White Man Speaks on White Privilege
Just hearing that I am “privileged” makes me flinch. Immediately after hearing someone tell me I am privileged, my body clenches up and I have feelings of anger and defensiveness. Like, “You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’ve been through.” My fists clench and I want to throw something or punch something. My mind reflects on all of the difficulties I have been through in life. Most especially, my mind flashes to times I have been oppressed. If I’ve suffered oppression, how can I be privileged? How can these two things exist at the same time? No one would call being raised by a single mother in a trailer on food stamps a privilege? Is it privilege to be bullied for being born a homosexual or wearing homemade clothing? Is my genetic disposition to alcoholism a privilege?
No. But, just because those things are not privilege doesn’t mean I’m not benefiting from other privileges. I walk into an interview and the managers who will be interviewing me are not instantly put into a state of fear, because I am “white”. I can go shopping without the security guard following me and automatically suspecting I will steal. White privilege means I don’t generally get detained in security or excessively searched at the airport. Privilege is not readily noticeable to the people benefiting from it, especially because segregation is still so rampant. The paper UNDERSTANDING WHITE PRIVILEGE, by Francis E. Kendall, Ph.D., © 2002, gives a lot more information. Please read it if you don’t understand White Privilege.
This is sensitive topic, as I am a privileged white man writing about it being hard to hear about the oppression that I benefit from. Boo-hoo, right? I’m certain it’s not as hard as the oppression people of color have felt for generations. But this is such an important topic because there is a thick, protective shell that has been built up around most “whites”. The shell is built around us by a poor education system and segregation, both created as tools by the oppressor. The shell, more commonly referred to as a bubble, consists of the homogeneous social circles, schools, neighborhoods, and media by which the majority of “whites” are surrounded. We cannot see the reality of the oppression that exists until we break out of our shells.
After multiple conversations about my white privilege, I started to feel like “the man,” in a bad way. Walking to a Mexican restaurant in a neighborhood where I was the only “white” person, I could feel eyes on me. What were they thinking? It felt like anger, or hate. I felt like I was actively oppressing everyone. Because I was born a white man, I automatically became the enemy. Seeing myself through others’ eyes, I started feeling uncomfortable, which is good. But, also, I started feeling sick. How could I do this? How could I be so oppressive? While it’s not something I am actively engaged in, oppressing people of color, it’s a system in which I live, and we do not have to accept the circumstances that surround us. We can speak up and work to change those systems, no matter how large.
Thankfully, I’ve got some pretty great friends who have been more aware and involved in social justice. They pointed me towards the good things I have done in the world. Positive ways in which I have helped and can help end oppression.
White supremacy is relevant and rampant in the world. It is not readily visible to people born with “white” skin. The idea of us having privilege in our hard lives is not something we want to hear. But, it is our jobs to educate ourselves, and others. Unfortunately, many “white” people will not listen to a person of color when they try to explain these things. I believe it is the responsibility of the “white” person to read and research, and then teach other “white” people the truth. I was living in a system that was designed to be hidden to me. Even history has been whitewashed. There is some real history behind the current state of oppression facing people of color. The book THE NEW JIM CROW, MASS INCARCERATION IN THE AGE OF COLORBLINDNESS, by Michelle Alexander, is a great resource.
Support for people of color includes showing up to protests or vigils or other gatherings. Support is joining a group that has been formed by people of color and listening without bias, asking what you can do. It involves having difficult conversations with the “white” people around you. I wasn’t open to the immense obstacles that have been put into place for all non-“whites”. Not really. So, now, I live with the following quote in my head and try to keep my eyes open to what is going on, so I can show up and support all people:
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
- Desmond Tutu
T.J. Ameloot is an Editor, Board Member, and Secretary for Life in My Days. He has had many adventures travelling around the U.S., writing and performing music, planting vegetables, tasting coffee, and working as a Food Safety and Q.A. Manager,. One of his greatest joys in life is to bring joy to others, usually by making delicious local meals or sharing in laughter.