White Privilege: From Defensiveness to Loving Action
This is a guest post by Kathy, friend of Many Horizons. Her own blog can be found here.
Conversations around privilege—from racial to gender to socioeconomic and on—can be quite off-putting. They can be shaming. They can be offensive. They can be angry and filled with emotion.
To be sure, I am no scholar on any of the countless topics around diversity and inequality on which many books have been written. All I can offer is my personal analysis based on my studies as an engineering and theology student—and my experiences as a gender, sexual, and ethnic minority, and daughter to immigrant parents.
A few assumptions I’m bringing to the table:
- We daily contend with systems of injustice based upon societal and institutionalized biases.
- There are entire demographics of people who not only see injustice, but are in fact victims of injustice based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.
- Some of those in privileged demographics—to varying levels—recognize the degree of their privilege, and others very much do not.
- Especially in the West, being accused of “bigotry”, “injustice”, “racism”, “discrimination”, etc. is rather taboo; accusations around such matters are not taken lightly. (This, however, also unfortunately means these topics are often not talked about, and therefore are not examined in oneself and one’s environment.)
- The interplay between those with an array of privileged characteristics and those without—even within oneself—are varied and complex.
To me, the two most important things I hope to get across in this article are 1) We must recognize our own privilege, and 2) We must recognize our role in either perpetuating greater injustice or contributing to greater human dignity. Ignorance is not neutral.
So let’s define some terms I’ve borrowed. These are not to create hard boundaries, but rather to offer some shared frameworks to strengthen understanding.
Matters of “otherness” can be expressed in a spectrum of ways.
- bias: an opinion about an individual without proper basis that is not tied to a positive or negative feeling
- stereotype: a characteristic or attribute assigned to an entire group of people without proper basis that is not tied to a positive or negative opinion
- prejudice: a bias or stereotype that is tied to a negative opinion about a group or an individual based on his/her association with a group of people
- discrimination: an action based upon prejudice
- oppression: a system of discrimination based upon prejudice toward an entire group of people
- privilege: power based upon a system inclined to benefit a specific group of people
In this paradigm, racism, for example, would be prejudice based upon race. Racial discrimination, therefore, would be an action based upon racism or racial prejudice. Racial oppression, then, is a system of discrimination upon an entire race.
At least among the various races represented in North America, being white holds the strongest inherent privilege. White privilege is where I would like to focus our attention.
I’d like to start out by quoting a fantastic article by Kristen Howerton, Marriage and Family Therapist and Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Vanguard University, in order to somewhat debunk the phrase “white privilege”. This is in many ways to preemptively respond to wonderful white folks who may feel uneasy with the phrase, feel personally attacked, or feel as though their lack of privilege in other areas of their life nullifies their white privilege, etc.
“White privilege isn’t about me individually. It’s not a personal attack. White privilege is a systemic cultural reality that I can either choose to ignore, or choose to acknowledge and attempt to change. It has nothing to do with my worth as a person or my own personal struggle.”
In other words, the idea here is not to make white people feel bad about being white. It is, rather, to together name and thus proactively combat a problem around persistent racial prejudice that continues to plague even the most “civilized” and “progressive” of areas as North America.
To social psychologist Claude M. Steele, it is not suppression of identity that we are after here. For example, we are not after a post-racial society; the answer is not for white people to suppress their whiteness. Rather, the way forward is to see the multiplicity of identities brought to the table in environments that are not structured upon certain assumptions and stereotypes but rather on tearing down the structure entirely. For example, rather than saying, “She is Asian and yet she drives well. That must mean that this stereotype is not as true as I once thought,” we can go further by recognizing that one’s race, in fact, has absolutely no logical, fruitful, or meaningful correlation with one’s ability to drive.
Per my intentions above, then, it is important for those who have been born a race that has a significant (to put it lightly) historic and therefore present reality of systemic cultural power and privilege—namely white— to 1) recognize the still living reality of systemic cultural power imbalance based on race, and 2) recognize the role one plays in either perpetuating greater injustice or contributing to greater human dignity. Again, ignorance is not neutral.
If you are white, here are a few signs you potentially live with unidentified white privilege:
- You do not think racism is still a significant problem in which you are daily entrenched, no matter where you are in the world.
- You do not get involved in conversations around white privilege and racism though you are daily surrounded by—and benefitting from—its outworkings.
- If you do get involved, you, at times, defend yourself or other white people based upon external factors like personality, socioeconomic lack of privilege, etc.
- You believe the system within which racial inequality is entrenched has no correlation with the comforts and successes you have experienced in your life. You believe your successes are simply based upon your merit.
