What is White Privilege and Why Should I Care?

Girlfriends: white and black woman eating ice cream

The Complicit Generation

As a Xennial White Woman, I am obligated to write about white privilege. My generation grew up post Civil Rights Movement. We grew up with Sesame Street, Different Strokes, Dr. Huxtable and Oprah. As a white woman with friends from varied ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds, I once called myself color blind, because I did not personally see or experience racism. 

Born in 1977 on a morning supposedly graced by a late spring snow and seven rainbows I am a quintessential Xennial Woman. We ate organic before it was hip and I could watch 30 minutes of TV before being sent outside to play (unsupervised). And, my mom brought home the very first Mac, so she could write her doctorate.

I attended a magnet school (public) for international and ESL students, so my classmates were actually pretty diverse given the whiteness of Boulder. My fourth and fifth-grade teachers proudly attended the Peace Circles leading up to the shutdown of the Rocky Flats Nuclear plant. My classmates were either the children of hippies or professors (sometimes not a mutually exclusive state), with names like Rainbow, Forest, and Destiny.

My 7th-grade teacher had a composting toilet.  And my school held “Diversity Days.” As a university freshman, I recall sitting in a philosophy class where a student who grew up in D.C. professed that CU Boulder “was too white.” I proudly claimed that “Boulder might be white, but we are colorblind.” No one even whispered a word of surprise or discontent at this statement.

I am part of the complicit generation.

I Once Was Blind But Now I Can See

In 2010 I happened to be watching CNN when a program with Anderson Cooper came on. The show presented the findings of a recently released study on perceptions of race in kindergarten-aged children. If you haven’t seen the show go watch it. The frightening take away from the show is that white kindergartners have the luxury of being colorblind. At age 5 they are already recipients of white privilege. On the flip side, black kindergartners already know about race. Society does not give them the privilege of being ignorant about the implications of skin color.

Awareness of race and skin color is evidence that already, white children benefit from white privilege. White children don’t need to worry about race, they have the privilege of being colorblind. If you are a parent of white children think about that for a minute. Maybe you read your kids books about people of different races, colors, and backgrounds. The children’s book, 10 Little Fingers and 10 Little Toes, is a great example.

You may teach your children to be colorblind, but do you also teach your children that these different backgrounds, mean we also have different life experiences? Do you teach your children to stand for right and wrong? Do you role play with them what they might do if they 

An Even Deeper Problem


For a variety of reasons, some discussed in the study, black families feel the need to make sure their children understand perceptions of race. Some of this is to protect them from racism and some of it is to prepare them for the inevitable. This reality is perhaps surprising to a white person who may not actively see or practice racism; however, it shouldn’t be. 

The most disruptive take away from the study, in my opinion, has to do with self-perception. Not only did the study find that black children knew they were black, but that both black and white kindergartners have already taken on societal norms of beauty. Norms that embrace white as beautiful and black as ugly. As a mother, this makes my heart break and my emotions rise up in anger and in sadness. As a human, it disgusts me. 

What kind of world do we live in that tells a child “white is beautiful, black is ugly?”

Watching this show I had a breakthrough realization. I could no longer be colorblind. If a 5-year-old kid can’t be colorblind, then as a responsible adult, I needed to make a change. As MJ said, “If you wanna make the world a better place, Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”

Racism is Real

In 2012, I married into a multi-racial, multi-ethnic family. My understanding progressed further. My in laws, despite experiencing atrocities and inequities in their life, definitely raised their children with the same ethic as Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.” At the same time, they live a strange dichotomy. As a Malagasy family, their ancestry is both mixed African and South East Asian, which means, for the most part, their skin is on a color wheel, closer to mocha than ebony. And so my family has the luck to experience both active racism with a side of “well-meaning” colorblindness.

When you live with racism, it is far from comforting to have one white person, often a friend, say to you “well you’re not really black.”

The thing is, we live in a world and not just an American world, an Occidental, Western European influenced society, in which the status quo perpetuates that lighter is “better,” but white is best.  If you want to read some firsthand examples of active racism I recommend this thoughtful and eloquent piece on the very real experience of racism by Krista Tippet.

