When I woke it took me a moment to remember where I was, then through the soft morning light that filtered around the curtain I recognized the hotel room. It was a nice room, very clean with sleek contemporary appointments, and from outside I could hear the sounds of Barcelona.
Usually my morning would be filled with work, but I had organized things so that I could take a few days off to enjoy the city before I had to get back to the word-mines. After a quick workout and some stretching, I went to the hotel’s rooftop lounge for breakfast.
It was there (enjoying a meal of delicious Spanish cheese and ham, omelet, fruit, croissant, and tea), looking out over the expanse of Barcelona that I was struck by an overwhelming sense of luck.
I am an exceedingly fortunate person. Somehow, I have found myself enjoying an existence that gives me the freedom to travel from place to place, almost at will. I am not rich. I do not come from family money. There is no trust fund waiting in the wings. But somehow I have consolidated the economic and cultural security necessary to enjoy a life comfortable, full of adventure, and occasionally even luxurious.
If there’s no family money (people almost always assume there is), how have I done it? First, hard work and perhaps even talent certainly played a role. I cannot deny and take pride in the fact that I have worked very hard, taken risks, and found achievement through my efforts.
But my station in life was not established by work alone. Some would call it luck, but really that is often just another word for “white privilege”.
The Complex Nature of White Privilege
As I said, there is no family money, no Ivy League legacy, no country club connections. These are often the first things people think of when they consider white privilege, but the reality is far subtler.
My family may not have been rich, but they were there. My father was not locked up in the dragnet of mass incarceration. My mother was not working two jobs to make ends meet. Instead, both my parents were present to give me encouragement and support.
That encouragement pushed me to do well in school, then to continue on to university and then on through my early career, a period during which I did not end up in jail, despite my best efforts. And let me tell you, it wasn’t for lack of trying. If I got pulled over after a few drinks, no problem officer of course I’ll drive carefully. If my party became too festive, the police arrived to apologetically ask if I could turn it down. Meanwhile as they’re leaving, they ask the black woman smoking on the corner what she’s doing there…
Later I saw it through years of travel. Everywhere I went, I was admitted without question. Living abroad with no visa. Ushered to the front of airport lines. Unquestioningly granted access to exclusive events. Always – always – given the benefit of the doubt. At the same time, I witnessed many others – people of color (often wearing turbans or some other dress that white people are inclined to find especially intimidating) – who were not so lucky.
White privilege is comprised of an endless number of small benefits and interactions, but my experience can be summed up like this: I am a white, straight, American man, and our civilization has more or less been organized with me in mind. The problems one encounters in this position are relatively few.
My schools receive more funding, and my history is taught in those schools. The media promotes my image of whiteness while denigrating people of color. There are few negative stereotypes about me, economics are tipped in my favor, and there are virtually no social policies designed to repress me. In the event of a natural disaster, my community will always be attended to. (As I write this, Trump is busy tweeting about Puerto Rico’s debt rather than how we’re going to help them. In his mind those brown Americans are worse than second-class citizens. They’re foreigners. Dark-skinned foreigners at that.)
I got the luck of the draw. I was born into a body that our society was designed to embrace. The “lottery of birth”, as Raoul Martinez calls it.
How to Have White Privilege
A lot of white people get uncomfortable when white privilege is brought up. They feel like they’re being judged or attacked for it. Here’s the thing – no one is saying you are inherently bad or wrong for having white privilege. Everyone understands that you face your own struggles and obstacles. You got the cards you were dealt, there are a few bad cards in there, certainly – but your cards happen to make you less susceptible to violence at the hands of police.
That being said, with privilege comes responsibility. I hope for and work toward the eventual leveling of the proverbial playing field, but in the meantime we white folks need to learn to be responsible with our privilege. Here are a few suggestions on how we do that. And I welcome input from readers, especially if you happen to lack my aforementioned privilege.
- Recognize it.
The first step is often the hardest, and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s hard to recognize your privilege when you’re simultaneously coping with your own problems. But keep in mind – no one is trying to take your struggles and your achievements away from you. The challenges and setbacks and fears you face deserve recognition too.
But as a white person, you also have to recognize the fact (and regardless of this horrible new paradigm of “alternative facts”, there are indeed still facts) that you are less likely to be detained, incarcerated, or killed by police. That you’re more likely to get into university, to secure a degree, and to do so with less debt. That you can enjoy greater career mobility with less qualifications. That it will be easier for you to vote, easier to get bank loans, easier to get housing, easier to get media coverage when your children go missing.
These are all facts, and until you recognize them, it’s impossible to be part of the solution.
- Get educated.
Learn the facts. Gather perspectives different from your own. Read.
Education is essential to not only rooting racism out of yourself (because it’s in there – no white person is raised in our propagandized culture without internalizing racism to some degree), but for arming yourself to be a better ally in the fight for social justice.
Seek out art and media that are produced by people of color (POC), by women, by the LGBTQ community, by immigrants – by anyone who offers a background different from your own.
Because we’re specifically talking about race, I recommend the New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, the Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, anything by Frantz Fanon, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. See the film I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary about James Baldwin (and watch his interviews). See 13th on Netflix. See Moonlight. Listen to rap music.
- Use your privilege for good.
White privilege is power, and like any power it can be used for good or evil. There are several ways you can use it for good.
Discuss racism and white privilege with other white people. This will make them super uncomfortable, but discomfort is part of the cure. One of the most powerful things you can do is to help educate your family, friends, and local community.
Amplify the voices of POC. That means sharing and suggesting their art, writing, and even their tweets. It also means knowing when to be quiet. When POC are discussing issues that affect POC (like at a rally or protest), don’t grab the megaphone and make yourself the center of attention. Help with amplifying their voices by knowing when to silence your own.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to the rallies, protests, and marches. By all means — go. Be there to swell the numbers, to lend your support, to learn, and to show other white people that you support the cause.
But when POC are speaking about the issues that affect them most, it’s their time to speak. Be the amplification, not the speaker.
Challenge racism wherever you see it. At work, at home, online — make it clear that you don’t condone racist behavior or statements. White people hate to feel shamed or uncomfortable, and again, nothing makes them feel more uncomfortable than talking about racism, especially the racism in their own behavior. Don’t leave space for unchallenged racism.
On that note, be an observer when the police are interacting with POC. Especially if there is any form of arrest or violence taking place. Phone out, camera on, and make your presence known (while keeping a safe distance). The world needs to see what’s happening, and your presence could save a life.
Give POC your money. That might mean patronizing POC-owned businesses. It might mean giving to a cause that supports minority groups. And in hurricane-heavy times like these, it might mean giving to an organization that will alleviate the suffering of POC in other countries (because I suspect they’re not going to get much help from our current government).
In the end, it’s rather straightforward – our culture places you as a white person in an elevated position of power, and if you genuinely believe in human rights, equality, and compassion, it is your responsibility to wield that power for justice.
With enough reflection, education, and action, you’re going to lose that power. That’s the point. But there is a different kind of power that comes with social justice, and it’s a power in which we can all share.
It’s called humanity.