In her classic paper “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack”, Peggy McIntosh points out that “whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege.” She says, as a result, whites grow up unaware of with the basic privileges in North American society that come to them with their skin color. This privilege is invisible to whites, but glaringly evident to people of color. McIntosh goes on to offer 50 examples of privileges granted to whites, not granted to people of color. Furthermore, as she points out, with this privilege comes the power to set the intellectual, emotional and social agenda in any given setting.
In the last few years, I have sought to be more consciously aware of the privilege granted to me by society as a white, educated, middle class male. This awareness has caused me to experience myself in some discomforting ways. Recently, there was one situation, where my tendency toward privilege snuck up on me and I did not see it coming.
Recently, I have been participating in an interracial group exploring the topic, “Bridging the Gaps of Race and Class.” At our initial meeting, the organizers of the group indicated that they assumed that all the participants “had passed Racism 101” and understood concepts such as internalized oppression, institutional racism and white privilege. As we introduced ourselves to the group, we were invited to share a challenge we had faced in bridging the race and class gap. When my turn came, I shared that when I am new in a gathering where I am a racial minority among a group of people of color, I often get vibes of distrust from others in the group. My sense is that people are suspicious of my presence and my motives for being there as a white male.
Because I assumed in our group that everyone understood that I had “passed Racism 101,” I didn’t feel a need to explain that I understood that the distrust was part of a historical reaction to a pattern of white domination. I did not state that when I am in such settings, I accept that I must earn the respect of others. In making that statement, I was not being critical, but rather making what I considered to be an honest description of my experience. I also assumed that everyone would accept my statement at face value.
However, I was sorely mistaken. Later when the group broke into separate caucuses of white and black, I learned that some of the African-American participants as well as some of the whites, were quite upset by my comment. I in turn felt hurt and later angry about their reaction. I stewed on the incident for days. In subsequent meetings, my discomfort was magnified by one particular African-American woman who seemed very reluctant to speak with me, and at least one white person who seemed bent on setting me straight. In the subsequent weeks, as I participated by offering what I thought were valuable contributions, I have felt like I was digging myself into a deeper and deeper hole. My internal l response has been to say, “You asked a question, I gave an answer; why can’t you accept that?”
And then it hit me: this is what people of color experience on a daily basis. They think they are “playing by the rules” and then all of a sudden the rules change. As a white male I have been accustomed to making the rules of discourse and then making sure they are followed. I have been raised to assume that when I make a statement in apparent good faith, that statement is accepted at face value. I don’t assume that I will have to that there was not some hidden message or implication in what I said. Furthermore, I don’t assume that I will be regarded with suspicion once I have made my case. Finally, I don’t assume that by “being myself” I will sink into deeper and deeper sense of alienation. What I have come to realize is that in this small incident, I have experienced my white privilege in a way that doesn’t give me an easy out. More than that I have come to realize that because the rules of discourse are often skewed in my favor, I have not developed any resources to react to a persistent questioning of my integrity.
Yet this is what most, if not all, people of color face in our society. I have come to a new appreciation for the pernicious effect racism has on our identity, our assumptions, and our ability to communicate effectively. I am thankful for this group as uncomfortable as it has been, and I am thankful for colleagues and friends who are willing to be honest and set me straight. I have no illusions; I will stumble and stick my foot in my mouth again. I probably won’t even know at first that I have done so. White male privilege for all its benefits, has not prepared me to live in an increasingly multicultural society.
As I look at my children and white friends and colleagues, I think one of the major challenges we face in the next ten years is how to live in a society where we don’t have privilege. To people of color that seems like justice (and it is), but for many whites, including me, it is an uphill climb. We who are white have not been given the cognitive or emotional tools to live in a world that is not white-oriented. In some ways are friends of color can help us, but that is not their job. In most cases we need to make our own way. I am committed to keep on learning about how my white male privilege has crippled me for the world that is here and coming, and I am dedicated to sharing any insights I have had.