Culture & Race

5 painful realities of white privilege

5 painful realities of white privilegeWe were sitting outside the frozen yogurt shop when my husband interrupted my yogurt-induced-heaven with a passionate “Did you see that!?!”

“What?” I looked around but didn’t see anything unusual. I’d been a little spaced out in a blissful yogurt coma and was, as usual, less-than-aware of my surroundings.

“That Asian lady in the yogurt store! She and her daughter were just standing there, waiting in line for the restroom and this white guy came in and walked right in front of her.”

He paused, shaking his head in angry disbelief, “And she just let him go. She put her head down and let him push his way past her,”

He paused, processing the interaction, “That’s just so privileged. And he probably doesn’t even recognize it. The problem with us is that we get all submissive and let people walk all over us.” 

Confession Time: In my head, I started listing all the reasons why what he just said happened couldn’t have actually happened. Maybe he saw things wrong. Maybe the guy had to puke. Maybe he left his cell phone in the bathroom. Surely what my husband saw wasn’t what actually happened. 

But then I remembered all the things I’ve written about race & privilege. Dismissing perceptions is one of the most unhelpful responses in race conversations.

I should already know this, right? Right.

(Except for the fact that I don’t.)

Privilege runs deep, and as I continue to ponder the ideas of humility, I keep running smack into its gritty realities. They’re not pretty, but ignoring them won’t make them go away either. Here are a few truths I’ve learned along the way:

1. Privilege is hard to see if you have it, but easy to see if you don’t

I often don’t see the privilege my husband or my friends of color see, but not because it doesn’t exist.  I don’t see it because I don’t have to see it. I live in a world where people who look like me are the norm, so the world-at-large adjusts to me, not the other way around. I can walk into a restaurant without heads turning in curiosity. I’ve never encountered a situation where people define my personal qualifications by my physical appearance. People rarely make comments – ignorant or informed – about my race or ethic background.

It’s kind of like the emporer who wasn’t wearing any clothes – everyone but the stubborn king himself sees the truth. If I could get into the mind of that classic fairytale character as he walked naked down the street when the little boy called his bluff, I can almost hear him thinking to himself, “That crazy boy! Who does he think he is?  He doesn’t know anything. I’m the Emporer, after all. What I say goes!”

It’s not so different from the knee jerk reaction that many white people have when white privilege comes up. Who do they think they are? we think about the people of color who suggest perspectives that upturn our understanding of the world.

What do they know? we dismiss the realities they experience. When history is written by the winners, our story is the one with the power, and until we learn other sides of the story, it’s nearly impossible to understand why some might question our interpretation of it.

If I’m brutally honest with myself, I’ve done the same thing as the privileged white guy at the yogurt shop and never even noticed. Privilege just doesn’t feel the same to those who benefit from it like it does to those who get run over by it.

2. Privilege feels great and horrible all at the same time

I’ll be the first to say that being the one with the power feels great. Power is fun, but an equal reality of power is that it corrupts and blinds. The power that privilege carries does this as well. That’s why when the headlines erupt when a Princeton student writes a letter denying the realities of white privilege. It’s a divisive topic, drawing intense criticism and ire from some loud voices who staunchly deny its existence.

When I travel, I am nearly always treated better than my non-white family. I get higher quality service, more attention and courtesy. I get less attention at airport security lines and from police men. Even if I personally benefit from this treatment, the fact that my family faces its fallout sours any positives it holds for me.

If people only knew how much more humble and sacrificial and generous they were than me, I think, my brown family would be the ones given elevated status, not me. But the history of white skin tells a different story, so we walk instead through a broken and unequal reality.

3. Privilege creates guilt which creates shame which creates denial

Brene Brown has shed an immense amount of light on how shame impacts our ability to be vulnerable, and it’s easily applicable when considering privilege. She writes,

“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

When I don’t initially understand a situation like the yogurt shop, it can take me weeks to admit it. My guilt kicks in…how many years I have been married interracially? How many conversations have I had and books have I read about race and privilege?

Will I ever learn?

The shame lingers so subtly that I don’t even notice it until my denial eventually slips out and I’m forced to face my privilege once again.

4. Privilege isn’t about individuals, it’s about systems

What lacks acknowledgement in conversations about privilege is that it’s not necessarily applicable to individuals. When racial microagressions play out on an individual level, the reason they trigger reactions is because of the history such interactions carry with them.

In other words, when the white guy marches past the Asian lady in the restroom line, the history of white-dominant/Asian-submissive interaction plops down right in the center of things. As much as we’d like to believe it, the world is not only made up of individuals, it’s also composed of groups who represent ideas and create realities beyond individuals’ control.

5. Privilege isn’t only about race

As I grow in my understanding of privilege, I see how it extends far beyond the context of race. Privilege comes in many packages and shapes how we view and interact with the world.

“I am unlearning the ways I perceive my own areas of privilege as ‘normal’,” writes Austin Channing. “I can smell when patriarchy is leaking all over a man as he interacts with me. But there are plenty of other ways that that I engage in oppression, ignorance, avoidance, and all kinds of crazy.”

I think of all the times I fail to consider other realities and subconsciously operate as though mine is the norm regardless of things like disability, education level, language ability, religious views, or sexual orientation. We saw it happen yet again last week with nationalities when Twitter called the spelling bee ‘Unamerican’ for its lack of white participants. Clearly, there is no end to how we exclude each other when we see ourselves as the ones who belong and everyone else as the other.

As a result, unpacking how we engage with people of different backgrounds than our own is critical to development the model of humility we see in Phillipians 2:

“If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.” (The Message)

Christ’s example stands in stark contrast to the pundits and pontificators who insist nothing-is-wrong-with-me in response to the racial struggles of our world. It sheds new light on the pushy white guy’s behavior in the yogurt line. It opens the heart’s door of this stubbornly-skeptical wife just a teeny-bit wider.

Our world is sorely in need of people who follow Christ before they follow political figures and tribe leaders.  When we fight against the privilege discussion because it’s too painful to face the reality of the broken history and systems of our world, we end up perpetuating the exact same legacy.

Instead, may our humility grow deep enough that we have the courage to walk through the painful realities privilege carries. May we, like Christ, live selflessly and obediently rather than clinging to privilege and status. If we want to see change the world, truly, it must first begin with ourselves.

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4 thoughts on “5 painful realities of white privilege”

  1. Jodi, what a great post! You really helped me remember how much I STILL dismiss other people’s realities, and yet feel horrible when that happens to me. Thank you, again, for your wonderful insights and taking the time to share.

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  2. i loved this…phil 2 helped me think through things when i was a very privileged girl growing up in one of the best suburbs of sydney and was studying social work. I think privilege has many varieties. in India caste gives some privilege over others and none of them are white…tho the white skin thing is still deeply there….indians often do the same thing as your yoghurt story with the african students…i bet if we look all over the world there will be privileged groups that arent necessairily white…

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    1. Totally agreed…hence #5! Privilege extends far beyond race. The more I understand white privilege, the more it pushes me to consider other areas of privilege I have as well. Thanks for sharing!

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