on privilege: reconciliation requires a look at white privilege

In Salman Rushdie’s story “A Prophet’s Hair”, the father, Hashim, is a greedy man consumed with delusions of his own generosity and sacrifice.  He behaves as if he is helping others, when he is, in fact, abusing them.  His pride in this projected self makes him a liability to everyone with whom he interacts.  Rushdie weaves a tale in which Hashim’s misplaced self-satisfaction destroys his life, damaging everyone around him in the process.

Rushdie’s story reminds me of our ability to delude ourselves.  Most of us are invested in maintaining a narrative of how we got to be who we are.  America’s obsession with bootstraps and linear growth trickles into each of our lives, convincing us that life is about independent advancement.  My toddler constantly says, “I do it. I big girl,” and my colleagues constantly say, “I built this/did this/achieved this.”  We love the myth of our independence so much that we fiercely defend ourselves against perceived threats to the notion that we earned every inch of our place in the world.

Because of this, when we talk about privilege in society, defenses and accusations fly. While we have been discussing privilege for a few weeks, this essay addresses racial privilege specifically.  Frances Kendall offers an expansive definition that orients the term white privilege in the context of today’s American cultural context:

An institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions.  One of the primary privileges is that of having greater access to power and resources than people of color do; in other words, purely on the basis of our skin color doors are open to us that are not open to other people.
— Frances Kendall

Kendall offers a logical analysis of the structural reality of America: Most power and financial resources are held in white hands.  Any cursory view of our society reveals America is racially stratified in nearly every arena.  Racial disparities are consistent in economics, education and therefore, in access to advancement. 

It takes nothing away from my experience as a white professional woman to recognize that most power and money are held in white hands, and because we live in segregated communities, this impacts access and equity.

Living in a world where you can access every industry, opportunity and service your family requires without going outside your race or area of town is itself an indicator that you benefit from white privilege.  As a result of centuries of systemic, procedural racism, we are mostly segregated in our neighborhoods, schools and churches.  A person unaware of their privilege might say, “I’m not racist.  I never even really talk about race and I certainly avoid racist people.” A person who is aware of their privilege might tweak that statement to acknowledge, “I don’t think about race or privilege as I move throughout my day.  I am starting to see that people with a different racial background from mine might not have the privilege of never having to negotiate racial differences in their everyday lives.  Maybe I could learn something from people who negotiate difference more gracefully (or at least more often) than I do.”

The concept of privilege does not imply unearned talent.  Rather, it is useful in recognizing that in our society, people with white skin are often given the benefit of the doubt, an assumption of belonging, and an earned seat at the table.  For people of color, however, there is an often unacknowledged wall to climb, a deservedness to demonstrate, an “I’m one of the good ones” to convey; simply, people of color are not given the benefit of the doubt, but the burden of doubt.   This reality can best be seen in the fact that when a black man commits a crime there is a level of expectation and confirmation bias felt by many people; however, when a white male commits a crime, most people don’t project the actions of that man onto his entire race.  If he is white, the crime is an abnormality, but if he is black, his actions confirm a criminal proclivity in poor, black people.  White privilege allows my mistakes to represent me, not my entire race.

We love the myth of our independence so much that we fiercely defend ourselves against perceived threats to the notion that we earned every inch of our place in the world.

I spend time with a lot of people who are becoming aware of the foundational racial tension that exists in our country.  While the way in which they are leaning in—pursuing others, exploring their own bias, awkwardly learning about experiences different than their own—inspires me, some of these dear friends rigorously clam up when “white privilege” is mentioned.  I have noticed two consistencies in these friends:

1)   They are incredibly compassionate and generous when they engage another person who is different from them or is in need.  The attitude of shut-your-mouth-and-calm-down only occurs when that individual need is contextualized within the realities of systemic racism and racial disparity.  Individuals inspire compassion; systems inspire rejection. 

