White Privilege

Ok all, I have to talk about race. I’m no race expert, but I need to know this issue better, so writing this up with 1) allow me to work through thoughts and 2) allow those of you more knowledgable about race correct me in the comments. Also, I’ve been avoiding the big race stuff on Facebook. Yes, I made one or two statuses to comment on the Trayvon Martin case, but that (I’m not going to lie here) was so I didn’t look like a white person who is trying to pretend race doesn’t exist while also trying not to say too much lest I need to put a couple of feet into my mouth.

I have white privilege. It’s dripping out my ears. My family is white as far back as I know. I grew up from first grade on up in white Midwesternia: a few years in rural Indiana and the rest in a suburb of Chicago. My graduating high school class had one Indian student (as in India, not American Indian) and a handful of Hispanic/Latino students, but the rest looked like me. I went to BYU which is also pretty white (understatement of the year?). I knew race issues were important, but touchy. So touchy, in fact, that it was easier to not talk about it at all. After all, white privilege allows me to never have to talk about race if I don’t want to.

American Mormondom is pretty white. Even after moving to Oakland, I have the option to isolate myself into my mostly-white Mormon ward and my husband’s mostly-white coworkers, and my mostly-white moms groups. Here are the screenshots from the US 2010 Census data webapp about my “census block group,” or the ~1000 people in my immediate neighborhood.

Neighborhood Race DataScreen Shot 2013-07-15 at 12.03.20 PM

My neighborhood is 34% white, 47% African American. The other 19% are Asian, American Indian/Alaskan Native (AIAN), or identify with other races or multiple races. That’s a lot of people of color in my neighborhood. That’s a lot of people I can choose to ignore because of my privilege.

It is important to point out that talking about racial privilege isn’t about making white people feel guilty. No one’s arguing that you chose to be born white or that you, yourself, were responsible for slavery or other abuses of people of color. Also, no one is saying that white people have everything handed to them on a silver platter. White people work hard for their achievements. But white privilege does give a “boost” in many many situations. A good list of examples can be found at this article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Go read it now.

I think one of the hardest things for me on Facebook this weekend was seeing my black mom friends talk about how, “Moms: we need to take action! This is not ok that our children are not safe!” I was not sure how to respond. I wanted to show support, but I also realize, as the mother of white kids, my children are not in the same danger that children of color are. And then I end up making no remark, which I then worry looks as if I don’t care and once again, I’m hiding behind my white privilege and not talking about race.

And you know what? It’s really uncomfortable to talk about racism. It probably should never be a comfortable feeling to talk about hoe people judge and hurt each other. But we still need to talk about it or it’ll never go away. Here are some of the things I try to remember.

Different peopleRacism is Real. We are not in a post-racial world as much as I’d like to be. If I want to be an ally to my neighbors, friends, and community, I can’t pretend racism is over.

No Gaslighting I have to listen more than I speak. It is wrong for me to tell someone, “You’re reading too much into it, it’s not related to race at all.”

I am probably going to say/do something that is racist and mess up badly and I’m going to have to apologize. No, I don’t like to think I’m racist. And as a person, I try really hard not to be. But do I have racist thoughts? Do I make assumptions about the people around me because of their race? Yes I do. Is it right? No, it’s not. When a person of color tells me I say or do something offensive, I need to apologize and try hard not to do it again.

I’m going to have to get out of my comfort zone. It’s comfortable to be surrounded by people who are like me. But you know what? I really should start going to the community education meetings about race relations so I can understand it better. Oakland has a history I’m not a part of. If I’m going to understand, I need to go and talk about race instead of ignoring it. Actually, probably I should do less talking and more listening. Always more listening. And asking honest questions and backing off when I’m told I’m out of bounds.

There are people of color who are angry. Just like it’s absolutely ok to be angry about sexism and be the “angry feminist,” it is ok for people to be angry about racial prejudice. This will sometimes translate into people of color being mad at white people and it’s going to feel unfair to be lumped into the oppressors. I have to resist the impulse to say, “But I’m a good white person!” Let it go. More than one of my mom-friends of color have posted something on the lines of “Privileged moms: please don’t say anything to me right now. Please,” this last weekend. People are hurt, people are angry. That’s ok.

No commandeering the cause. Yes, show up at the rallies, the meetings, participate in the email lists. But if I show up and decide to lead up some new action and I didn’t first listen to what is needed, I’m overstepping my bounds. Sure, I might be qualified to help out, but guess who are more qualified? The people who are living in brown skin every day. Only if my idea is well-received and agreed upon and there is no one else to take the reins, should I lead up an action about race.

It’s not even just race. Race issues intersect with women’s issues. They intersect with class issues. It’s going to take a long time to really know what to do and understand how I fit in it all.

It’s not bad to use my privilege. It’s bad to assume or expect everyone else has the same opportunities and experiences I do, yes. But privilege isn’t inherently “good” for “bad.” It can even be advantageous for fighting racism. For example, in the link above, number 30 states, “If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.” The next time Aunt So-and-so makes a racist joke? I can use the power of my privilege to say, “Hey. That’s not ok,” and I have a good chance of being heard. That is the power of allies.