- You are accustomed to offering a normative view, and subconsciously see minority voices as merely “broadening” or “additional”. You believe minority opinions are more limited than your own—and that they are homogeneous. E.g. “Could you offer ‘the African perspective’ on what I just shared?” or “We will call this course on Christianity ‘Global Christianity’. And we will call this course taught by and through the lens of almost exclusively Western, white, male voices ‘Systematic Theology’.”
- You believe knowing a racial minority means you are not racist.
- When someone brings up injustice on the basis of race, one of your first reactions is to think they’re just “pulling the race card”.
- Whether or not they are effective at what they intend to achieve, you believe programs like Affirmative Action are unfair to white people. (awkward silence)
- You view history as separate from your reality. “I don’t have slaves. I don’t even come from a slave-owning family. So I’m okay. I don’t owe anything to society and I don’t have to sacrifice any of my comforts.”
- You subconsciously view racial minority voices with which you disagree as an inconvenience, and have an easier time shrugging them off than white voices. You believe white voices—in politics, in academia, etc.—earned their clout apart from their race.
As long as white people don’t actively stand for the necessity of racial minority voices in conversations of import, you perpetuate and embody systems of discrimination.
So what can white people (and all of us privileged in various ways) do?
- Recognize your privilege. Stop defending your privilege. Recognize your privileged perspective is just as limited and completely non-normative as a minority perspective; we all need one another.
- Put your hands and feet where your mouth is. Do something… Stand with marginalized voices. Stand behind them, even. (Gasp!) Learn how to follow people who hold less privilege than you.
- Learn how to empathize. The most effective way to change the system would be for people of privilege to actually take active steps to learn the reality of minority experiences. Surround yourself with people of less privilege. Immerse yourself in environments where you are uncomfortable—where your voice carries less weight because you’re white. Feel powerless. Feel looked down upon. Don’t try to interject yourself. Don’t try to save anyone. Don’t try to take control or lead. Don’t try to defend yourself. Just take it in.
- Listen. Privileged people talk a lot. “This is the way I think the world is, so this is the way the world is.” “This is what you should think about that.” “This is what’s normative.” “This is what’s right and this is what’s wrong. And if you disagree, you’re wrong.” “I invite you, now, to add your minority perspective.” If I may quote my brilliant sister again, “Listen deeply for understanding. Listen with your fullest self (your eyes, ears, mind, heart). And when you have the urge to explain something away, stop yourself and listen more. Listen all the way. Ask questions for clarity instead of making statements or conclusions. And believe the experiences of others as truth.” Even, and perhaps especially if it challenges what you believe to be true.
- Stop idolizing decorum. The white man who points out white male privilege puts himself in a very unpopular position. But the reality is, quite simply, that white people tend to take white voices more seriously than others. Talk to your peers about racism, even if it costs you. [For minorities, we are accepted the more we remain quiet and step in line—downplay or even deprecate our minority group(s) we represent. I am sorely culpable of this. Learn to exercise your voice on behalf of your peers.]
- Care about the fact that you are leading alongside or being led by only privileged voices. If your faculty is a homogeneous bunch like mine are, speak up. If your pastors are all white men, speak up. If your higher ups are all people of privilege, speak up.
- Stop using your voice to continue elevating those in privilege; start using your voice to elevate voices of those with less privilege; recognize the power their voices equally carry, and help make room for them.
The reality is, as long as people of privilege demand our same privilege day in and day out by doing nothing, we continue to contribute to a system of discrimination and even oppression. We are, in fact, doing something: we are perpetuating the chasmic divide between privilege and the lack thereof that is still alive and well today.
People of privilege must make sacrifices. That’s right. Sacrifices. All the more so as Christians—it is the fullness of that to which we have been called.
In the end, I know my own investment into understanding systemic racial prejudice and its implications is so very limited and even delayed. It goes without saying that I am still on a long journey of trying to figure things out. So in the spirit of taking my own advice, I look forward to listening to your feedback.
 To avoid using clunky overly-nuanced phrases, I will be using the term “minority”— in some ways incorrectly—in relation to distribution of power as opposed to numbers. It is, of course, true there are places where, for example, white people statistically make up a minority percentage of the population.
 I take the vast majority of this from my brilliant sister who is a top-level administrator in the Equity and Inclusion division at the University of California, Berkeley. No big.
 It’s worth noting the wide spectrum of definitions for “Affirmative Action”. I am here referring to the overarching concept of the importance of diverse representation, as opposed to specifically how Affirmative Action programs try to get to that representation, which vary widely and many of which are highly contested.
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- White Privilege: From Defensiveness to Loving Action - September 25, 2014