In the wake of the recent uprising, protests, and general unrest over the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases, I have begun some serious introspection into my world of white privilege. The issue is charged, to say the least. But if we don’t each, individually, begin to look at our lives, our attitudes, and the benefits that are bestowed upon us by virtue only of the color of our skin, then we are missing a unique opportunity to effectuate change. In the words of Peggy McIntosh from her essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, “In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.” Prior to really paying attention to what is happening in this country, it had never occurred to me that I may be contributing to racism simply by accepting the privilege and dominance that were given to me at birth without my ever asking for them.
I have heard comments from white friends and acquaintances over the last month who believe that they are not part of the problem. “I am not a racist!” they emphatically cry at every opportunity. But I hear the same people trying to invalidate the personal accounts of so many of our African American friends, who are simply trying to get us to understand that their experience is, by virtue of a broken system, different than ours. Acknowledging that blacks in this country face a different life condition than I do does not threaten my ability to live a safe and happy life. Not acknowledging it, and instead dismissing it as untrue, does us all an injustice. It perpetuates the overarching, but misguided notion that it is OK to benefit from a system that holds you above others as long as you are not, individually, intentionally oppressing anyone else.
To begin my introspective journey, I am questioning every perception I have of minorities. If I’m totally honest, I am probably part of the problem, which I believe is a result of societal representations throughout my life.
It will take time and effort, but I am trying to reteach myself how to viscerally react to people of color. Now, when I seen an African American walking down the street in NY, I am forcing myself to think “I wonder of he/she has been the victim of profiling or other unjust treatment because of the color of his/her skin,” instead of giving in to the unfounded immediate fear I used to feel. Now, I am beginning to see a sadness behind the eyes of many of these people. I’m looking closer, both at them and within myself.
In her essay, Peggy McIntosh lists some of the ways white privilege manifests in her life. I was struck by the universality of the items on her list, and also began to think of other ways that I experience white privilege in the course of my daily life. I am going to begin acknowledging these publicly every time they occur to me, and I challenge all of you to do the same. I will be posting status updates on Facebook with the hashtag #thisiswhiteprivilege every time I find myself being advantaged by virtue of the color of my skin, whether it be to the obvious detriment of anyone else, or simply an indication of a more subtle, systemic advantage conferred upon me because I am white. Through individual introspection and collective dialogue, perhaps we can begin to raise our consciousness and move towards a world where we are all truly equal.