Ultimately, to claim “color blindness” or to deny your part in white privilege really doesn’t do any of us any good, because there are millions of people each day, who still actively experience racism. It’s a real thing. It’s an active thing. And although it may never go 100% away, we need to make an active effort to end it, while also working to heal the wounds. We need internal medicine, not just band-aids.

Make An Effort, Not An Excuse

And so, I write this piece in the spirit of intersectionality. I acknowledge that each of us is unique, each of us has a different experience. Not one of us should judge another before trying to walk in her shoes. Most importantly, I acknowledge that I and that many of my white peers have been complicit in our experience of white privilege. No excuses.

I think this is one reason so many of us “white and color blind” felt shocked at the recoil experienced in the USA during and following the election of President Obama. In our effort to be color blind we completely discounted the experience of our Black American, Native American, Asian American, Central and South American, and immigrant sisters and brothers.

But we need to make an effort not to be complicit. We need to think about it and we need to talk about it. And we need to not remain silent if and when we see or hear racist things go down. We need to make an effort, not an excuse because it is the right thing to do.

The fact of the matter is that most white people in the United States (and Europe) live in primarily white neighborhoods. Our communities (for reasons we can debate another day) remain segregated. One reason we don’t think racism exists is that we don’t have the opportunity to see it in action. 

Where we live and most importantly where we grow up, means we often benefit from white privilege simply by the luck of birth. This doesn’t mean that there are not poor or disadvantaged white people. What it does mean, is that we don’t all have the same experiences. 

In the article by Tippet that I link to above, she describes an experience one day in a university course in which a white male student gripes about reading a book on Malcolm X, because he can’t relate to it…

Think about the books that we read in high school and university. Most of them are by white male authors. How do you think people from other backgrounds relate to these books? This is, in fact, one of the major reason many universities created departments of Women’s Studies.

Racism is Taught

As the study I mentioned earlier on highlights, racism is learned, it is taught. Babies are not racist. And if we raise our kids thoughtfully, neither are they. White parents, black parents, parents of all backgrounds should speak to their children about race. About the experience of race and about what it means to be a good person. We should build our children up, but not at the expense of others.

You probably saw this video of a Virginia dad and his beautiful, smart daughter last year, but just in case I will share it with you here:

 

My husband also asked that I share a story from our family. Earlier this summer, my husband asked my eldest son (his stepson) who he would marry when he grew up. Would he marry a white, black, Chinese or another kind of person? And our son answered, “I don’t know, skin color isn’t what is important, it’s who the person is…and if I love them.” He may only be 10, but he knows that beauty is only skin deep.

Bad things happen when good people stand by and do nothing…

I first heard this saying in my son’s Kung fu class. Kung fu is a peaceful (defensive) martial art. The goal is not to attack, but to be prepared. Black parents talking to their kids is a bit like Kung fu. They are preparing their kids to go out and succeed in the world. Awareness is not an OFFENSIVE attack. It is preparation. 

Similarly, acknowledging that white privilege exists and that if you are White in America you benefit from White Privilege. No matter how poor or rich, how hard you have worked or studied, you benefit to some extent from white privilege. This article does a good job of explaining the inner-workings of the uneven playing field

Perspective & Awareness

Not all Americans have the same experience of being American. 

What is American to you, may not be American to me. 

American as Apple Pie…?

Pretty much anywhere you go in the United States of America, you can find an Apple Pie. But is Apple Pie even American? Or is it German? Or Dutch? French? Or Swedish?

Pumpkin Pie is likely actually American, as pumpkins are a native fruit from the Americas. But what then about Sweet Potato Pie? Does it really matter?

My point is, that neither you nor I can precisely trace or claim the origins of white privilege any better than we can the origins of Apple, Pumpkin, and Sweet Potatoe Pie, but we can acknowledge that they all exist. Awareness is vital. 

Once I became aware of white privilege, I started to notice it in action. Sometimes in the form of simple privilege, sometimes in the form of outright racism against someone in my presence. 

What Can We Do?

We can be aware. We can discuss the origins and the history of race in America with our children. We can discuss the reality of diverse backgrounds and experience. We can question our assumptions. And we can speak-up.

Silence is complicit. Awareness is mental Kung fu. 

Bad things happen when good people stand by and do nothing. 

 

Picture of black hands and white hands being held.

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