Using White Privilege for Positive Change

As a teenager, I proudly told my first black friends that I was color blind. I thought I was saying the right thing, telling them that race doesn't matter to me. I now realize how sickeningly smug that sounds. I know they weren't colorblind.
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As a teenager, I proudly told my first black friends that I was colorblind. I thought I was saying the right thing, telling them that race doesn't matter to me. I now realize how sickeningly smug that sounds. I know they weren't color blind.

I have chosen to feel varying degrees of fury over the headline names - Henry Glover, Sean Bell, Kathryn Johnston, Michael Brown, Dajerria Becton, Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald. I am privileged to have the choice of whether to feel enraged, or simply displeased, about another victim of white fear, another victim of the malady of racism.

What a wonderful privilege it is to get to choose! White America gets to choose to turn a cheek, charitably muttering an obligatory "it's such a shame." We get to choose that the murders of young black Americans are not our problem, at best. At our ugliest, we get to choose to say these killings were warranted. Michael Brown was a thief, after all.

Let's use this privilege to do better for those who do not get a choice.

Recognizing our privilege, despite the fact that we may have done nothing to enforce it, is the first step. The second is using the privilege to implement change in our families, workplaces, and communities.

You do not have to be racist or bigoted to accept your white privilege. White privilege means that when you cut your finger and grab a band-aid from the first aid kit, it matches your skin color. It means that most hair salons will know how to style your hair. It means that when people describe you as an individual, they do not typically begin with your color.

Let me be perfectly clear - I will never understand what it feels like to be not-white. One of my many privileges, though, is that in all facets of my life, I am typically the racial minority. My friends, colleagues, and neighbors willingly and patiently help me to understand their experiences as people of color. They gently remind me to drive more slowly when they are following me in their vehicles to a restaurant because they're afraid of being pulled over for driving at my speed; they tease me when I confidently dart into traffic expecting cars to stop for me jaywalking across 125th Street; they share their frustrations of being denied a promotion for reasons they attribute to their race. I owe it to them to use my privilege as a white person, who also has the privilege of blogging for the Huffington Post, to share what I have learned.

"They could hurt you," us white folk tell ourselves as they approach on a quiet street. They are telling themselves the same thing - teenage boys swaying and swagging and puffing themselves up out of fear. They do not feel the invincibility that I felt making teenage mistakes. They do not get the benefit of the doubt. One accusation, one wrong place/wrong time, one normal teenage mistake and we have the privilege and the power to take away their futures. Can you imagine living with this fear, this powerlessness? I can't. Growing up, I flexed the strength of being a pretty little white girl - my future was my own.

I know that normal teenage indiscretion, the same things we did in my suburban town, have very different consequences 50 miles away in Brownsville or East New York. I know that black teens are five times more likely to end up incarcerated for the same choices that I feared would, at worst, get me grounded. They do not get to choose how race will impact their lives.

Most parents do not teach their black and brown children to find a policeman if they are lost like my mother taught me. Instead, they memorize bullet points from palm cards about what to do if they are stopped. White privilege means not having to teach your children to protect themselves from those whose job it is to protect them.

If you do choose to care, do more than update your Facebook status with some Jay-Z lyrics or an MLK quote #alllivesmatter*. Do something! Educate your children and your families that injustice is real and tangible and institutionalized in our country. Call out your white privilege for those who do not notice theirs. Join a protest. Don't wear that Halloween costume. Stop touching black people's hair.

Find out what issues matter to non-whites in your neighborhood and tackle them as a unified community -- in my town that issue is affordable housing. How do you do this? Start a conversation! Acknowledge racial differences, accept judgment from both sides, put aside excessive guilt, and don't be afraid to be really uncomfortable. Get comfortable with discomfort and make race a daily topic of conversation in your home, workplace, and community and, in doing so, you will begin to identify ways in which you can use your privilege to create positive change.

White America, I challenge you to take responsibility, to do something, to get uncomfortable, to feel the fear of your friends and neighbors, to never be color blind again.

*Here's why you mean well, but shouldn't use this hashtag.

Thank you to Ana Sofia De Brito, RN, CNM Student at Yale School of Nursing, for contributing her insight and perspective to this article.

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