I know not all my followers will read this article. Whenever I write on diversity, I find I’m preaching to the choir because it’s only people who are interested in diversity who read. The people who really need to read this never will.
I want to start by saying this: Having privilege doesn’t mean you are a horrible person. You didn’t ask for it; you may not even want it, but it is there. If you want to fight for a just cause, you must first recognize you have privilege and use it to help. Pretending it doesn’t exist is harmful, and it’s not something you get to choose.
Secondly, recognizing that institutional racism exists doesn’t mean you are personally a racist or that you contribute to the culture of racism. But if you want to help find equality for all, you need to recognize it exists and speak out against the institutions that operate on white supremacy. The time of being silent it over. White people with privilege need to get into the trenches with our black brothers and sisters and call for change. The alternative is evil.
It’s an unfortunate truth that the United States was founded on genocide and slavery. Written into the code of its DNA, our county wasn’t saved from its racist roots when its people elected a Black president. For those of us making an effort to listen to their voices and witness their struggle, we know the fight of the historic Civil Rights movement 50 years ago is still a fight. For those who haven’t been tuned in, the events of the last three months have jolted many of them awake.
The murder of Black lives by those sworn to serve and protect has been and continues to be relentless, but this year presented a string of especially grotesque deaths that are impossible to justify. The streak started when a jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, was hunted and executed by civilians because he was black. (White privilege check: Have you ever had to be worried about looking like a suspect running away from a crime scene while jogging near your home because of the color of your skin? Could you imagine the police protecting the civilians who murdered you for a whole two months until public pressure became too powerful?)
Then came Breonna Taylor, an EMT who was on the frontline of the pandemic. She was sleeping in her bed with her partner when the police entered her home with a no-knock search warrant, but they were at the wrong address. (White privilege check: If you had a weapon for self-defense in your home, would you use it against a group of people who entered your home in the middle of the night? Would you anticipate being charged with attempted murder for shooting a police officer when you saw them as the intruders they were and acted in self-defense?)
Then came the black man who asked Amy Cooper to leash her dog in a part of Central Park that required it. (It should be noted that racism knows no party lines. This woman is a liberal who donated to Obama’s campaign.) Those of us who saw the video watched her threaten to contact police and say that “an African-American man is threatening my life.” We listened as she turned on her false waterworks when she made good on that threat, and we looked on in horror as she was so focused on following through that she almost choked the life out of her dog. (White privilege check: Have you ever had to worry about someone using the police force against you simply because, in a he-said-she-said situation, you know the liar would be believed? It comes with both parties understanding that, even as one clearly lies and fabricates a story, the accusation alone could result in the false imprisonment and possibly the death of the innocent black person by investigating police.)
And the final dose of fuel to the fire was the filmed, callous murder of yet another unarmed, non-violent black man by police. His name was George Floyd.
This is not something that can be ignored. This is not something new. We simply have the means to document the incidents. The mere fact that I don’t look like a crime to these armed public servants gives me privilege. The resulting fear of living under such pressure doesn’t shape the reality of my life, my family’s lives, and that gives me privilege. I have the privilege of thinking that police protect me; they won’t needlessly murder me and others like me.
There is a difference in being a racist and being a pawn in institutionalized racism. There are two standards in this country in many situations… one for whites and one for blacks. It is sometimes so big that it’s lethal, but it’s even in small, simple, everyday interactions. For example, I was in a Walmart with a black friend. We both went through the checkout line with about the same amount of products and used our credit cards to pay. I went through the line unquestioned and he was asked for ID by the same cashier.
A white person confronted by a police officer typically does not fear for their lives. I am not proud of this, but I have been pulled over for more than my share of speeding tickets. In my case, a police officer approaches my car, asks for my license and registration. I dig it out of my purse and glove compartment without asking permission to move and rummage around, yet no officer ever has drawn their gun on me. One time I was pulled over for speeding when I was driving my friend’s truck. It was the only time in my life I was asked to get out of the car for a speeding violation. When I was out of earshot of my friend, the officer asked me if I was all right. He thought it was at least possible that I was being held against my will. If you haven’t guessed, the friend I was with is a Black man. When I have shared that story with some of my white, female friends, they say things like, “Thank goodness. What if you had been kidnapped? Aren’t you glad he asked?” When I share the story with my black, female friends, they respond with some version of, “Um huh, he thought you were being held against your will,” shaking their heads as they think of it. I was not relieved this police officer asked because, you see, I had given him no indication I was under any duress. I never gave him a signal, mouthed “help me” or anything else to give him the impression I was scared. He assessed the situation and saw a white woman with a large, black man, assumed and acted.
Even if your best friend is black, you’re dating a black person, you have biracial children and you hang out with black people at work, you benefit from white supremacy.
A big step toward accepting the truth of our society and becoming more comfortable with having these difficult conversations—something that is necessary to be an ally—is understanding that racism isn’t always an intentional evil. If you believe you aren’t racist and you say something like, “I don’t even see color,” then you are guilty of marginalizing black people. You are negating their experience, and it’s a lie you tell yourself. Of course you see color, and color is beautiful. But you must understand your privileged position as best you can. My black friends have been through some things I will never understand, no matter how much I want to. When I look at them, I need to see their skin tone and respect their struggles because of it. I need to know the lessons of my childhood were vastly different from theirs. I was taught about a trusting, protective, fair environment; they were taught something totally different. This is a privilege I have. I can’t shed it, but I can use it to bolster the voices of the disenfranchised. Won’t you join me? Don’t deny your privilege; do something positive with it.
As a mother of two sons of colour I am acutely aware of the difference between their daily experiences and mine. I am often shamed by whiteness. As their mother I was sometimes frowned upon and looked down on but I have never experienced what they do on a daily basis. Thank you Kim
Thanks for reading and sharing your experience, Sheryl.
Thank you again Kim for bringing white privilege to our attention. The privilege is that we don’t have to consider it at all unless we choose to.
Yes Marney, that’s the ultimate white privilege. We can deny it exists because it doesn’t affect us.
You have opened my mind, as you have done many times. I think that we are approaching a critical mass of leaders like you who will guide us through a change, not only in the US but worldwide. I concur with Bette and join her in sending thanks.
As always, Beverly, you are so kind. I am also sensing that tipping point leading to change. It will be so exciting to see that happen in our lifetimes.
Well said Kim Some very pertinent examples here. You are right those who need to read this will shy away from it. I am very aware of my white privilege. Thank you for what you are bringing to our attention.
Thanks, Bette. I do want to serve as an agent of change. When we recognize our privilege, we must act!