair campaign.

Though the campaign is largely supported by many communities of color and anti-racist groups, there is a lot of hype surrounding this that focuses less on ending racism and more on how this is just another attempt by liberals to make white people feel bad and guilty, because, hey, it’s not our fault that we are white! I happen to agree with the title of the aforementioned article, and I don’t believe that campaigns such as these are trying to make white people feel guilty.

The topics of race and racism are very taboo and touchy subjects in our culture. People do not like to talk about them. When white people hear the term “racist” they tend to get defensive and take it very personally. Talking about race can be very uncomfortable, and I think think this is a big part of the problem. As stated in the Un-Fair campaign video, “our silence keeps it in place.” So I’m going to take a risk and talk about race and racism, and the role my own white privilege has in perpetuating it.

I’m going to be honest and admit that up until a few years ago, I had no idea what white privilege really was. I had heard the term thrown around before, but I never really understood it. I didn’t understand how being white gave me an “unfair advantage” over other people. I didn’t consider myself racist, and like most people in the world, I had a whole boatload of issues and problems that I felt made me far from privileged. My childhood was less than idyllic and I had to work hard to succeed. I suppose I subscribed somewhat to the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality.

What I didn’t realize is that a lot of people don’t even have bootstraps to pull up. It’s not that simple. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to get bootstraps if you are white.

When I read the essay “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh a few years ago, my world was kind of rocked. My whole perspective on race and racism and my own whiteness changed completely. The best way for me to describe what happened is like looking at one of those optical illusions, where once you see the hidden image, you can’t unsee it. And you can’t understand how you were oblivious to it for so long. Becoming aware of my own white privilege, and the role I played in perpetuating racism and oppressing others, albeit unknowingly, made me feel so awful. So Stupid. So naive.

I couldn’t believe that I had been so unconscious of it for so long. And this new knowledge made me feel terrible.

For those of you that were like me and unfamiliar with white privilege, according to Ms. McIntosh, “white privilege is the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements benefits and choices bestowed on people solely because they are white. Generally white people who experience such privilege do so without being conscious of it.”

For example:

  • I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help my race will not work against me.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing a person of my race.
  • If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
  • 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.
  • When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
  •  I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
  • I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

The day I was born, I was given an unearned advantage over every other baby of color born on that same day. I didn’t do anything to earn this privilege, nor did I ask for it, but I had it. I did nothing to deserve to it, and yet it works in my favor daily. A person of color born into the exact same circumstances that I was would have had a harder time succeeding. This is not speculation; this is just how our society is set up.

As a white person, this is a hard pill to swallow.

I grew up under the impression that racism was how you personally treated people whose racial identity was different than that of your own, and not as an invisible structure created to benefit white people. We are not trained to think this way. As Ms. McIntosh writes, “my schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will. My schooling followed the pattern my colleague Elizabeth Minnich has pointed out: whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them“ to be more like “us.”

What so many people fail to realize, what I failed to realize for many years, is that racism is systemic. It goes so much deeper than our own personal thoughts and views and beliefs. It’s deeply engrained in our society, and will continue to be, until the oppressors (as in me and other white people) decide to stop participating in it and instead work to change the fundamental structures our society is based on.

And I think that’s why this topic can be so touchy and make people get defensive. No one likes to think of themselves as an oppressor. Realizing that you have been contributing to systemic racism, regardless of your personal, political or moral beliefs, is a terrible feeling. It makes you feel bad. It makes you feel guilty. In a video interview, Ms. McIntosh says that coming to terms with the advantages and daily effects of white privilege in her life was not easy, “because I didn’t want to know them, they were messing up my view of myself as a person who had earned everything I had.”

Our society has come to a place where we can openly talk about male privilege. For the most part, no one argues that males, in general, have an unearned advantage over females. People often talk about how their offices still function under a “boys club” mentality. Men still make more money than women for doing the exact same job. Men will often get a promotion over an equally qualified female counterpart. No one argues these facts. It’s a man world, after all. White privilege functions in the same way, but people have a much harder time admitting this. No one wants to acknowledge that “it’s a white’s world.” No one wants to admit being part of “white club.”