2)   They derive a great deal of their value from their own stories of ascension.  Their narratives of learning to position themselves as subjects (not victims or objects) is deeply invested in the lore of their work ethic.  These friends react defensively to the idea of white privilege, immediately feeling attacked.

And yet, there is a palpable energy in our country to face our collective past trauma.  From our last national election, with its strategically divisive rhetoric, to white supremacists marching, to dozens of unarmed black men being killed by civil servants, our racial issues are obvious.  Most of us now admit we are a society deeply divided along racial lines; the conflict begins when we try to explain why. 

Rather than blame, might we benefit from simply encouraging continued curiosity and observation?  To my friends who feel that acknowledging white privilege is an unfair attack on their personhood, I ask them to shift from, “Don’t dare call it privilege; my family worked hard for every single thing we have,” to, “My family worked hard for everything we have, and I am starting to see that a family of a different race could work just as hard and not end up where we are.”  Could we recognize that we live in a society that allows what Michelle Higgins calls, “privilege [that] specifically applies value aside from talent?”

What if we worked to acknowledge these biases, bringing them into the conversation?  It takes nothing away from my experience as a white professional woman to recognize the reality that most power and money are held in white hands, and because we live in segregated communities, this impacts access and equity.  When a person mentions white privilege, they are not attacking me, calling me lazy, or suggesting I have not earned my place at the table.  Instead of being defensive, I now recognize that when I don’t invite people of color to my table/work/church, I am hoarding my privilege and, importantly, limiting my ability to relate to and know others.  If we are sincere in our desire to lessen these divides and move toward reconciliation, we must all learn to acknowledge and counteract the real impact of white privilege on our outlook, behaviors and understanding of America.

on privilege: driving while hypocritical

Consider driving and what it demonstrates about privilege. When I leave my driveway, I sometimes pull onto a busy street, inevitably infuriating the guy driving way too fast who has to slow down to accommodate me.  I roll my eyes and think, “Chill!” even as I floor it to absolve myself of guilt.  However, when I am the person driving too fast (for a very good reason: I’m late. Always), and an unsuspecting person pulls out of their driveway, forcing me to quickly slow down, I think, “Seriously? Did you even look? Would it have killed you to wait for the huge opening behind me?” (Except that I usually don’t just think these words. I say them. Out loud. To my children or to my empty car. Because I am a very loving and healthy person. Clearly.) 

Spoiler alert: Most of us intensely privilege our perspectives, hardly giving a thought to our own changing standards, let alone the perspectives of others. 

When I drive, the only perspective I care about is my own, and I function as if my point of view is THE correct point of view.  Sometimes my hypocrisy is so obvious even I notice it.  Everyday, sometimes twice a day, I need to turn left at a very busy intersection.  The left arrow lane is sometimes backed up with 20 cars or more, and people, waiting is hard. But wait I must. When the arrow turns green, cars rush to make the turn (unless we are texting, in which case we don’t know if the light turned green, or if the sky fell, or if a dragon is approaching our car…but I digress).  Often a car cheats, merging in near the light, skipping the line.  Nothing is more infuriating: That driver thinks the rules of society don’t apply to him. I hate that guy. 

Until I become that guy. 

The line is SOOO long, and sometimes I decide to go straight to take another route.  The green arrow appears, cars start to move, and I happen to notice a person texting, leaving a huge gap in front of their car.  Is it so wrong for me to jump into that gap and turn left?! Technically I just did the thing that makes me hate people and think our society has no hope because everyone is so selfish…but I only did it because the Texter left all that space! It was a victimless crime. Right? 

The point is that I am an enormous hypocrite, with a huge capacity to privilege my own perspective at the expense of others.  One hundred times a day, we encounter situations in which we could consider only one instinctive perspective, or also consider the perspectives of others.  Without intentional effort toward curious observation, most of us privilege our perspectives to such an extent that we lose the ability to even recognize the existence of another point of view.  We justify our actions, diminishing or even dismissing the impact those decisions have on others in the process. 

