Hello my darlings. I hope that as you all went through your day today you at the very least thought about ways you could help eradicate racism or ways in which you can use your privilege (if you have it) for the betterment of our society instead of just yourself. I am painfully aware of my privilege nearly every day as a white person, as an educated person, as an American, and as a “passable” transgender person.
But what is privilege? What makes someone privileged over someone else and why does it still exist in the realm of race, sex, sexuality, and gender even today in the twenty-first century? Well, simply put privilege (to me at least) means anything from the freedom from invisible burdens to very visible social roadblocks. As a white person I can walk into a clothing store, peruse to my heart’s content, and then decide to leave that store with no one really batting an eye. Maybe a salesperson will be disappointed they didn’t get a commission but otherwise I am fairly invisible to them. Change the color of my skin and it is too often an entirely different game. Instead of being able to peruse as long as I want, with a different skin color my innocent behavior can suddenly seem suspicious. Deciding to leave without actually buying something might raise so much suspicion that the salesperson begins to think I’ve shoplifted.
Obviously I’m *slightly* exaggerating the details of this very brief scenario, but it becomes obvious that something is amiss here. Two people who could be identical in nearly every regard with respect to education, income, age, weight, height, and attitude can be treated entirely different because of the color of their skin. The first person, with white skin, was free from an invisible burden of being guilty until proven innocent. The second person is assumed to be guilty until proven otherwise and all because of social programming from generations of messages about people who look like them. It’s almost a certainty that the salesperson (who we will assume is white) has absolutely no idea why they are suspicious of one and not the other. To make matters worse, the salesperson is likely oblivious to the fact that they treated them differently at all. If you asked that salesperson they would likely say they treated everyone the same, no matter what.
Does this make the salesperson a liar or just ignorant? If we give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they were truly ignorant of their double-standard treatment of the two almost-customers then can we excuse them from their behavior? The answer to that question is difficult to give because it depends on who you ask. Sure you might find consensus that the salesperson was ignorant of their behavior but you would almost assuredly get different answers about whether or not their ignorance excuses them. A white person who is not aware of or critically-self-reflective of their privilege would undoubtedly say that yes, their ignorance excuses their behavior. They didn’t MEAN to treat them like that, so there is harm.
But what of people who aren’t white? What would they say? As I am a white person myself I refuse to presume to know for certain what they would say but I can guess, and my guess is that they wouldn’t give two fucks that the salesperson was ignorant of their actions. My guess is that they would say it was just as damaging, if not more so BECAUSE of their ignorance. Their ignorance just proves that racism still exists and that it is damaging to our society.
But what about teaching this salesperson so that they no longer act from a place of ignorance but are able to consciously check their socially-programmed biases at the door to ensure fair and equal treatment of their customers? Whose responsibility is it to teach that salesperson? Again, we come to a difficult question to answer because it depends on who you ask. A white person who is not aware of, or critically-self-reflective of their privilege would undoubtedly say that it’s the job of the customer of color to educate them. How can they know they are doing it out of ignorance if you don’t teach them about how they should act instead?
But what about people who aren’t white? What would they say? Again, as I am a white person myself I refuse to presume to know for certain what they would say, but I can guess, and my guess is that they would say it is the job of the salesperson to seek out the knowledge themselves to become more enlightened. It is not the burden of those being mistreated to educate their tormentors on why they shouldn’t be mistreated the way they are.
Okay, so let’s say we accept the second answer (which, I’m just going to admit my bias here, is the right answer in my mind) and we agree that the salesperson needs to seek out the knowledge themselves, where do they go to find that knowledge? Again, this is a difficult question to answer because it depends on who you ask. A white person who is not aware of, or critically-self-reflective of their privilege would undoubtedly think that the salesperson should seek out the closest convenient person of that skin color to ask them questions about how people like them should be treated. Hello Michael, I know we met last week but I really admire what Martin Luther King Jr. did for your people, and I want to make sure I don’t ever offend you without intending to because you know… I’m white… and you… aren’t. Hahaha
But what about people who aren’t white? What would they say? Again, as I am a white person myself (are we noticing a trend here yet?), I refuse to presume to know for certain what they would say, but I can guess, and my guess is that they would say it isn’t their job to teach white people how to not be racist. They would likely discuss how dehumanizing and alienating it is to have some naïve, gung-ho to conquer racism white person presume that they (the person of color) are not only willing to discuss racism and how to fix it, but that they are interested in being a spokesperson for everyone who is like them.
