The Authenticity Experiment, the unexamined privilege edition. I’ve been thinking so much about #AltonSterling and #PhilandoCastile, and the officers who were killed in Dallas and St. Louis. But mostly, I’ve been thinking about the incredible privilege I have simply because of the accident of my birth: born to an Irish/English mother and a Polish/German/Lithuanian father. In case you’re not following my logic or you’ve never seen a picture of me—that makes me white.
As a white woman—even as a white, butch, genderqueer, gay, Irish, Jewish (back two generations) woman—I carry more privilege than Sterling or Castile. The accident of my birth to John and Mary means that I grew up in the suburbs, I drove a car that ran more often than not. (Well, okay, actually, it was a 1975 Volvo 245 DL wagon and for two years it had to be parked on a hill because the starter motor was broken and my ex-wife and I couldn’t afford the repairs on it, so we compression started it each time, popping the clutch into second gear. But the point is, I had a car.) I had an undergraduate college education at a private liberal arts school that was paid for.
While I’m afraid of the police because of their history with gay people, I still carry a degree of certainty that if I called them or was pulled over by them, I’d be treated fairly. I’ve been driving around for weeks with only one headlight and I am 100% certain that if I was stopped for this, I wouldn’t be killed reaching for my wallet. And I wouldn’t have a gun held on me while I reached for the wallet. And I wouldn’t be asked to step out of the car when I couldn’t get the mobile app on my phone to work (which is supposed to prove that my car is insured). All these things just related to driving—never mind the rest of my life.
As a white person, the privilege I have goes so deep. An oft cited essay on white privilege is Peggy McIntosh’s article, “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” It breaks down privilege simply for those who have never considered it before. And let’s be honest, many of us haven’t considered our privilege because we haven’t been challenged to.
That doesn’t mean we’re bad or unconscious. It just means we’ve been living in a place and time where cultural competency has not been on your radar. Right or wrong, that’s just how it used to be. But this must change.
Here’s an abbreviated list of some things McIntosh would have us consider as it relates to white privilege:
- If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
- I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
- I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
- Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
- I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
- I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.
- I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
- I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
- I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
- If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.
- I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
That’s not even the whole list. But just consider running into Safeway to buy some half and half, or turning on the television to watch a show (or Netflix or Hulu or), or hitting a Toys R Us to buy a Barbie for your daughter and you see three huge ways the culture “sees” us as white people and does NOT see people of color.
So what can you do? Take five minutes, just five minutes, to think about the luck of your birth. The ways you are able to move safely through the world. The ways you can help. And you can help: educate yourselves on the structural racism that exists. Show up at rallies. Have difficult conversations where you will make mistakes. Learn from these mistakes. The media wants you to believe you are powerless. You aren’t.
If this is too challenging or too uncomfortable for you, consider that as well. Or simply use my own life as an example, if that feels safer. Start by understanding that I just drove 150 miles with only one headlight and was never pulled over even though multiple State Patrol officers passed me. Start by understanding that I’m typing this to you on a computer that I borrowed from a person who was not afraid that I’d damage it or steal it. Start by considering that I have the time, finances, and luxury to write this from bike camp (because I’m not working two or three or four jobs to make ends meet).
Also, consider what Ed Coffin, a white, queer, vegan liberal, has this to say on what’s been going on this week: “Black people are crying for help. Your help. Your awareness. Your recognition. There is a war on black people in this country and as a queer person, I cannot turn my back. The LGTBQ rights movement was led by trans, black women – they had my back and now I have theirs too. I actually do have black friends and I will not turn a blind-eye on them while they’re literally dying (on video) to be heard.”
Finally, remember that with great privilege comes great responsibility and use your voice and power to speak for those who cannot. Because silence is the voice of complicity.