Dear White People,
I know by addressing this post based on your color, I might have already offended you. I’ve considered how to address you with less offensive words, but anything else feels patronizing or even more offensive, so I hope you don’t mind if I stick with it for now.
We need to talk. My heart is heavy. I’d like to collectively meet you all for coffee (one-on-one preferably, because… introvert) and share my heart on this with you. I truly wish I could. I’ve been thinking and processing about this for a while now, and I hope you take what I’m saying as I’m meaning it – with humility, gentleness, and compassion.
I’m worried that we might have interpreted the idea of “white privilege” wrongly, skewed it so that we get riled up and feel like someone is trying to take something away from us that they’re not. I would wager that many things come to your mind when you consider the idea, not the least of which is that you feel like your life hasn’t been all that privileged – white or not. Listen, I’m certain that you’re a hard working person. I’m certain that your life has not been easy, and that you have met many challenges in your life. I will not take that away from you, and I applaud you for doing the best you can with what you have.
But that’s not what white privilege is.
Can I tell you my story, by way of example? Our stories are different, of course. But mine is the only story I’ve got, so it’s where I’ll start.
I was born in Cincinnati – in a very rough part of town. My biological father chose to abdicate his role around the time of my infanthood, and I only heard from him again when I tracked him down in my twenties. Another story for another day, but the assumptions made about me during my childhood because of that would have been different had my skin been a different color. Because the Cincinnati suburbs were too expensive for our family, we moved out of Cincinnati, across the Indiana state line, and settled into a tiny, sleepy town (with an- unknown to us – active KKK clan). The town was “safe,” the schools were good, the class sizes were small, and the lady at the video store knew my exact taste in movies and would hold my favorites for me every week. The privilege of growing up in this particular small, safe town with small class sizes is a privilege that would not have been given to my family if we had been African American. Most of the small, affordable towns outside of Cincinnati (and many other major cities at the time) had a quiet but terrifying KKK presence. Had my family not been white, we likely would have stayed in Cincinnati, in an area of town where my classes would have been significantly more crowded and severely underfunded. Per capita, inner city schools are the most underfunded, least resourced schools in our country. I had access to computers in my school, to tutoring when I was struggling with long division (which still gets me), and to media that showed people who looked like me succeeding every day. My parents didn’t pay any more or less taxes than other parents across the country, and I didn’t do anything to earn the education I received.
I won’t attempt to tell parts of this story that are not mine to tell, but please trust me when I say that my family was not well off. We struggled for many reasons, and I worked hard in the cornfields, as a dishwasher, and as a babysitter to afford “luxuries” like lunch and field trips. In 3rd grade I was tested for and placed into a gifted and talented class. Being in that class was an incredible experience, and set me on a trajectory for academic success and eventually, college. I was placed in mostly advance classes in high school, and generally did well. Counselors, teachers, and others assumed my plan was for college, and my discussions were not if I would go to college, but where I would attend. Do you know the likelihood of an African American male being placed in a gifted and talented class? In 2002 (a full ten years after I was placed), it was 3.1%.
I’m offended by that. I’m offended that some child in another city – who was every bit as bright and eager to learn as I was – was not even considered as a candidate for the school’s gifted program (if funding even allowed that program to exist) because of his or her skin color. I believe we’d agree on the fact that color has no bearing on intelligence or aptitude, correct? And if we agree on that, then we should be able to agree that 3.1% is clearly under representative of those students who should be and should have been placed in some kind of advanced or challenging classes. And if we can agree on that, then we can agree that I was given a privilege in 1990 that was also earned by others, but not given – because of skin color and stereotypes. A privilege that changed the course of my life and set me on the course toward earning a degree in Counseling/Psychology and Biblical Studies. I’m well aware that a woman of color who shares the same socioeconomic status as me likely worked significantly harder than I did to get there, and probably did it while hearing racial slurs. African American women are the second most educated and qualified people group in the workforce, but are the MOST underpaid, and are regularly passed up for job candidates who are less qualified. That is literally having to work harder to get to the same place as a person not of color.
This doesn’t take away from the fact that I worked hard, experienced setbacks, and faced challenges. But can you see how much more significant and widespread my challenges would have been had I not been white? Could you please take a minute to consider how your skin color may have affected the trajectory of your life? No matter your skill set, your aptitude, your education, you experienced life differently because of the color of your skin. The difference may have been barely noticeable, or it may have been glaring. Most likely you were unaware, as I was. And to be frank, the luxury of believing racism and racial inequality was no longer relevant was a luxury not afforded to many people in our country. I know your life hasn’t been a cake walk, and I respect your journey. But imagine that same journey also being filled with people hating you on sight, or thinking you were not a capable person before letting your work speak for itself – at best.
“That’s the past,” you say. “It’s 2016, people who yell about white privilege are playing the role of a victim and need to move on.” Yes, that is the past. But it’s your past. It’s their past. It’s my past. We’re not talking about our great grandparents, our grandparents, or even our parents’ experiences (though we are foolish to ignore or gloss over that history), we’re talking about men and women who have grown up in America in the 80’s, 90’s, and yes…even now… as a minority, and have not had access to the same privileges that I did.
But for the sake of argument, let’s put the past behind us for now and think about the present. I have three children, and not one of them have ever been called a racist name. None of them have ever been threatened or ignored because of their skin color. I have never been followed in a store. I have never feared for my life when I’ve been pulled over by an officer, and I even get all nervous and do a lot of fumbling for paperwork that could easily be misconstrued as looking for a gun. I’m not worried about telling my sons how to behave in a way that is least likely to get them killed when they get pulled over. I don’t have to worry about my sons wearing hoodies when they’re older. People don’t act surprised by how “articulate” I am. Nobody has thought I was a terrorist, or spoken nonsense words to my children in an attempt to make fun of their native language. Nobody has ever refused to sit by me or my children because of the color of our skin.
You guys. White privilege means that I get to be angry about this without people telling me I’m playing a victim. My voice is heard more loudly because of the color of my skin.
Acknowledging that I have been privileged as a white person in this country in no way takes away my accomplishments, struggles, or hard work – and it takes nothing away from you, either. What it does do is compel us to fight for those who have not received those same privileges. I’m not ashamed that my kids haven’t been called racist names, that I’m not afraid for my life when I’m pulled over, or that I had access to the tools I needed to get into college. That is as it should be. For everyone. Acknowledging my white privilege doesn’t mean I have to feel shame or scorn for that, but for me – it does mean that other men, women, and children deserve those same privileges. Fighting for that in no way invalidates my hard work or own personal struggles, it just insists that we all be treated equally and others be given the same opportunities that I was given.
In the end, white privilege is about compassion. It’s about understanding that minorities in this country experience every day things completely differently than you do, and much of that is unjust. It’s about realizing that your life and experiences are not the definitive American experience, and that you have a voice to make sure others have access to the same opportunities and treatment that you have. That changes nothing about your own struggles or accomplishments. What it changes is your heart.
With sincere love,