Confession time: I’m white. And because I’m white, I know I’m privileged. I’m privileged in ways that other white people aren’t, that other women aren’t, that other middle class people aren’t. I went to a good school that had (some) money to invest in extra programs and quality teachers; I grew up with a roof over my head in a loving family; I haven’t been the victim of abuse by men. But I’m also privileged in ways that only white people are privileged. I can drive with a broken taillight at 3 am in one of the strictest police cities in my area and be let go with a smile and a handshake (true story). I can huddle with a group of friends on a street corner and not be suspected of any criminal activity. But as a white person, there are also things I can’t do. I can’t pretend to understand the fear for my life from being confronted by law enforcement; I can’t know how it feels to be thought of a subhuman; I can’t know, and sometimes can’t even detect, all of the micro-aggressions myself and others commit. Finally, as a white person, there are things I must do. I must be willing to listen to POC (people of color) who tell me I’ve said or done something offensive. I must be cognizant to avoid turning their message into my own, turning their fear into mine, to white wash. I must be an ally, a friend, a confidant. But I must also be aware that at times I need to be in the background, sometimes it doesn’t matter what I think, that sometimes it isn’t about me and my feelings. (The irony of writing a blog post about my opinion that sometimes my opinion doesn’t matter is not lost on me.)
So while I believe there are things and times that I should sit down and listen, here’s something I think we (as in white people) need to speak out about. White Fear. We need to own it, to recognize it, and to dissuade it. White fear can be many things and stem from many causes, but it ultimately can be boiled down into a fear that our way of life as we know it will cease to exist and that we will then become less enriched in various ways. This fear has existed in multiple fashions; fear that POC moving into the neighborhood will bring down resale values, fear that equal rights will mean less rights for us; fear that prosperity for POC will mean less prosperity for us, fear that we will become the targets of unjust policing and policy. The list could go on and on. Chris Hayes sums it up fairly succinctly in his book A Colony in a Nation by saying:
“White fear emanates from knowing that white privilege exists and the anxiety that it might end.”
Well, when you put it like that, it’s hard to argue with. Plenty of things, from policing, to legislation, to job markets can be linked to this anxiety. How many times have we heard “Immigrants are taking our jobs!” or “All lives matter”? Can anyone really argue that white anxiety didn’t play a role in this last election? We play the game of life as if equality was a juicy apple pie in which there are limited slices and our livelihood depends on hoarding slices for ourselves. It can be scary to no longer be the privileged one, to see how other people live and to be subjected to that kind of treatment yourself. A professor once told me that people who are used to excess will always see equality as a downgrade for themselves, and I think that is at the root of the problem here. Are we willing to give up our privilege (as much as possible) to see that others are equal to ourselves? I believe history has shown the answer to that tends to be a resounding and stubborn “no.”
That’s not to say that all equality comes at a negative cost. Take the living wage argument for example. Many opponents of a higher minimum wage ask why an untrained burger flipper should make the same amount as an EMT. That question is paramount to the idea that we are working with a finite amount of income to spread between all people, an idea that just isn’t true. Instead, we should be advocating for an EMT to be paid more as well. I can tell you right now that I make nearly the same as the average EMT worker and I could not afford a two bedroom apartment on my own. In fact, according to a new study done by the National Low Income Housing Coalition , no one making federal minimum wage can, no matter what state they live in.
It’s simply not enough to acknowledge our privilege anymore and move on, as if it were a birth right. “We directly, materially, personally benefit from the status quo, no matter what awful costs it imposes on those in the Colony (people of color),” Chris Hayes points out once again in A Colony in a Nation (p 52). We have to become comfortable with the constant of change and recognize that while to us, it may seem like a loss, equality for everyone is a glorious victory for others. We need to be cognizant of how those losses to use look and feel to others. We need to realize that equality, for some people, means being treated and recognized as a complete and equal person for the first times in their lives.
We also need to realize that white privilege is not a birth right. We are not entitled to better treatment, to higher paying jobs, to better quality education, health care, housing, etc. We are owed the same human decency and dignity as POC. That’s why it’s called equality.