First off, a big thank you to Nikki, Kate, and Cayce for the opportunity to guest blog at Irene’s Daughters. I hope I can contribute something to the excellent posts and discussions thus far!
Last week I came across this CNN article about a group of seniors who grew up in Macon, GA during the Jim Crow Era, and recently held a racially integrated 50th high school reunion. The article is well worth reading, not only as encouraging stories about race seem so rare these days, but also because it’s a good starting point for a number of different discussions about race. In particular, the article got me thinking about the invisibility of white privilege, and the importance of concrete action to racial reconciliation and anti-racist activism.
I got to thinking about white privilege after reading comments from seniors – black and white – interviewed in the article who recalled that as children, they perceived segregation as normal. It wasn’t something to be challenged or questioned, and for some it wasn’t even understood as discriminatory. It was simply a “way of life,” taken for granted as the way the world was and had to be:
Listening to his mother and her childhood friends, Cordell said, he was struck by how segregation was “was so transparent to them at the time they were living through it. It was a way of life, so they didn’t acknowledge its existence.”
“I find it interesting how human nature teaches you to accept things that are — and some people question the reality, and other people don’t.”
Institutionalized racism and white privilege work in much the same way in the present day. We are accustomed to the many effects of racism and white privilege in our society: the disproportionate dominance of white males in almost every sector of business and culture, de facto segregation in schools, churches, and workplaces; racial gaps in hiring, income, and school performance, to name just a few. Many Americans have become so inured to these realities that they see them as just The Way Things Are – or worse, just the way “those people” are.
This is part of how privilege of any kind works – by presenting an uneven playing field as anything but what it is. People who benefit from privilege don’t generally believe that they have been given a leg up on those who don’t; rather, they tend to believe that everyone has an equal opportunity to get ahead in life, and they just happen to be ahead because they have worked hard, made good choices, and otherwise made good use of the same opportunities everyone else has. By this logic, social and economic racial disparities can only be explained by failure to take full advantage of these opportunities. Privilege thrives on the assumption that a system of unfair advantages is really a system based on pure merit. This mythology ignores the ongoing effects of past racial injustice, denies the reality of present-day racism, and presents white privilege and racial disparities as natural byproducts of the way things are, the way people are. This naturalization of racial injustice is a major obstacle to candid discussions about white privilege. It is very difficult to have a discussion about something that we are taught to believe doesn’t exist.
So the question is, what can we as people committed to anti-racism and racial reconciliation do to challenge white privilege and make it more visible? We need to ask ourselves how we have bought into white privilege as a way of life. White allies have a particular responsibility to check and question their own privilege, but those of us who are POC can also play a part. We may not have access to white privilege, but we often participate in it and buy into it. With that in mind, here are some of the ways I am working to resist the tendency to naturalize white privilege (and other forms of privilege) in my own life:
– I am working to become more conscious of the ways I buy into white privilege: making positive assumptions about white people (well-off, intelligent, safe) and negative assumptions about POC (poor, uneducated, dangerous). Assuming I have a right to information about POC that I wouldn’t dream of asking a white person (where are you “really from?,” etc.)
– I share my perspective as a POC with my white friends and family members. It’s not that it’s my job to educate them, but that it’s important to be open to have conversations about privilege with people who might be more disposed to hear where I’m coming from.
– I am working to become more conscious of my own privilege in other areas, and to recognize that privilege and prejudice are intersectional. I have access to privilege because of my socioeconomic status, my sexuality and gender identity, and my religious upbringing, and I have a responsibility to check and question myself on those counts.
What are your thoughts on how we can work to expose and challenge white privilege? Please share your ideas in the comments.