So, wait a minute, where does that leave us? Isn’t this a catch 22? The white salesperson needs to desire to overcome their ignorance through seeking out education but not from the person they inadvertently discriminated against or from their trusted coworker (or friend, or in-law, or… take your pick) Michael either. So who do they turn to? Surely they are trapped in this state of racial ignorance for all eternity, right? This MUST be why racism still exists, because our poor white salesperson is unable to find the solution to their answer… /sigh
But wait, our salesperson isn’t just any salesperson. They are a salesperson capable of complex problem solving (those security magnets on the clothes don’t get there by magic, after all) and they realize that there really is a solution to their problem. If it isn’t the job of the person they inadvertently discriminated against, and it isn’t the job of their friend Micheal, then perhaps there are people out there who are willing to serve as educators and spokespersons for their fellow people of color. Martin Luther King Jr. was one, wasn’t he? But he isn’t the last one, right? Surely there are others out there doing the same work, others who are willing to take on the burden of educating their oppressors about the oppression they seem so ignorant of. There might even be books written on the subject, right? Books that can be purchased online and read in the quiet places of salesperson’s home where they can become more educated on their own without offending their almost-customer or their friend Michael. What a novel idea!! (Pun intended).
Okay, so now what? Salesperson is ready to take down systemic racism all on their own. They’ve read some books, they’ve reflected on their privilege, they’ve become angry at how they were blind to their privilege for so long and desperately want to do something about the inequality that surrounds them. What should Salesperson do? Should they volunteer? Maybe, but salesperson knows that it’s important to not think that they can solve all the problems of people they’ve only just begun to understand. To do that would be another failure to recognize their privilege, so they must be careful with their desires to help out in that way. If they are going to volunteer they need to be very mindful of whether or not they are wanted there and what kind of impact they are having on the people they are volunteering for. If such opportunities aren’t there to be had what is salesperson supposed to do? They have some knowledge, they have some properly recognized and accounted for privilege, and they have a desire to help out… so what should they do?
They remember that they could donate money to causes that impact people of color. Chances are salesperson, while not rich by any means, is privileged enough to have enough money to spare for donations here and there. They also remember that they could donate clothing to places that give clothing to homeless people and impoverished families (too many of whom are people of color) because that is a practical way to contribute. They also remember that they could donate food to food shelves which serve homeless people and impoverished families (too many of whom are people of color) because too many are food insecure.
But Salesperson isn’t satisfied with donating some of their money, some of their clothes, or some of their food. They want to have a larger impact on systemic racism, something that will truly make a difference in the long run. And that’s when they are struck by a bright idea. What if, just maybe, they took the knowledge they’d gained from their studies and shared it with other white people? Wouldn’t that be a great way to erase racism? Maybe it would only be one person at a time at first, but if every person that salesperson taught about their privilege decided to teach another person, or more than one person and those people taught others, and so on, then it wouldn’t be very long before a significant population of white people would become enlightened to their privilege. And with a significant portion becoming enlightened to their privilege, then their kids and grandkids would also carry that enlightened state on for generations until maybe, just maybe, there was no more systemic racism.
Is it too much to take on? Is it too grand of an idea to spread awareness to their fellow white people, to teach them that they must become enlightened themselves through study and contemplation instead of from badgering poor Michael or that poor misjudged almost-customer? Is it too much to hope to inspire others to donate their time, their money, and their resources through a lens of self-aware privilege? Maybe it is, but then again so many other great causes have seemed too great to hope for, and yet they have been realized.
So, my fellow white people, please start educating yourself about your privilege. Please start realizing that systemic racism still exists and there are practical things you can do to fight it. Please remember that it is not the job of people of color to teach you about their oppression, but IT IS your job to seek out illumination on your own through study, contemplation, and a willingness to unflinchingly face the shame of our privilege. Only then will you be able to truly help to erase systemic racism, and once you’ve achieved this level of illumination then it is so important that you encourage other white people to do the same. Together we can achieve Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, but we have to do our part by learning from and teaching others like us.
I’d say my soapbox is put away now, but this isn’t something I only think about on MLK day. This is something I think about nearly every day. This is something I’m always keeping an eye out for in case any teaching opportunities arise, and I’m hoping that reading my words will inspire you to take action so that you can be ready for those teaching moments too. Here are some books to check out if you need somewhere to begin:
First: Pedagogy of the Oppressed