This tendency to only consider one perspective can be frustrating behind the wheel, but it becomes problematic when it shapes the way we move through the world.  Perspectives are unique and are influenced by our experiences, personalities and position in life, making it natural to privilege one’s specific point of view over the views of others.  The danger occurs when we privilege our perspective to such an extent that we exclude, or even erase, the existence of differing perspectives.  In a society like ours, polarized on all sides by the fear and even demonization of  “others”, many of us tend to turn inward toward a tribe of people with whom we have a lot in common.  Social psychologists call this phenomenon a preference for our ‘ingroup’, and a denigration of all ‘outgroups.’.  Ingroup people are those with whom we share perspectives and life experiences, confirming that our way of thinking is normal, and the right way to think.  Outgroups, on the other hand, are people who differ from you in substantive or even superficial ways.  The more time we spend with our ingroup, the more we dismiss or suspect outgroups as a threat to our safety, or as illogical people under an absurd influence.

In cities like Nashville, where neighborhoods are mostly segregated, where schools are isolated by poverty or privatized by wealth, where communities of faith are often bolstered by insular and protectionist thinking, it is very easy to build a robust life interacting only within one’s ingroup.  Our level of comfort with these people is high, while our interactions with others can feel increasingly strained, as if we cannot find any common ground.  Interactions between outgroups are often negative because any sense of ‘normal’ is exposed as the simple privileging of one perspective at the exclusion of all others.  Having had a disorienting interaction with people whose assumptions and norms are distinct from ours, we retreat back to our ingroups, assured that we are the healthy, normal ones, and that diversity is not just uncomfortable but sometimes destructive.  Cultural norms—and conventional wisdom—get established when a group of people from similar backgrounds have similar experiences and then talk about them a lot.  If one learns to listen to both her ingroup and outgroups, she will quickly discover that ‘norms’ only exist in the community that established them.  In other words, life, like driving, teaches us to privilege our own perspectives, while viewing the perspectives of others with skepticism or disdain.

In the coming weeks, I hope to examine the way we come to privilege some ideas, and even people, over others.  Understanding the concept of privilege is crucial if we hope to learn from our past and strengthen the foundations upon which we build our communities.  We cannot discuss privilege if the word infuriates so many people, so I will try to unpack the concept of privilege, explaining why it exacerbates tension, makes people defensive, and yet remains a key for making progress in building a more perfect union.  In the meantime, notice yourself when you drive, and let the way you privilege your perspective behind the wheel illuminate the way you privilege your perspective in everyday life as well.

the destruction of defensiveness: listening is hard

If you haven’t had the privilege of being around fighting kids in a while, allow me to reassure you: They still do, usually for ridiculous reasons. Another fun fact: Kids are wildly hypocritical. And so are we.

For instance, one of my kids is fond of calling his brothers “tattle tales.” It makes him furious when he gets outed for being less than awesome.  In his mind, no sin of his is even remotely as egregious as the act of exposing said sin to a nearby adult. He can’t deal, and it makes him not only blind to his original sin, but fuels his righteous indignation at the poor kid who reported him.  He gets mad at the conversation instead of the act that caused the conversation.  Even worse, despite his firm stance against others disclosing his bad acts, he is known to throw a brother under the bus. In other words, he who hates a tattle tale is, in fact, a tattle tale.

While defensiveness is common, it is lazy, destructive, and selfish; we have to do better. 

Thank God we have outgrown such childish ways, right? Not so fast, my friends.  We know that defensiveness destroys collaboration; indeed, we see how destructive it is in others.  A friend snaps at another friend, but explodes when she is called on it instead of saying, “yep. My bad.”  A subordinate at work fails at an assignment, and rather than admit it and learn, he makes excuses.  A leader who is interviewed gets the inevitable question, “Any regrets?”, and responds with deflection, doubling down on bad choices as “the right choice at the time.”  It is easy to see how ridiculous others are when they fail to listen and then reflect on how they might become healthier.  In someone else, it is easy to see the willful ignorance required to deny a bad outcome or one’s own role in it.  It is much harder to avoid defensiveness when our own relationships (or sense of right-ness) are on the line.

