White Privilege

In the United States, members of the majority culture often have a difficult time understanding the importance of special recognition for minorities. For example, let’s consider Black History Month. February is the time of year when most schools will set time aside to discuss Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and maybe Harriett Tubman. However, there is a much deeper history we often leave unexplored. Not only are there many unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, but there is a great wealth of contributions made by Blacks that have shaped our society into what it is today.

When looking for examples of success, members of the majority culture can easily find fellow members dominating that area. Up until recently, every one of our American presidents was White. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate are dominated by Whites, leaving political power within the hands of the majority culture. When you look at successful business owners and head of companies, many are White.

I am not attempting to take away from the hard work, sacrifice, and dedication of the majority culture. It is just necessary to understand that it is more difficult for young Black Americans to find examples of successful people who look like them.

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I once went to a dinner party with about ten couples who are personal friends of mine. My friend who accompanied me was the only person of color at the table. Within each couple, at least one person was a business owner, including myself and my friend. He admitted that when he gets together with other people of color, that isn’t a common experience. After the dinner, he asked me how many of those couples know someone close to them who either has substance abuse issues or a family member who had gone to jail. There were only two out of twenty people there who had a close family member or friend with substance abuse issues, and no one had family who had been in jail. He shared that many of the people he knows who resemble him have friends or family members who have experienced incarceration and/or substance abuse issues.

It is well documented that the incarceration rate for Blacks is incredibly disproportionate. The same crime committed by a Black person and a White person often receive different sentences, sometimes within the same county and with the same judge. While the White person gets probation, the Black person may do jail time.

That is why it is so important for Black Americans to learn about their history—to become familiar with successful people who look like they do. The majority culture has this immediately available to them while many people of color do not. It’s also true for our personal familial histories. If I want to trace my family roots back generations, I can do that. My friend who is Black can only go back two generations to his grandparents. This is a part of white privilege. It isn’t something Whites ask for; it is simply inherent in our system.

I often hear members of the majority culture say things are better now: “There isn’t any racism anymore! Look, we elected a Black president.” Are things really better in this country? I believe there are many Whites who support equality; they are not consciously racist, and the very thought of treating someone differently based on their skin color is abhorrent to them. On the other hand, because there are many places in the United States that are segregated by choice, the majority culture rarely has day-to-day interactions with people of color. They may work together, but they often go home to separate environments and cultures. When this separation exits, it is common to develop a sense of discomfort around people who are different, simply due to lack of exposure. This discomfort can be perceived by the minority culture as evidence of racism.

Many formal and informal systems in the United States are inherently racist. This doesn’t mean that the individuals that comprise the system support racism, but that we are implicit partners based on the privilege most of us don’t even know we have.

In order for this trend to be equalized, the majority culture must understand how privilege asserts itself in the systems currently in place and do whatever it can to correct the inequities. The minority culture can help by first realizing that many individuals want to make things different. Then they must be willing to share their experiences to help educate the majority culture to what it is like being a member of these existing systems.

Working together in a spirit of acceptance, inclusion, and cooperation will create the changes we are seeking as the only race—the human race.

Please see Leveraging Diversity at Work by Kim Olver & Sylvester Baugh here:

One Response

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