It’s going to take time. There’s no magical post-racial fairy who will come and *poof* us into utopia. There’s no one way to fight the systemic racism in our lives. But I can check my thoughts and actions every day. And I can keep trying to “mourn with those that mourn.”

I don’t normally like “challenges” prompted by blogs, but I want to challenge you all to do something to break down your comfort levels regarding race and learn a little more. I’m resolving to go to a community education event where the film Mirrors of Privilege: Making Whiteness Visible will be screened and discussed next month. Look into what you can do. Does your community have race education event? Do you have an LDS Genesis group nearby? If you are a person of color, what do you think is the most important thing for white people to understand about privilege? Also, feel free to critique or add to my list. 


TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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12 Responses

  1. Wonderful piece and links. I love the thought that white privilege is as hard for whites to see as male privilege is for men to see.

    I would add economic privilege to the list. I’m taking my 10 year-old granddaughter to enrichment classes in anatomy at the university this week with the sad realization that most of the kids in her elementary school who would profit from this type of program do not have the opportunity to participate.

  2. Mraynes says:

    This! This is so good and so important, thank you for writing this. I 100% agree that talking about race is awkward and difficult but being a good ally means living with the comfort and discomfort our privileges afford us. One thing I would add is that when we see racism or unexamined privilege being used by somebody of our own race we need to be brave enough to step in and call that person out. I am the worst at this, I hate confrontation and I always have a million justifications for why I shouldn’t act but none of theme are good enough. My discomfort doesn’t even come close to the pain less privileged people feel from the constant barrage of aggression and micro-aggression they experience.

  3. Em says:

    I love that you are bringing this up here. I would love to hear more voices of women of color speaking about their experience in this forum. I do feel like my heightened awareness about male privilege has at least forced me to acknowledge how much I benefit from white privilege. I can’t sit there an enumerate off the top of my head all the ways being a man in the church, and in our world more broadly is a huge advantage without also acknowledging the advantage I have over people of color as a white person. I can’t be angry at men for refusing to admit they are privileged while simultaneously defending my own position of race privilege. Thanks for bringing up these issues.

    • TopHat says:

      We do need more women of color on this blog! The extreme awkwardness of being a white blogger of a mostly white-blog writership (and I assume readership) trying to write about race. Guest posts are always welcome, if anyone knows of a woman of color who wants to share her story.

  4. Holly says:

    thanks for tackling this topic. Something I found very thought provoking was this thoughtful, difficult essay by a white woman with a black daughter. http://www.guernicamag.com/features/gray-area/ As she wrote, “if I, a white woman with a PhD, can be racially profiled for toting around a black baby, count on it a young black man can be.”

  5. Angie says:

    Thank you for talking about this topic. I have been passionate about race relations since I first learned about the KKK, when I was 11. (FYI, I am LDS and Caucasian) I decided that racism has its roots in ignorance, so I studied African-American Studies in college. One of my professors taught me about the “condescending White liberal,” a person who believes and decides that a group of people has problems, and that these problems would be solved if they lived according to his/her values. In other words, not trusting an individual or group of people to identify and solve problems on their own.

    Because of what I learned, I chose to become a school counselor. I figure that I can make a difference by informing young people of their options, trusting them to make decisions for themselves, and supporting their efforts. I have worked only in “at-risk” schools.

    Here is what I do in my life to combat racism: I teach my children about racism and the complexities of social interactions and history; I speak up at church when iss racism; I attend events that celebrate different cultures, I constantly educate about others’ world views.

    And most of all, I pray for charity (Moroni 7), because it is natural to hate and fear the “other.” Only by allowing God to change me can I hope to overcome racism, classism, nationalism, White privilege, whatever other baggage my puny human heart and mind hold.

    • TopHat says:

      Yes, I try very much to avoid the “condescending white liberal” attitude. It sounds like the mansplaining of race issues. I’ve probably BTDT, though. Sigh. Will keep that in mind.

  6. h_nu says:

    While some so-called intellectuals like to invent imaginary concepts and words, I see little evidence for this imaginary idea. Instead of assuming you’re right, how about providing even the slightest bit of evidence?

    • Em says:

      This seems unnecessarily combative, as well as vague. Are you trying to suggest that white people do not experience advantages in our society simply because they are white? We are talking about facts, not perception. When a child who is not caucasian goes to an American history class, the heroes of the story will be overwhelmingly white. The role models presented to them will be overwhelmingly white. When they watch the television, the authority figures will be more likely to be white than of their own race. Up until our current president, a child who is not white never saw a person of their own race in the place of ultimate power. These are facts. White children grow up seeing themselves in adult form occupying positions of power, authority and influence. This is much, much less the case for a child from a non-white background. It is easy for a white child to see themselves in Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, George Washington, Neil Armstrong etc. etc. etc. It is harder for a child who never sees someone like them as the hero of the story to imagine becoming the president, astronaut, mountain man First Lady. This is only one tiny example of privilege. The phenomenon repeats itself through every part of our society.

      This is not the place to be a troll. If you have a meaningful contribution that raises alternative perspectives, please articulate it. Taking digs at intellectuals is not in itself a valuable contribution to the conversation.

  7. Risa says:

    This was wonderful, Tophat.

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