I am white and I am privileged. I also did not understand what that meant until recently.
Over the weekend, I decided to change my plans for posts leading up to Father’s Day due to the killings of George Floyd, Brionna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others. My desire to understand all of the reasons for the protests took on higher importance since peaceful gatherings in the town where I live, turned violent leading to broken storefront windows, looting, and vandalism.
Like many white people, I did not think racism affected me because I am not a person of color. I also do not see my “whiteness” as my racial identity.
Like many, I am sickened that a white police officer would allegedly murder a black man in what one person called a “modern-day lynching”. It is heartwarming though to see people of all ages, races, genders, and religions rightfully protesting. Hopefully, these will finally lead to change.
I also needed to better understand more about the impact of my “white privilege” which is talked about throughout these incidents.
The Bible tells us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” –Proverbs 3:5 (New International Version)
So I began to pray for better understanding.
My Need to Understand
I always thought of racism as individual acts of meanness. I was taught “The Golden Rule” and try to treat people the way I would want to be treated.
I also firmly believe in Jesus’ teaching of the New Commandment:
“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”—John 13:34-35 (New International Version)
But I was ignorant of my white privilege.
So I began to read.
About White Privilege
Today, privilege is often described through the lens of a 1988 essay titled “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies”. In the groundbreaking paper, Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley College in Massachusetts asks an important question: “On a daily basis, what do I have that I didn’t earn?” and provides forty-six examples of white privilege.
As I read further on the topic, I stumbled into a lot of disturbing information that helped me realize that racism also comes through the invisible systems that negatively affect people-groups.
Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes Exercise
I recently heard that everyone should Google “Jane Elliott” and read about her 1968 “Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” exercise.
Elliott is an American schoolteacher, anti-racism activist, and educator who first conducted her famous exercise for her class on April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
The reactions to her exercise (both positive and negative) formed the basis for her career as a public speaker against discrimination.
Redlining and Mortgage Bias
I also read about “Redlining” where many banks in the U.S. denied mortgages to people, mostly people of color in urban areas for decades which prevented them from buying a home in certain neighborhoods or getting a loan to renovate their house.
The practice — once backed by the U.S. government — started in the 1930s and took place in many of the nation’s largest cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Tampa and others containing large minority populations.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 makes it unlawful to discriminate in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale of a dwelling because of race or national origin. Some suggest the practice still exists.
The Racial Wealth Gap
A 2014 Pew Research report revealed the median net worth of a white household was $141,900 but the net worth was only $11,000 for black households and $13,700 for Hispanic households. Additional research found that the racial wealth gap isn’t narrowed when people of color attend college (the median wealth of a white person who went to college was 7.2 times more than the median black person who went to college, and 3.9 times more than the median Latino person who went to college). Nor did the gap close when people of color were employed full-time nor when they spent less & saved more.
The gap relies largely on the inheritance of wealth passed from one generation to the next that often comes in the form of inherited homes with value. This accumulated wealth leads to increased earning power and home values so people are more likely to support their children into early adulthood and help with expenses such as college education, first cars, and first homes.
The Flaw in the 13th Amendment
Another learning came by watching the 2016 documentary 13th; a thought-provoking documentary about the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution in which scholars, activists, and politicians analyzed the criminalization of African Americans and the boom of the U.S. prison population.
Even though the Amendment abolished slavery, it is often criticized since it includes the phrase “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,” which has led to over 2.3 million prisoners in the American justice system.
The Systemic Problems
As I read further, I came across an article, What Is White Privilege, Really?. Its author, Cory Collins says white privilege is a two-word term that inspires pushback:
- The word “white” creates discomfort among those who are not used to being defined or described by their race, and
- the word “privilege”, especially for poor and rural white people, sounds like a word that doesn’t belong to them—like a word that suggests they have never struggled.
Collins also suggests that “white privilege is not the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is unearned; most white people who have reached a high level of success worked extremely hard to get there. Instead, white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort.”
For example, the ability to accumulate wealth is a white privilege created by overt, systemic racism in both the public and private sectors.
Cory Collins described my privilege.
More of My Privilege
Growing up in a middle-class, blue-collar town, I was one of few who went to college. I married, found a nice corporate job, and moved to an upper-middle-class town. We raised our kids in its great public schools and enjoyed the nice suburban life to which most people aspire.
It was everything we had worked toward.
However, as I reflect on this concept of privilege, I also realize that I have:
- Male privilege that came from working for companies with a strong “old boys” network that kept very capable females from taking on leadership roles in the industry.
- Financial privilege that afforded me access to lower mortgage rates, better healthcare costs, and higher contributions to my 401K savings from my larger salary.
- Marriage privilege that will help my Medicare and Social Security benefits. I also receive discounted rates for homeowners’, automobile, and other types of insurances. My wife & I can also make medical decisions for each other and take family leave as needed.
All that said, I now realize that my white privilege is not just a personal issue but a systemic issue that must be fixed.
I also have work to do.
What To Do Now
Beyond recognizing that I am not considered a racist just by having white privilege, here is what I did learn that I can do:
- Repent of my biases – I have been praying for forgiveness for anything I have done, knowingly or unknowingly, that was not empathetic to the plight of others.
- Don’t take it personally – I can not use any discomfort as an excuse to disengage in the conversation.
- Learn when to listen – I have two ears and one mouth for a reason. I need to ask better questions.
- Do not defend but amplify the message – I can not understand the experiences of people of color but will support the push to overcome these injustices.
- Continue to become educated and educate others – The protests and changes will evolve so my learning needs to continue. I will speak about what I’ve learned.
- Know when to speak up – I will not let my peers get away with divisive remarks that do not help advance the conversation.
I still have a lot to learn. I know that will probably misspeak about the issues and get some things wrong. I also don’t have the answers for how to fix the issue of systemic racism.
But I do plan to engage in discussions with my God Buddies and other people of color by listening more as they share their viewpoints in order to sharpen my understanding.
We must all participate in the hard work that is ahead. If we don’t, nothing will change. Just like over the last 400+ years.