I am a white male who was raised in the suburbs. I personally never experienced racial discrimination or injustice of any sort. Honestly, I don’t recall encountering a large amount of diversity in my childhood. By the time I became a grown man, I was of the opinion (like many others in America) that racism didn’t exist anymore. I thought that racism was something that was discussed in history books and that the civil rights movement had been the end of it all. I mean, from my perspective, I didn’t see much diversity and as such I didn’t see any discrimination first-hand, so how could it exist? Talk about blinders being on. These were beliefs that I held deep down in my core, but there was a problem… I didn’t even know that I held these beliefs. You see, I never had to think about it, because I was never confronted by it. My privilege had me blinded from what was happening just beneath the surface of my comfortable suburban upbringing.
Then I met the woman who would become (and remain, for those of you who care) my wife. My wife is not only dark, she is also not from the United States. When we met, this was of no consequence to me… ‘I don’t see color, I just see you’ I would say (I later realized just how offensive a racialized person might find this line of thinking). But it would become something that over the decade long relationship we’ve held would drive many conversations and much personal growth.
When my wife moved with me to the United States it was a challenging time for both of us. This article isn’t the forum for me to bore you with 10 years of marital history, but the short version is the realization that race and cultural diversity were going to play a role in our relationship quickly became evident, and to be completely frank, I was not ok with it (refer back to the part of this story in which I mentioned that I deeply believed that racism no longer existed and being ‘color-blind’ was the best solution). Honestly, at this moment, I can only imagine what went through my wife’s mind… newly immigrated to the United States, married to a white American guy who quite honestly had every privilege imaginable to help him get where he was in life but was unwilling to even consider the idea that certain universal good luck had landed him that privilege. It had to be maddening. In fact, I know it was maddening, because she and I had many long discussions (of the heated variety) about this exact topic.
I frankly refused to even entertain the idea that white privilege was a real thing. “I worked hard to get where I am, nobody handed it to me” I’d say (I’m confident that no matter which side of this argument you sit on, that you’ve heard this phrase uttered). The idea, that some intangible privilege played party to my life’s achievements was insulting to me. It was not only insulting, but it broke down a core belief system that I had held my entire life… the belief that in America, if you work hard every day, you can be whatever you want to be. To take that belief away was not something I was ready to accept, and the idea of white privilege intrinsically shook the foundation of that belief.
Well here is where I get to my point: White privilege exists.
Polarized yet? Good. I was polarized also the first time my wife brought this term to my attention. I was polarized, triggered, offended, annoyed… but not the least bit introspective. For years we had this discussion and I would use every argument imaginable to defend my position….
– I’m not racist, I have black friends…
– I’m not racist, I married a biracial woman
– I’m not privileged, I work hard every day for what I have
– I’m not privileged, I spent years getting my education so that I could get the job I have
– I’m not privileged, there were black people in school with me and at the job I work at.
– Etc., etc., etc.
Now I realize I am not painting a very pretty portrait of myself, but I feel it’s important to share, because it’s the truth and the truth is not always a pretty thing, but it must be faced in order for change to begin. Having someone shatter your worldview is never an easy thing to accept. But that being said, let me dive into the lessons I learned through the discussions…
White Privilege and Racism
I never viewed myself as a racist person. At my core, I always thought people were equal and that skin color didn’t matter. However, the term white privilege comes with a variety of racist undertones. And the reason for this is that the existence of white privilege is a tool that perpetuates a racial divide in our society. As a white male, I am afforded privileges by the society I live in that are not afforded to a black man. And by not standing up and not acknowledging my privilege, I am being complicit in that racial divide. While I do believe that most individuals who say they aren’t racist, truly do not believe they are, I also have come to recognize that complicity and inaction equates to guilt when things have gotten as bad as they have. What I have learned through these conversations is that in order to fix this problem, the people who are benefited by the system have to be the ones who speak up against it and mobilize.
White People Are Not Used to Being Defined by Their Whiteness
In retrospect, the existence of my privilege was apparent in my discomfort with the term. Prior to my wife explaining White Privilege to me, I had never been defined by my race. There had been very few instances in my life in which I had been called ‘white’ as a defining term. I’d been called, suburban, male, tall, chubby, smart, bad at sports, but rarely ‘white’. So, to be boldfaced told that my ‘whiteness’ resulted in privilege made me incredibly uncomfortable.