Despite what some may say, we do not live in a color blind society. I am not color blind. You are not color blind (unless, of course, you are literally color blind). We all look different and to say those differences don’t play a part of daily life is not reality. To say that Obama being black has nothing to do with some of the criticism surrounding him is just ridiculous. To say that me being white hasn’t been beneficial to me is just ridiculous. It’s just not true.

As the Un-Fair campaign states, “It is hard to see racism when we are white because the systems and institutions are set up to look like us and advantage us. It is hard to see racism when we are white because we live in a monoculture based on white northern European values, beliefs, practices and culture. We are ‘normal’. “

I’m not saying that we haven’t come a long way. The fact that we have a black President shows that we have come a long way. There are some places in the world that have made bigger strides than others, places where systemic racism is perhaps not as prevalent. But all one has to do is read the comments on any of the articles or videos I link to at the bottom of this post to see just how blatantly racist many people in our society still are. We still have a looooong way to go, and it’s a hard battle to fight.

I’ve heard people say they shouldn’t have to feel guilty just because they are white, and I get that, I really do. When I first learned about all of this, I felt horribly guilty. And no one wants to feel guilty, because feeling guilty sucks. However, I don’t think the overarching goal of anti-racist campaigns that happen to discuss white privilege is to make people feel guilty. Guilt is a useless emotion.

Yet there is a reason we feel guilt. It’s because we know there is something wrong with this picture.

And when you know there is something wrong, something to feel guilty about, and that you’ve done nothing to stop it, you feel bad. And sometimes when you feel bad, you start to get defensive, and eventually, you want to just avoid the issue all together. It’s a lot easier to avoid deeply rooted societal issues than to accept the privileges your color has given you and try to change them. Accepting this means acknowledging that the world is not a fair place, and that you have been benefiting from the disadvantages of others. And you have to be willing to give up that advantage, that power.

Like Ms. McIntosh says, “For me white privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.”

I have wanted to write about this topic for awhile, but I’ve been worried that I wouldn’t be able to get my thoughts across efficiently. That I wouldn’t be able to fully articulate my message. That I would sound too preachy and come off as just another one of those “guilty white liberals.” But I decided that is a risk I’m willing to take. It is a risk I need to take, because the first step towards changing these social systems is acknowledging that they exist. Staying silent is a huge part of the problem.

Giving up the myth of meritocracy is hard. No one wants to admit that our society is structured not around talent and ability but around class privilege. Trying to figure out what in the world you can do to stop being a part of it is even harder. There is no easy answer. At the end of her essay, Ms. McIntosh asks, “and so one question for me and others like me is whether we will be like them or whether we will get truly distressed, even outraged about unearned race advantage and conferred dominance and if so, what will we do to lessen them.”

What can we do to lessen them? What will you do to lessen them?

I sincerely hope that those of you that took the time to read this did so with an open heart and mind. I’m not trying to push any sort of agenda here, I’m just trying to bring awareness to something that people don’t like to discuss, and something that a lot of white people don’t even realize exists.

If you interested, below are some really great videos or articles that go deeper into this subject, and if you have a few minutes, they are well worth your time:

 

Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack:

 

Tim Wise: On White Privilege

 

What White Privilege Is

There is a wealth of great information available at the Un-Fair campaign website as well, and if you are  really interested in digging even deeper, below are links to some of the best literature I have read on this topic:

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

“Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity

White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
FOLLOW ME ON: BLOGLOVIN’ // FACEBOOK // TWITTER // INSTAGRAM //
Mike D.June 27, 2012 - 12:07 pm
SerenaJune 27, 2012 - 2:01 pm

@Mike – Thanks for the comment. I think you may have missed the point of my post, and I’m not sure you understand the point of the Un-Fair campaign, as I don’t feel that its goal is to make white people feel guilty, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I think it’s great that the University of Minnesota is sponsoring it.

jeanJune 27, 2012 - 2:13 pm

SUPER interesting post! i did a once through and definitely bookmarking to reread and check out those links and videos.

Voluntarily Dismante Your "White Privilege"!June 27, 2012 - 5:13 pm

Please participate in the “Dismantle Your White Privilege Campaign”!

We offer a residency program for white “progressives” who support Mayor Ness’ “Un-Fair Campaign”.

