What I Said When My White Friend Asked for My White Opinion on What a Black Woman Said When Her White Friend Asked for Her Black Opinion on White Privilege

Photo by Margaret Bourke-White, 1937

My title is an homage to a wonderful blog post by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, entitled "What I Said When My White Friend Asked For My Black Opinion on White Privilege." That post was the stimulus for the following exchange. I am sharing it in the same spirit in which Ms. Hutcherson shared hers, to offer support to curious white folks who are just starting to explore how racism has shaped us and the world around us.

Dear Gregory,

A friend posted this article, which I read. It helped me understand what white privilege means. I was wondering what your view was on this article? I want to make sure I am filling my head and heart with truth. Also, I feel like there is white shame that goes along with this. Is the antidote to shame, telling the truth? Advocating for change? Acknowledging racism? Something else?

Thank you.
Becky (name changed)

Dear Becky,

It is very nice to hear from you. It is especially nice to hear from you on this topic. It warms my heart when fellow white people begin to get curious about what it really means to be white. It also gives me hope for the world. So thank you!! To answer your first question, I think this article is wonderful. It is an act of profound generosity when a person of color shares their experiences of racism because, as the author says, these experiences can be painful to relive. Furthermore, though the author didn't mention it, I have heard from others that it is extremely vulnerable for people of color to report on the racism they experience because they are so often not believed. It is hard for people who benefit from white privilege to acknowledge the racism that many people of color must deal with on a daily basis because this knowledge provokes shame.

Which brings me to your second question: I believe shame is one of the biggest hurdles we face, as white people. It arises naturally as we begin to awaken to the enormous suffering caused by structural white supremacy, which despite being all around us, we have somehow failed to see. It comes as a shock when we begin to realize the degree to which our lives are shaped by systems that use terror and brutality to maintain structural inequality.

To look for the first time at the true history of genocide, slavery, lynching, and racist housing policies, and to see how that history lives on in the violence of racist policing, mass incarceration, and gentrification can overwhelm us with shame, not to mention guilt. One of the hallmarks of white privilege is that we are typically oblivious to the violence that sustains it. One of its costs is what Robin DiAngelo calls white fragility. Those of us who suffer from this condition lack a certain emotional resilience and tend to become highly triggered when the topic of racism comes up.

The antidote to shame for me has been engagement, but engagement is no magic bullet. Thanks to my own white fragility, I still get knocked off center by the emotional currents surrounding this topic. The only way to build stamina is to stay engaged, especially when we feel uncomfortable. Because this is difficult emotional labor, we may be tempted to look to people of color to receive our remorse and our tears. We must resist this. Comforting and reassuring white people requires energy that people of color, for whom racism is a matter of life and death, cannot spare. Moreover, it is not their responsibility to attend to our feelings. I have found that my own sustainability in this work depends on having a community of white people. It is crucial, I think, that white people find or create spaces where we can share support and encouragement so that we can show up for the struggle as fully resourced as possible.

Once we have begun to really feel what it means that our society is rooted in white supremacy - that we are embedded in its systems and its systems are embedded in us - we are ready to act with authenticity and accountability. Acting with authenticity means confronting white supremacy, in society and within ourselves, not from a desire to "help" people of color (as if they need our help) or to feel better about ourselves (by trying to fix other white people), but from a foundation of understanding that our own liberation depends on it. Acting with accountability means taking leadership from and be willing to answer to those communities that are likely to be impacted by our actions, however well-intended they may be.

How we each engage in the struggle is a personal matter. There is no formula for dismantling white supremacy. But there are endless ways to step up, from interrupting racist jokes to challenging workplace practices; from talking to our neighbors to shutting down freeways; from writing letters to running for office. What matters is that we show up and do what we can, with the knowledge that ending racism is essential for our personal and collective healing, as white people and as humans.

Best Regards,