Imagine you work hard your whole life: at school, work and home. You win some and you lose some, and at times it feels like there’s more losing than winning. Life’s not easy, but you hang in there and follow most of the rules. Some people are less kind than others, and your interactions with teachers, coworkers, bosses, store clerks and bureaucrats can be challenging. Like most people you know, you do all right, but sometimes struggle to pay bills, find a decent place to live, put your kids in a decent school, and get your basic needs met. You see less deserving folks get rewards or perks you don’t. You worry about the future.
And then someone says you have “white privilege.”
I get it. I’m White. Growing up with three darker-skinned family members and mostly “minority” classmates, I hated racism. I thought it meant meanness and abuse directed towards people of color, particularly Blacks, and as a teen I vowed to do my part to stop it. I bristled at the suggestion that I contributed to racism or benefitted from so-called “privilege” just because I was White. What a load of crap! I was a conscientious, empathetic person with multicolored friends. I went out of my way to treat everyone with respect and dignity, even advocate for equality. I worked my butt off in challenging social and financial circumstances to achieve a great deal. To suggest I hadn’t earned it fairly was deeply insulting. To say I got unearned advantages sounded like a copout from lazy complainers.
“Eventually, I learned that my well-intended understanding of racism was woefully superficial and incomplete.”
Eventually, I learned that my well-intended understanding of racism was woefully superficial and incomplete. I learned that I was blind to much of what was going on around me, because I’m White. I also learned a dirty secret about racism: It hurts White people too.
In this case, I’m simplifying by including three phenomena when I say “racism”: (1) racism: the systematic distribution of resources and power to the benefit of White people and the exclusion of people of color, (2) white privilege: unearned, often invisible benefits granted to people with lighter skin color and (3) white supremacy: the belief that White people of European origin are innately superior to other races, and therefore best equipped to run things. Racism hurts White people in three main ways: it lies, it burdens and it coddles.
Racism lies to us about our history. It covers up the many valuable contributions people of color have made to the world across history, leading us to believe they are less capable and deserving than us. It hides the bigotry, manipulation, violence and outright theft that lead to many Whites’ historical accomplishments, leading us to believe we are more capable and deserving than we are. It lies to us about how, why and for whom our country was founded. It silences the diversity of voices in all races ― including Whites who fought and died to end slavery, segregation and discrimination ― painting our ancestors as oversimplified or extreme caricatures, limiting our own options for how to be White. Racism lies about our identity – the full truth about our mixed DNA, where we came from and how we got where we are. It lies about our values of democracy, equality and meritocracy, leading us to believe these exist for everyone, and that the American Dream is the reward bestowed on anyone who works hard enough.
“Racism skews our sense of reality. It damages our humanity. It makes us weak.”
Racism burdens Whites by silently holding us up as the standard of excellence, leaving few excuses available to the majority of us who don’t measure up. It burdens us with a narrow bandwidth of options for how to be – White or otherwise. It burdens us with our own suffering, since no one seems to sympathize when our lives are difficult. Racism coddles Whites by not requiring us to learn what all people of color must do to survive – how to live in multiple worlds, speak multiple languages and quickly navigate complex realities. It coddles us by making us too fragile to fully hear, understand and receive what people of color are saying, much less take responsibility for our part. It makes us too fragile to talk with people or color in any way that doesn’t meet our standards of comfort and familiarity, much less tolerate being in groups where we are the racial minority. These are skills people of color utilize almost everyday, and in some respects makes them more resilient, creative and intelligent than us.
Racism skews our sense of reality. It damages our humanity. It makes us weak.
I don’t equate Whites’ suffering with the suffering of people of color. I don’t believe Whites’ suffering earns us pity or absolves us of responsibility for the harm we’ve collectively done – and are still doing – to people of color. False dichotomies and “either-or” thinking are dominant threads in the fabric of racism that suffocates everyone. However, I do believe in “both-and” thinking and empathy for all who suffer. I believe that acknowledging how racism hurts White people too can increase our commitment to creating a world that works for everyone – where we can all be healthy, happy, authentic, brilliant…and free.