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: the problem with weaponizing words

Few phrases are more polarizing than “white privilege.”  I live, write, teach, parent and work at the intersection of wealth, race, religion and politics, so I regularly witness how this phrase is accepted as true and rejected as utter horseshit, depending on the audience.  Part of what makes my life so ‘beautiful ugly,’ to borrow a West Indian phrase, is the reality that every day I talk to people who do not believe the same things I believe about the world.  We certainly interact with people whose experiences do not reflect our own in any way, but some of us are functionally isolated, and cannot conceive that other views of the world even exist.  These distinct realities exacerbate the ever-expanding political divides we suddenly noticed in the fall of 2016, and we now seem to live in a world in which we cannot accept the lived experience of another, let alone understand terms that help explain such diverse realities.

Even though it is often perceived as such, an acknowledgement of the existence of privilege is not itself an act of aggression.  Privilege is a dynamic in every type of community, real or imagined. 

White privilege is such a term: terribly helpful and utterly divisive.  For folks who understand American culture as one that instinctively privileges whiteness, this phrase describes the result of a history of unchecked bias and power.  For other folks in my community, this label is an aggressive attack and a callous dismissal of hard work.  I have had the privilege of teaching about America’s history with racial divides, our fruitful attempts at protest, and our slow path toward acknowledgement and reconciliation to rooms full of people whose experiences share little in common.  The tiny needle I try to thread, as a starting point, is to convince sincere but sheltered white Americans that our society is deeply racist and that white privilege is both real and not a personal indictment against them, while simultaneously not “losing”—for lack of a better term—the people of color in the room.  At times, in trying to offer a working definition of white privilege, I sense a collective eye roll…from EVERYone.  How do we learn to identify with, acknowledge and challenge a concept so critical to discussions about equity and reconciliation when we can’t even begin the conversation without losing everyone in the room?

One of the problems with talking about privilege is that we tend to think in terms both too large and too intimate.  We use totalizing language about how people “always act,” resorting to stereotypes and worst-case scenarios.  Not helpful.  On the other extreme, we take any mention of history or statistics to be a personal indictment, as if anyone who acknowledges an unjust status quo thinks I am to blame for societal inequities.  Also not helpful.  Having experienced these two reactions, I think it best to first explore how cultural norms are established and eventually privileged, outside of a racial construct. 

When the concept of privilege is either used to attack others, or is perceived as an attack, productive conversations cease. I want people to understand privilege in all its forms, from cultural to religious to power to wealth to race, but weaponizing the term to put someone on edge incentivizes no one to reflect on their own areas of privilege. 

Can we admit we all experience moments of privilege?  Privilege is a reflection of cultural preferences and power dynamics in any environment.  Rather than articulating the role privilege plays in injustice, perhaps a productive line of inquiry leads us into micro-settings in which privilege plays a role.  Consider Oberlin College and MIT.  Given their draw to boundary pushing, artistic minds, or savant-esque math and coding brains, respectively, these two environments privilege very different types of people.  If you are a person who seeks and celebrates beauty, who values counter-cultural creativity, then Oberlin might be the place for you.  At MIT, on the other hand, the dominant culture values logic, systems’ thinking and order. While wonder and creativity certainly play a role in the way engineers engage the world, an emphasis might be placed on understanding and deconstructing, rather than on appreciating and creatively engaging.  Those who view the world through an artistic lens are privileged at Oberlin.  At MIT, a systematic, computational mind is privileged as superior. 

The norms of these universities do not exist to demonize one type of person; instead, they are the natural result of perspectives shared by the majority stakeholders of each institution.  Privilege, in that way, does not represent a moral good or reveal an intentional hierarchy that is foundationally rooted. Instead, the existence of privilege simply reflects a reality that certain people will receive a warmer welcome, an assumed sense of belonging, and the benefit of the doubt.  People who do not share the perspective of the dominant group—whether because of their point of view, gender, language, ethnicity or race—face implicit and explicit barriers to being appreciated, valued and welcomed.

Privilege exists in every environment, and most observant people recognize the power of norms to protect the status quo and the privilege it provides to those who share the dominant culture.  Indeed, at the micro level, many types of racial privilege exist.  For instance, I know white women who try to connect with black colleagues in a majority black office, or black women who try to volunteer in a majority white Parent Teacher Organization, both of whom feel like there is an invisible barrier they cannot cross, relationships to which they do not have access. My point here is to remind us that the acknowledgement of the existence of privilege is not itself an aggressive claim.  Privilege is a dynamic in every type of community, real or imagined. 

When the concept of privilege is either used to attack others, or is perceived as an attack, productive conversations cease.  White privilege is a phrase sometimes weaponized by those advocating to halt increasing inequities across our communities.  Those of us who are troubled by polarization in society know that underestimating and simultaneously protecting privilege is the root of segregation and inequality in society.  I want people to understand privilege in all its forms, from cultural to religious to power to wealth to race, but weaponizing the term to put someone on edge incentivizes no one to reflect on their own areas of privilege.  When I privilege my perspective on privilege, I sometimes spew the term out as an accusation against white or wealthy or male or Christian others.  This is not helpful.  Like a driver who ignores the impact of her choices on those with whom she shares the road, a person accusing others of white or wealth or male privilege, making no effort to continue a conversation or contextualize our places in society, is inadvertently privileging her perspective on privilege.  My hope is that if we deconstruct the way we use this term, perhaps we can lower defenses long enough to encourage the open observation of our own areas of privilege, and then begin to ask at whose expense—if any—we maintain our place.  

