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.”
- 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: