Thursday, September 4, 2014

White Privilege? Who Me?

Growing up in the South - a woman who was taught to stay in her place – it was men who enjoyed all the privileges of power. Within the male/female hierarchy, I certainly was not encouraged to believe I had any special privilege. It took stepping out of my “place” and looking at my life from a whole new perspective to be able to see that – yes, even while living within all the various limits of my Christian White Southern Woman Box - I was still a part of the dominant culture; I still live with unearned, undeserved privilege. Just because I didn’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Like gravity, the invisible status quo of our culture tends to keep all of us in our “place” until we figure out how to see it, name it and stand firm against its insidious hold on us.

Everywhere I turn across the Internet these days, I’m reading other people who are saying the same thing. Many of us are becoming more and more aware of the favors society gives us just because of the color of our skin. It’s embarrassing. Jim Rigby posted on Facebook how he, like me, was “taught a white version of history, a white version of beauty, and was saved by a white savior. I could not see my racism because it was the lens through which I was looking at everything else.” The very next day Jim blogged (with his tongue firmly in his cheek): “How do you know America is post-racial? Because a bunch of white people will come onto your Facebook and shout down anyone who would suggest otherwise.”

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor-in-Chief of and a TV critic for New York Magazine. He tells a story of a very stupid fight he started outside a bar, and then the undeserved wink and nod he got from the Dallas police as the Hispanic guy went off in handcuffs. Matt knows, because he has taken the lens off, that different rules apply to him than to so many others.

Since #Ferguson, numerous writers who are gifted and burdened with privilege have been wondering what to do. Bree Ervin at Everyday Feminism suggests six things parents can do as they teach and model for their children. Rachel Held Evans says we are “not as helpless as we think” even though racial reconciliation is a “hard discouraging road.”  Janee Woods wrote a much shared reflection on “12 Things White People Can Do…” When the Public Religion Research Institute published survey results revealing that most white people don’t have very many friends of color in our social networks, the blogosphere came alive with discussion. Surely figuring out how to burst that particular isolation bubble and to start living in a larger world, start living in the real world, would be one thing we all can do.

So are we favored white folks going to sit by and continue to allow America be what America has been? Or is this the time when we finally step up and really work for a more equitable America? Working to change entrenched systems is not quick or easy or flashy or fun, as Sojourners reminds me again and again. But when enough of us take our blinders off and open our eyes to the reality of our culture - the reality in which we are all too often complicit – then and only then can we truly be partners and allies in this effort for a just America.

I can’t stop the culture from gifting me with undeserved privilege, but I can find ways to increase the privilege and opportunities of others who live within my sphere of influence. I can’t change the fact that my skin is light, but I can stand against the insidious notion that white is the ideal and cultural norm. It is not; I am one of many and when I embrace that, when I celebrate the rainbow of our shared humanity, I am bigger and wiser and better. It’s really quite nice to be out of That Box.

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