White Privilege Ain't the Half of It

I am fortunate to lead a comfortable life. I have a nice home, two charming kids, a lovely wife, a dog, a minivan, 3 backyard chickens, and more than enough money to pay the bills.

I’m white.

I’ve rarely been pulled over by the police. When I was stopped as a teenager for having a broken tail light in my 1950 Studebaker, I did not even consider that the cop might shoot me. I got a “fix-it” ticket and after making the repair did not even have to pay the fine. I’ve come to accept that being white has given me countless advantages, most of which I probably did not recognize at the time. But I have many more advantages as well.

I’m male.

I’ve seen the statistics that white women earn 79% of what white men do in comparable jobs. I was shaken by the number of close friends who posted #MeToo after the most recent publicity of rampant sexual harassment. The closest thing I’ve experienced to that was when a girl in 9th grade gym class pinched my butt. It was a little shocking, quite a bit embarrassing, but to be honest also a little flattering. Turns out most teenage boys don’t mind sexual attention from girls. But she wasn’t my boss, or someone in a position of power over me. I could reject her, and walk away smug, not intimidated. I can understand how women who are groped and objectified frequently find it less than amusing, and accurately see harassment as a form of economic discrimination and power.

By my privileges don’t end there. I was raised by two loving, sober, and responsible parents who worked hard, set a good example, and put me through a hoity-toity East Coast liberal arts college debt free. Not everyone, white or not, is so lucky. I’ve learned countless skills and made connections from employers, colleagues, friends, and neighbors along the way.

But my white, male, college-educated privilege doesn’t make me a bad person or diminish my own hard work and achievements. I was surprised recently at the hundreds of hostile comments I received after posting on Twitter that I was a privileged white male. Many people seemed to think I was ashamed of myself, or somehow demeaning my (or their) accomplishments (or masculinity).

I’m proud of who I am, and I think other people should be too. While my relatively advantaged upbringing has left me feeling like a non-expert when it comes to race-relations, I’ve decided it’s time to speak up about them anyhow.

For most of my life, I’d considered myself an “ally” to movements for racial justice and gender equality, but not a leader. I’d happily sign petitions and vote for “correct” candidates who supported feminism and affirmative action. I will continue to do so, but that is not enough. I’d previously felt like I didn’t have that much to say about the topic personally. That needs to change.

I’ve devoted most of my life to addressing social problems such as climate change and good government. I have not felt guilty that these movements are comprised mostly of white people. I told myself that it was understandable that activists who were black, Latino, or female would focus their energies on issues with immediate impact on their lives. I would not try to get them to abandon “their” issues of social justice for mine. I’d happily cheer them on.

My thinking changed when I was sitting in the Kansas City airport on July 8, 2016. I’d been on a local radio show the day before promoting a book I’d written about Citizens United and big money in politics. But callers to the show, which had a largely African American audience, wanted to talk about how a Minnesota police officer had shot Philando Castile seven times after pulling him over for a broken tail light. It was a topic I felt little expertise to discuss, having never experienced much discrimination myself, let alone police violence. The host (an African American woman) tried her best to steer the conversation to my book. I appreciated her gesture, but was more than happy to relinquish the microphone and forgo the topic I’d come to talk about.

Perhaps it was the insistence of the host that we stay on “my” topic that got me thinking. As I waited for my flight home and watched the footage on the airport TV screens, it dawned on me that this was not “their” problem. The problem is with the attitudes of white people, not black people. And I, as an over-privileged white male, am in as good a position to talk about white attitudes as anyone. So, at the risk of offending everyone, here goes.

I believe that white males need to embrace our privilege, not deny it or feel ashamed of it. We are who we are. Men like John McEnroe don’t seem to have a problem admitting (or even boasting) that they have some natural born advantages over women in sports (although I’m certain that the 700th ranked woman on the pro circuit would crush me in tennis.) Why not admit that whites have many advantages over blacks, not due to ability but simply luck of being born on the “right” side of centuries of discrimination and racism? This doesn’t mean that either blacks or whites should not still make the most of whatever advantages and disadvantages each of us are given, or strive to make the world a fairer place.

Admitting that white privilege exists should be no more difficult than admitting that gravity exists. It is so prevalent, that we may fail to see it on a day to day basis. But gravity is not the only force in the universe.

As a corollary, I think it would help white people acknowledge discrimination if non-whites recognized that not all whites knowingly experience “privilege” on a daily basis. As with gravity, it’s easy to forget it’s there. There are plenty of white, heterosexual men who have also got the short end of the stick from a society that often elevates wealth and class over race and gender. There is no shortage of non-college educated white factory workers, veterans, coal miners, janitors, salesmen and others who have seen jobs disappear without any affirmative action programs to help ease their plight.

People have an easier time listening if they first feel like they have been heard. Workers who have seen their way of life slip away only to be told they are “privileged’ may have a hard time empathizing with others who are even less fortunate. When you feel like you are losing, it’s easier to turn to demagogues who tell you that others are to blame for your misfortune than to recognize your own advantages.

For my white brothers who are not convinced that white privilege exists (and this article is written for you), please read this personal account by white police officer Randy Shrewsbury. If you are convinced discrimination is real, think about what you personally can do about it. This is “our” problem — we need to fix it.

For my non-white sisters, please help us hear you by acknowledging that there is more to economic success — and failure — than being white. It’s not that black women owe white men any favors, quite the contrary. But white men need allies in this conversation also. Just because someone is born on first base doesn’t mean they will automatically make it to second without their own risk and effort. All too often, white men have been stranded on first base after a bad call by a crooked umpire struck out their teammate through no fault of their own. For team America to win, we must all work together to ensure that everyone makes it to home base no matter where they began.

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