I have a confession to make. I used to be really annoyed by the whole "white privilege" thing. As in, what do you mean I have white privilege? I know that black people have had a shit deal in this country but what do you want me to do about it? I didn't own slaves. I didn't turn the fire hose on anyone in the 60s. I'm a good person and I have black friends and I've dated black men and I'm not racist so this whole race inequality issue is just not my fault OK? I didn't ask to be white. I didn't ask for this privilege. Stop blaming me.
Any other white folks relate? It's OK, you don't have to raise your hand.
What is white privilege?
What I have come to realize is that acknowledging my white privilege does not mean single-handedly taking responsibility for the centuries of oppression of people of color. It simply means acknowledging that as a white person, life is different for me. There are certain advantages I enjoy because I am white, whether I realize it or not.
Why is this simple act of acknowledgment important? Well think of it like this:
Imagine you had an older sibling who was famous. Everywhere he went he got special treatment because of his fame – got to skip to the head of lines, got offered every job/loan/apartment he applied for, got out of speeding tickets, etc. Meanwhile, you are waiting in every line, getting turned down for the same jobs, loans, and apartments, and not only getting speeding tickets, but getting pulled over when you didn't even break any laws.
Now imagine that your older sibling completely denied that this disparity existed. "No I don't get special treatment because of my fame!" he says from the best table in the restaurant - which he didn't even have to make a reservation for - while you get told, "I'm sorry, there are no available tables tonight" by the host.
It would be maddening, right?
You wouldn't necessarily blame him for the special treatment. After all, he didn't do anything wrong by being famous. But you would want him to at least acknowledge that his experience is different, more charmed, than yours. And perhaps, if he really wanted to try and even out the playing field, he could refuse to accept some of the unfair privileges being offered to him, especially if it meant that someone else who was not famous was getting passed over for the same opportunity as a result.
What does white privilege have to do with the recent presidential election?
As a white person, I do not fear for my safety on a regular basis in this country. (The daily fear that comes along with being a woman set aside momentarily for the purposes of this article.) I have no fear of being separated from my family and getting deported to an unsafe or war-torn country. Because I do not look Mexican or Muslim or like any other minority, I will not get stopped and asked for my registration papers. (Although my Iraqi-American husband or half-Iraqi son might someday...) And when I walk through an unfamiliar part of town, I do not need to worry about becoming the target of a violent hate crime.
All of that white privilege allows some voters to overlook the mountains of racist, Islamophobic comments made by Trump and vote for him anyway based on other issues. After all, the race issue won't affect them directly.
And that same white privilege allows other voters to vote for Hillary and then not be inconsolably terrified and outraged when she loses. They can shrug their shoulders and say, oh well, I wasn't crazy about her anyway. You win some you lose some.
At this point in our nation, a black, brown, or gay voter does not have the luxury of voting based on other issues, or of simply accepting this new President with a shrug of resignation. Marginalized people and their allies are not protesting because they are sore losers. Our new president's ideologies are so extreme that the KKK is holding a parade in celebration of his election. The people who are protesting are doing so because they are afraid for their lives. If you do not understand that, it is because you have the luxury of not having to.
If you are like I once was and have not yet acknowledged your white privilege, now is the time, friend. It is time for us to stop acting - and voting - from our place of privilege at the table. It is time for us to stand with, and if necessary in front of, our brothers and sisters of color.
What can you do?
Here are some specific ways we as white people can help:
→ Acknowledge your white privilege
Start by doing some honest introspection. Ask yourself, "How might my whiteness have played a role in how I voted? Or in how I choose the issues I care about? Or in how I have thought and behaved since the election?"
In short, care about people other than yourself. That may sound harsh, but think about how you voted. Of course it is understandable to care about healthcare because of the terrible health situation your daughter went through last year, or to care about veterans benefits because your husband is a disabled vet. But in addition to the issues that directly affect you and your family, consider asking, "How will this vote affect others that I care about? How will it affect vulnerable groups of people who have less of a voice than I do?"
→ Be a safe space
Regardless of how you voted, if you are not a raging racist, make sure the people around you know that. You don't need to apologize for your whiteness or defend your vote. Just let the nonwhite (and for that matter, the non-straight) people in your life know that they are safe with you, even if you think they already know that. It bears repeating this week.
→ Don’t be complicit
Be a person who doesn’t tolerate racism in any form. Don't chuckle at the racist joke. Be bold enough to say, "I'm not down with those kinds of comments" or "please don't talk that way around me."
And for that matter, educate yourself. Because speaking up will likely get you into some conversations, and you’ll want to be prepared to make them open, intelligent, and informed - rather than emotional arguments that go nowhere. Not exactly sure what people are upset about regarding race? Ask. Feel like there’s more to the issues being discussed on social media than you understand? Read articles. Do research. Ask, ask, ask. Change begins when we lean into the discomfort rather than away from it.
Got other ideas about how white people can participate in positive change? I would love to hear about them in the comments below!
What type of wild woman are you?
Hello! I'm Melanie Munir, founder of Professional Wild Woman - a women's empowerment business dedicated to helping women who are tired of feeling either "too much" or "not enough" to connect to their inner wildness so they can create work that allows them the fullest expression of their unique voice. Welcome!