Grant recipients will receive a free 3-month stay in an apartment of my choice (NOT IN DULUTH! The grant residencies are located in Detroit, Camden New Jersey, Gary Indiana, and East St. Louis)

Your rent on your actual residence will be paid for those 3 months, and you will also receive a $1000 per month stipend for the 3 months of the program, plus travel expenses from Duluth to the grant residency location!

The only stipulations are that you have to actually live in the apartment that I choose, and stay there every night of the 3 months, and take public transportation as your only means of transportation, and if you don’t complete the entire 3 month program (like if you chicken out, or get killed, etc), then you will have to pay back the entire amount (rents on both your residence and the granted residency apartment, travel expenses, and the $1000 monthly stipend).

Who wants to be the first grant recipient? Hit me up!

Dismantle your white privilege today, and get paid to do it!

Move to blackest Oakland or DetroitJune 27, 2012 - 5:15 pm

If you want to get rid of your “unearned white privilege”, what a better way than to move from San Francisco to blackest Oakland?

Why not? What could possibly go wrong?

Another great place to go “dismantle your “unearned white privilege” is Detroit! Or East St. Louis! Or Gary Indiana! Or Camden New Jersey!

They would just looooooove to get their hands on a pretty naive white blond girl like you!

The Invisible Knapsack is BULLSHITJune 27, 2012 - 5:18 pm

The “Invisible Knapsack” is a bunch of bogus BS white-guilt babble, written by Peggy McIntosh, who is a naive, sheltered, out-of-touch, ivory-tower “academic”, who lives Wellesley, MA, which is 80% white and only 1.4% black, according to city-data.com She’s just another “progressive” hypocrite like Tim Wise.

Allow me to destroy its “logic” – my comments in [brackets]:

From “The Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time. [So can anyone of any other race. Where does this woman live? Oh yeah, a place that is 80% white and only about 1% black, which explains her naive and skewed perspective. Bogus.]

2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me. [So can anyone of any race. Bogus.]

3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live. [So can anyone of any race. Bogus.]

4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me. [This is also true of anyone of any race in who lives "in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live". It is also basically a re-wording of #3, which I already debunked. Try being white and living in a black part of Detroit, or any other black-majority city and see how pleasant your neighbors are to you. TOTALLY BOGUS.]

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed. [BOGUS. Whites get followed in stores all the time, especially teenagers.]

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented. [TOTALLY BOGUS. What kind of white-supremacist newspapers or TV does this naive, sheltered "academic" woman read or watch? I guess she never actually watches TV or reads a real newspaper, because non-whites are widely represented, usually positively. Does this woman live in the 1950's?]

7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is. [BOGUS. Is this woman ignorant of history? Who created Western Civilization? Who wrote The Great Books of Western Civilization? Who wrote the great symphonies and invented the orchestras of Western Classical Music? Who founded the USA and wrote its constitution, became its senators, representatives, and presidents? Whites did. Are we supposed to re-write history to assuage her white-guilt or to massage the inferiority complexes of non-whites?]

8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race. [BOGUS. Again, does this sheltered naive woman live in the 1950's? Tons of school curriculum materials are expressly about non-whites. "Black History Month" anyone?]

9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege. [BOGUS. Since this woman is a liberal "academic", and since most "academics" and universities have a liberal political orientation, of course she could easily find a publisher. She is preaching to the choir, after all. Also, hate-whitey "academics" like Dr. Kamau Kambon, the former North Carolina University professor of African-American Studies, who called for the extermination of whites (on video, look it up), are readily accepted in academia.]

10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race. [??? BOGUS. I bet this naive woman who lives sheltered in a 1% black town has NEVER been the "only member of her race" in a group. Perhaps she should go preach her dogma to a crowd of young black men on a street corner in Camden New Jersey and see how much her "voice is heard" by them, preferably at midnight.]

11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race. [BOGUS, this is simply a statement of this naive woman's subjective experience and faith-based quasi-religious dogmatic belief system.]

12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair. [BOGUS. Again, does this sheltered naive woman live in the 1950's? Has she ever even been to a real city or music shop? This is probably the stupidest "proof" of "white privilege" I have ever seen.]

