My Polite Privilege Is Racism

In my silence, those around me feel safe in their racism and misogyny.


I am worse than the KKK.

In my polite privilege, I am a stumbling block. I am an obstacle to the work of dismantling white supremacy. In my silence, those around me feel safe in their racism and misogyny. In my comfort, I am complicit.

Here are some examples of what I mean, commonplace in the years of my experience:

  • A family member explains that being poor and white is worse than being black and middle class, because she suffered, too, and wasn’t given any special opportunities.

  • A family member complains that he can’t get promoted because he’s white. Mexicans and blacks have it better at his job.

  • A family member—who self-reports he’s working on a racial justice forum at his church—mentions asking a member of the choir if he could touch her [black] hair.

  • A family member frequently notes when her child’s friends are black or Hispanic, but never notes when they’re white.

  • A family member asks if I know where I can get a special doll in “ethnic garb,” to help his daughter learn about other cultures.

  • A classmate wonders why minority groups need to have their own support groups—isn’t that just adding to divisiveness?

  • White classmates frequently turn to classmates of color to educate them on issues of race and cultural history.

  • Classmates want to create a “white caucus” on campus, to give white students a place to talk about race without burdening their classmates of color.

  • Some friends are wearing safety pins, and feel relief that they can self-identify as allies, as not being part of the problem.

  • Some friends decry this symbolic (empty?) gesture, because when we whites wear a safety pin, we’re not likely to be assaulted, raped, or subject to threats and obscenities.

  • While taking a group of students on a field trip, a young white photographer takes photographs of my black, girl students. I think she wants an “urban” or “gritty” photograph of kids on the street.

  • When I make programs for my students’ production of Romeo and Juliet, I deliberately shoot the actors with a “gritty” chain link backdrop, to emphasize the difference between the setting of the school and the material.

  • On Facebook, many friends report being targeted for hate crimes. I share their stories, hoping to amplify their message to my communities.

  • On Facebook, many friends report being targeted for hate crimes. I share their stories, because it makes me feel good about being an ally, and for having friends of color.

  • On Facebook, many friends report being targeted for hate crimes. I don’t share their stories too often, because I don’t want to make other friends and family uncomfortable.

  • On Facebook, a relative posts a hateful story (untrue) about a celebrity who is transgender. I unfriend him without comment.

  • My neighbor assumes because I look like him, I voted for Trump, and decries Hillary Clinton in xenophobic and classist language. I say nothing.

  • An Uber driver assumes because I’m white, I’m afraid of immigrants, and tells me stories of bad experiences he’s had with [perceived] immigrants. I say nothing.

  • My physician assumes because I’m a professional that I must hate paying large taxes, and shakes her head about the welfare state and “those people” who don’t pay their fair share. I say nothing.

  • A member of my congregation assumes because I’m Christian I understand that there really are more Islamic militants than peaceful Muslims. I say little.

  • When friends, family, and colleagues talk about needing to “unify,” “give the new president a chance,” or criticize “anger” and “violent protest,” I say little.

From the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” ―

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”

Emphasis mine.

I have been privileged to learn from teachers and classmates who have reminded me that unless I’m willing to put my body between theirs and violence, I am no ally.

That’s a hard lesson, one I grapple with every day—except for the days when violence and racism hardly disrupt my daily life, and I so easily forget issues of power and privilege.

I luxuriate in my ability to move through the world not talking about race, not teaching about difference, quiet and cossetted and able to live my life untroubled.

To use my own Christian language: this is a sin.

I maintain this luxury on the backs and bodies of my fellow citizens, my classmates and colleagues and students and family members, who are bullied, attacked, sexually assaulted, blacklisted, ignored, unhired, fired, silenced, disenfranchised, and deported.

I don’t have complete answers, for myself or for others. I must not be silent. I must not be a bystander. I must not keep the peace.

I have work to do.