In the last year, voices deemed hysterical or whiny or angry by those in the American majority have been elevated.  By some miracle that I don’t fully understand, many Americans now listen to women who claim #metoo, and are wondering what can change to ensure men do not treat women as objects to be assessed, groped or raped.  Many Americans now listen to those who are pleading for black lives, and are wondering what can change to ensure black lives do, in fact, matter.  Many Americans now listen to rural voices who have lost jobs and respect, and are wondering what can change to ensure we don’t ignore voices outside the city center in planning for our future.  Many Americans now listen to the voices that claim Confederate statues actively erase important parts of our history, and are wondering what can change to ensure we recognize and hear our whole history.

But many others feel attacked when those voices utter a word.  When we hear the story of another as a personal attack on ourselves, we don’t hear those voices.  Defensiveness and listening are mutually exclusive activities. A few weeks ago I wrote about Generation Bruh, and how my white son’s response to reading about Emmett Til’s murder was disgusted outrage.  Importantly though, his outrage was laced with defensiveness.  As a white male reading about horrible violence committed by other white males, he felt attacked.  I was dismayed by his defensive response to Til’s murder, and yet it reveals the destructive and pervasive reality of defensiveness in our American momentIf a person lives in the majority, is served well by the status quo, and has experienced a merit-based fairness in the systems of society, it is very easy to feel defensive when confronted with evidence that suggests injustice abounds. This feeling of defensiveness is heightened when the reality sets in that the people who often benefit from this abuse of power look like you. 

Defensiveness and listening are mutually exclusive activities.

The jump from recognizing injustice to feeling blamed for injustice is a short one for many of us.  We live in a largely segregated (and gender coded) society, and such divisions have kept us not only from having authentic relationships with each other, but also from understanding different versions of ‘reality.’  I assume that my understanding of history is the THE way to understand history, and I have no need to hear about the experience of another (especially one who might discount my understanding).  Defensive responses stem from feeling attacked, and are clear indications that many of us have one-sided historical understandings.  When confronted with diverse realities, our own perception of America is disproved as perhaps incomplete, and it is easier to react defensively than face the injustices pointed out by others.

It is quite hard to be an informed person in the United States and not know that our history, systems, institutions and laws favor white, wealthy, increasingly urban, males.  The fact that defensiveness is a leading response to this reality is absurd to me, but it also makes sense.  The weight of historical and current injustice is SO overwhelming that many of us cannot bear it.  We resort to a defensive posture out of self-protection.  Something deep within us wants to cover our eyes and ears and cry, “It’s not my fault! It can’t be true! What do you want me to do about it?”

Whether we feel overwhelmed or personally attacked, defensiveness is a privileged response.  It ruins relationships, prevents honest reflection and hurts our chances to collaborate or improve.  Rather than listening to understand the perspective of another, we end communication, absolving us from reflection, abolishing our potential need to make amends, and delegitimizing the initial problem.  As long as I respond defensively—like a child yelling, “tattle tale!”—I do not have to engage in the revealed pain of another.  I do not have to confront the histories or inequities I have erased or ignore.

I want to posit that while defensiveness is a common approach, it is lazy, destructive, and selfish; we have to do better.  My teenager is learning to make sense of the world, and I hope defensiveness is only one step in a long journey toward an awakening into his place in the world.  If we hope to offer Generation Bruh help or wisdom, we must confront our own delusions, legacies and defensiveness.  Whose histories have we erased? When do we feel attacked or overwhelmed? Whose experiences do we diminish? How do we respond to the pain of others?