Next week I will discuss the realities of white privilege, the damage it does to all of us, and unpack the defensiveness and difficulty that follow our use of the term.  If we don’t learn to keep the conversation going, we will never form a more perfect union.

why i weep

an open letter about the 2016 election

This week has been hard for me and many others in our country, and I suspect it would help us heal if I tried to explain why.  After spending time with college students and talking with a few of you, I realize that many who voted for Trump misunderstand our weeping and gnashing of teeth.  I am reaching out because I don’t want to be misunderstood.  I am reaching out because I want you to have every chance to understand.  I am reaching out because I need to heal and believe developing empathy for each other is a crucial part of that process.  If you also want to heal, if you are willing to see me as a thoughtful person whose feelings and perceptions of the world are valuable, then read on.  Although I think many will resonate with me, I don’t want to generalize or make assumptions, so I will only write for myself.  

I am disappointed we elected a President who, in my view, does not have the experience to excel at the multiple aspects his job will require.  I am disappointed we chose to believe he will surround himself with wise council, even though he repeatedly thwarted opinions--even in his inner circle--that did not confirm his own.  I am disappointed we chose to trust him most of all with our economic future, even though he has repeatedly filed for bankruptcy, refused to pay bills, and has chosen to make the vast majority of his products overseas rather than in America.  

These truths disappoint and frustrate me, but they are not the reason I have cried every day, or look with pride to some of the protesting marchers, or feel betrayed and shocked by my country.  The reaction I have had to this election has nothing to do with red or blue, my candidate getting defeated, sour grapes or even frustration with policy positions.  My deep sadness comes because I feel alienated from my country given what a vote for Trump necessarily affirms.  Let me be clear: He has openly encouraged behavior and statements that portray

  • Women as gratifying objects whose primary value is demonstrated through their physical attributes.

  • Muslims as radical, unwelcome terrorists who are not to be trusted or made welcome, and who cannot be loyal to America even if they die defending our freedom.

  • Hispanic immigrants as thieves and criminals who have come to ruin American livelihoods, who cannot function as professional Americans in any environment.

  • Disabled people as objects to be mocked.

Please hear me say that I feel confident that you, the majority of Trump supporters, disagree with and loathe these statements.  I do not think you are racist or misogynistic in the way you approach others.  I also know you might feel judged and attacked by those protesting or weeping for our country.  I am sorry to have lumped you in with voters who enthusiastically endorse the statements above.

Here’s the deal though, and this is the key to understanding the tears and despair: By voting for him, you did endorse his perspectives on the value of others.  With zero intention on your part, you confirmed a perspective which negates the value of about half of our country.  For a female survivor of abuse, a Muslim, an immigrant, or a disabled person, our country’s decision to elect Trump was an irreversible statement screaming that we find them unvaluable, expendable and not one of us.  I believe you when you say you didn’t mean it, but this is the message that is rattling around in the hearts of half of our society.  I am a white Christian profession woman, and I am devastated that I can’t pull that message back.  I can’t unring the bell.  My students and friends and African-American daughter will have to live out the consequences of all of us saying these statements aren’t bad enough to be absolutely rejected.  They have to face the rest of us, wondering if we love or hate them.  They have to get up and go to work and school in a country that elevated a man who said they were not and never would be his equal.  Can you imagine leaving your house this week if you were a minority teenage girl or boy?  We had the chance to say, “no”, and instead, by electing him, we said, “more please.”  This is why I weep.

They have to face the rest of us, wondering if we love or hate them.

I have heard many reasons a person might have voted for Trump, and none of those include bigotry.  I hear you, and am trying to understand the dignity of your choice.  For a person of color or for a female, these statements are not just about personality or a gaffe, they are deadly sentiments which ruin lives, and I weep because our country voted to affirm them.  I know these ideas are already out in the world, and I know voting for Trump didn’t cause them to exist.  However, I am deeply wounded that we had the chance, as a people committed to liberty and justice, to say, “Absolutely not. I will not allow comments like that to go unchecked at my dinner table/workplace/playground.” We missed it.  Instead of saying we want to heal as a country with a terrible track record on race and gender, we decided deadly sentiments like Trump’s were not a problem.  This ability to overlook the danger in his comments reveals to me that my community either does not know any immigrants, Muslims, disabled people or victims of abuse, or that we just don’t care.  This is why I weep.

For a person of color or for a female, these statements are not just about personality or a gaffe, they are deadly sentiments which ruin lives, and I weep because our country voted to affirm them.

I am not interested in blame, but in helping articulate a path forward so that we can stand up as a people and say, “Absolutely not!” to words that inspire violence and exclusion.  In light of that interest, here are my commitments to you:

  1. I commit to not speaking of all Trump voters as bigoted misogynists, as if you are all the same. I will believe that you do not and did not support or minimize the damage his comments would cause many in our country. I commit to working hard to finding empathy for those whose value system allowed them to vote for our President-elect.

  2. I commit to giving our new President an open mind and my respect, even behind closed doors.

  3. I commit to confronting my own despair and to finding and celebrating moments of hope and healing.

  4. I commit to making it my daily mission to reach out and affirm every person marginalized by the power of the majority.  I will go out of my way to listen and to actively value people who are different than me.

In our commitment to healing, I ask you to consider the following:

  1. Will you commit to finding empathy for those whose lives feel endangered by trying to build relationships with people outside your race or gender?

  2. Will you commit to standing up and speaking out against jokes, stereotypes and comments that undermine the dignity and value of all God’s people?

  3. Will you follow your vote up with action that affirms life, liberty and equality for ALL, to look beyond your own interests in order to rebuild the fabric of our society?  Will you reach out to those who might feel marginalized or endangered and let them know you are an advocate for them?

I am committed to making this the moment when we agree as a people not to blame each other for our own failure as a society.  No matter who you voted for, can you commit personally to moving toward those who are weaker than you, who have less power or comfort?  If we say yes, Trump’s presidency will be one of healing and hope for all of us.