13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability. [BOGUS. Who even uses checks anymore? People swipe credit cards or debit cards, which almost always require no ID to use. This "Invisible Knapsack" drivel is TOTALLY OUTDATED.]

14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them. [BOGUS. Anyone of any race can do this too.]

15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection. [BOGUS. White children are in put in much more danger caused by blacks than black children are from whites. Where does this woman live? Oh yeah, she is a sheltered naive "academic" who lives in an 80% white, 1% black town, and she is probably never actually around any blacks for any prolonged length of time, otherwise she would not be so naive.]

And so on and so on. I’m not going to bother with the other ones, most of them are just as stupid and bogus as the first 15. Many of the numbered points are also just re-wordings of other numbered points that she already made, which were also bogus and don’t actually reflect REALITY at all.

I await your reply.

Oh! I saw one more that is SO STUPID that I can’t resist!

46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin. [BOGUS!!!! AGAIN, does this woman live in the 1950's? I am 45 years old, and ever since my childhood, bandages and blemish cream have been available in a wide range of skin tones. There were even bandages with multicolored polka-dots on them, and other ones with green space aliens! This is probably the second-stupidest point she tried to make, next to the one about music stores and supermarkets.]

Patricia McClainJune 27, 2012 - 7:37 pm

Lots of effort and research in this entry! And honest introspection as well. Atticus Finch says, “You never really understand another person til you walk around in his skin.” And since we don’t often have that opportunity, I think it is important to become aware of perceptions about race such as you have presented.

hrtausJune 27, 2012 - 9:11 pm

To the knapsack hater, I feel like you need to get out of computer land and go outside every now and then. You are very lucky that you’ve grown up in such an open and equal society. However, just because you do not see a need for people like Tim Wise does not mean you should start throwing e-punches.

While I’m sure Black History Month eradicated racism in your community, dedicating a specific time of the year to think about Black history is not the panacea to lack of education/understanding/inclusiveness in most communities. Sure, there are books and learning materials that are more inclusive to multicultural audiences, but are they used? Even recently, CollegeBoard was under fire for allegations of racial bias in its test: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/06/21/sat

To further this conversation, your argument of #7 is laughable. It proves the argument the author was trying to make. Sure, the New Country’s written history begins with Europeans, but Blacks and Latinos have a strong place in our history that is now being budgeted out. Here’s another citation for you: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/13/texas-textbook-massacre-u_n_498003.html#s73765&title=Thomas_Jefferson_Whos

Hmm…have you opened a popular magazine lately? Here are the covers:

Men’s Fitness: http://www.whosdatedwho.com/tpx_8772111/mens-fitness-magazine-united-states-july-2012/

Cosmo: http://www.dailystab.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Demi-Lovato-Cosmopolitan-Cover-July-2012.jpg

Teen Vogue: http://cdn02.cdn.justjaredjr.com/wp-content/uploads/headlines/2012/05/miranda-cosgrove-teen-vogue-july-cover.jpg

US Weekly: http://i2.lulzimg.com/fe77ae7640.jpg

…and let’s not even get into how unrealistic and airbrushed these models are, because that would be an entirely different conversation!

Onllwyn C. DixonJune 27, 2012 - 9:11 pm

I had to take a few minutes to write a response to a few of the comments. I know she composed her piece with a great deal of thoughtfulness, caring, and desire to share her own story. I think it is entirely possible to engage in dialogue without discounting what the other person has to say. The challenge for all citizens of this great country is to acknowledge our history, acknowledge our present and then finds ways to individually and collectively create a society where at the end of the day race doesn’t matter. I for one choose to be a part of the solution. What will you choose?

“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”
Robert F. Kennedy

Demi Lovato????June 28, 2012 - 9:49 am

Demi Lovato?

Why on earth are you bringing up Demi Lovato as an example of “white privilege”?

Demi Lovato is a rich, successful, popular, brown Latina “person of color”. If anything, the success of Demi Lovato, and her being featured on a major magazine cover, proves my point that non-whites are widely positively represented in magazines, and disproves your point!

Did you even think before you tried to use Demi Lovato on a magazine cover as an example of “white privilege”?????

Jeez!