On the flipped side of the coin, my wife spent her life being defined by her race on one level or another. Those are her stories to tell and if someday she decides to share them, I will applaud her for it… but I can say empirically that the terms black, dark, brown were all common descriptive terms that she heard throughout her childhood, adulthood, and time in America. Sometimes the racial definitions might be used with harmless intent other times they may be very much intended to define and hurt. But either way, being defined by her skin color is far more common for my non-white wife than it ever was for me as a white male. This was a truly challenging realization to overcome. I know many people who cringe when this topic comes up and from my own experience, I believe that this discomfort largely comes from being defined by one’s race when one is not accustomed to being so defined.
This realization, that I was uncomfortable being defined by my whiteness, made the conversation behind white privilege a far easier one to have. It helped me to realize that the simple truth of how we are defined societally results in intrinsic differences and ultimately privileges.
The Term Privilege Does Not Mean You Didn’t Work Hard or Earn What you Have
Scroll up and you’ll see that I mentioned a number of times how blindingly frustrating I found it to be called privileged. This was because I conflated the term with laziness. I imagined some rich kid who never worked a day in his life and had all of his money handed to him by a trust fund and was insulted to think that I could be rolled into that category of laziness. But yet again, I was looking at it all wrong. I do work hard. I have worked full time since I was 16 years old. I have multiple university level degrees… all of which I earned through sacrificing time, stress, health & wellness, and thousands of hours with my head in a book. I have started multiple businesses (some more successful than others) but all of which required blood, sweat, and tears to make work. These are not the characteristics of a lazy person.
Through much productive discourse, however, I did realize that the above opportunities could be considered the characteristics of a person who has experienced privilege. I had the privilege to have a car, that my parents bought me, to get me to my first job when I was 16. Being able to show up to work on time due to my reliable car played part in me earning more responsibility in that job and gaining more valuable experience. Being able to work in that job, while my parents paid for the rest of my life, allowed for me to start accruing savings at a young age. Beyond that, having the opportunity to be raised by parents who were fully available every evening to teach me useful skills (like how to save money) set me up for successes in my adulthood that I otherwise may have missed out on had they not been fully available. So, my hard work was not without merit. But the ability to have the opportunities I had, came largely from having the good fortune to be born into a household that had the means to support my goals and aspirations. By definition, this was a privilege I was afforded simply by my birth circumstances.
Again, this realization played party to far more productive discourse between my wife and me. I was able to stop seeing ‘white privilege’ as a derogatory term against my merits and begin seeing it as a discussion about opportunities afforded by our birth circumstances. Through this, I was able to look at the discussion categorically and from a data-driven perspective rather than an emotional one.
I recognize that reading this may have some folks’ blood boiling. That’s ok. I’m not writing this to make friends, if anything I’d like it to open a dialogue with those who fully disagree with me. I truly believe that in this case, preaching to the choir of white folks who already believe what I’m writing is not going to do much to change things. I also realize that if I do not clarify one point then there will be those whose first retort will be that I should stop writing for an entire race or social class based on my individual experiences.
I am not trying to speak for everyone, but rather my own recognized experiences. I recognize that there are black people who had opportunity growing up. I also realize that there are white people who did not have similar opportunities as me growing up and the term privilege seemingly does not apply to that group. However, the term white privilege can best be described as a built-in advantage… Francis E. Kendal, author of Diversity in the Classroom and Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race defines White Privilege as “having greater access to power and resources than people of color (in the same situation) do”. And I see examples in my own experiences that support this definition time and time again.
What am I doing with the realizations that I outlined above? Well here are a few things I am working on…
- Step one is that I’m learning to listen. When I once would raise my voice in argument on the topic of white privilege, I now make a true effort to stay silent while the other is speaking and hear them. This gives me the opportunity to introspect and truly try to see the perspective they are coming from.
- Secondly, I am trying hard to educate myself. I used to put it in my wife’s court to educate me about racism and privilege (After all she’s dark and has a college degree on the topic). This is a lazy and irresponsible way to learn. I have the ability to educate myself on my own volition and I am taking steps to do so (for starters, I’m reading a few books about race and privilege).
- Third, I am actively trying to NOT shy away from content that makes me uncomfortable. This can come in many forms… movies and documentaries about systemic racism and white privilege, books, conversations that are uncomfortable for me, and so forth.
- Fourth is that I am standing behind those who are speaking rather than in front. This is because I want to use my privilege to be an ally for change. As a large white male, I have always had the privilege to make my voice heard and to stick up for people who are being bullied. But I don’t think ‘sticking up for those speaking up right now’ is what is needed. I think being an ally on the playing field of change is what will truly evolve into a unity that can affect real progress.
I hope that this article gives a small amount of insight into the process that I, a white male from the suburbs, underwent to change my viewpoint about social injustice and white privilege.
Previously published on “Equality Includes You”, a Medium publication.
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