SerenaJune 28, 2012 - 9:58 am

Dear Demi Lovato?, Tim Wise Sucks, Move to Oakland, etc.,

I just realized that you’re the same person (I can see your IP address), so posting anonymous comments pretending to be different people and using such wonderful and creative email addresses such as “timwisesucks@timwisesucks.com” and “invisiblebullshit@naivegirls.com” doesn’t help your argument. I’m not going to waste time debating something with you because we will never see eye to eye on it, so we just have to agree to disagree. I’m all for having an intelligent and open dialogue on these issues, but I won’t do that with an anonymous commenter that is pretending to be multiple people.

Thanks for stopping by. Have a good day.

ETA: Any additional anonymous posts from that IP address will be deleted. If you would like to stop being anonymous and stop making up fake email addresses, you are free to post and engage in actual intelligent dialogue. Enjoy Dallas!

[...] also want to highlight one particular part, as I think it’s rather fitting in light of yesterday’s post: “Things have changed, haven’t they? Yes, they have. But I mention it because I want to [...]

[...] On Being White and Privileged – And when you know there is something wrong, something to feel guilty about, and that you’ve done nothing to stop it, you feel bad. And sometimes when you feel bad, you start to get defensive, and eventually, you want to just avoid the issue all together. It’s a lot easier to avoid deeply rooted societal issues than to accept the privileges your color has given you and try to change them. Accepting this means acknowledging that the world is not a fair place, and that you have been benefiting from the disadvantages of others. And you have to be willing to give up that advantage, that power. Posted in Bloggity | Tagged blog, choice cuts, internet, links [...]

Chantilly Patiño (@biculturalmom)June 29, 2012 - 12:40 pm

Serena, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic and for sharing them so well. I really appreciate all the work you did to lay out the story of white privilege in your post and share your thoughts will all of us.

Just want to let you know that you have a friend in the audience and many readers who appreciate you sharing this piece.

Thanks for representing! I’m one white girl who appreciates your honesty and perspective! ♥

Happy Friday » SpillerenaJuly 6, 2012 - 9:46 am

[...] week’s post on white privilege led to all sorts of hullabaloo. It got picked up on a few websites, which was absolutely wonderful, [...]

[...] topic and stick to it (she suggested I continue writing more controversial pieces, a la my post on white privilege) but the thing is, I don’t know if that’s what I want to really do in this space [...]

MelissaNovember 10, 2012 - 10:18 pm

Lindsey was right: I would LOVE your blog!!! Reading this is a cultural shock for me because coming from Orange County, this is something I would never come across from a white person in all honesty. Your blog is simply amazing!

EmilyNovember 30, 2012 - 5:43 pm

Wow! This is so great! I just found your blog via your naked in Spain scenario and when I saw the words “White Privilege”, I was almost shocked. I love blogging (and I love social issues such as this) and the two rarely go hand in hand! Major kudos for thinking like this. Check out gradientlair.com, could be good for you and the writer of that blog to have a conversation on the topic!

Thanks Serena for sharing this! While in college, I took several courses on the concept of diversity and white privilege. I found it really interesting on how upset one of the commentators became and consistently chose the word “bogus” to express their feelings on the topic. As someone who is Filipino and experiences many of those aspects in the knapsack article throughout my entire experience of existence, I would disagree with that person’s claim of what is and is not “bogus.” As a person of color, you adjust because you have to. I took my husband to a hispanic grocery store for the first time last year and he became blatantly aware that he was the only white person in the store. When he brought it up to me later, I responded that that experience was a small taste of what it’s like to be in a predominantly white community for me. I really loved this blog post and as a new follower, I’m excited to continue following you. I have a post that you might be interested in that covers my thoughts on a Latina comedian using Asian stereotypes in her comedy act. It might be of some interest to you and you can find it on http://www.kimberlyersk1ne.com.

OtutodilichukwuApril 7, 2013 - 5:02 pm

There’s noticeably a bundle to grasp this. I assume you have made precise nice factors in features also. Otutodilichukwu http://www.thestandard.co.zw/2012/12/12/egypt-divided-the-people-mobilise-for-and-against-referendum/

SharlaMay 19, 2013 - 6:23 am

Love this piece! Always refreshing and rejuvenating to see others in the fight for social justice. Super, Super sweet!

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *

*

*