This is an essay I published on Medium earlier this week. I think it’s both critical and profoundly productive for people, white people especially, to honestly stop and think about things like this without judging themselves. I couldn’t have put these words down if I hadn’t first stopped judging myself. I had to stop worrying about being called out for “virtue-signaling” or “my privilege showing” in order to get honest. Because let’s be real, my privilege will always show, just take one look at the color of my skin and you’ll see it. I can’t hide from it, deny it, or let others shame me for it. I can do the work of looking within and understanding why I feel that way. If you’d like to do the same, find a prompt online, or try the one I used:
In 1,000 words or less, describe how you understand the term ‘white privilege’. To what extent do you think this privilege exists? What impact do you think it has had in your life — whatever your racial or ethnic identity — and in our society more broadly?
The term “white privilege” is one that packs a punch in American culture today. It holds a psychological mirror up to many, which understandably triggers shame-driven reactions. In the following paragraphs, I’ll attempt to share what white privilege means to me: a white, millennial man, born and raised in a bright white, relatively wealthy, northern New Jersey suburb. I’ve had my eyes opened to the privileges in my life. It has been uncomfortable to realize the impact privilege has had on my life personally, and downright painful to realize its impact on our society as a whole. So, for what it’s worth, here is my understanding of this potent term.
To place my understanding of white privilege in some context, I’ll first define the notion of culture. Culture is the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. White privilege is not some abstract, standalone thing. It didn’t come out of thin air to shame all white people, it wasn’t “invented” to discredit hardworking, white Americans. As I understand it, privilege is a deeply critical part of our broader White American culture. It gently enables our customs, it subtly influences our art, it quietly holds social institutions in place, and it is the mortar holding together the foundation of many of our nation’s achievements.
To further grasp this concept, I had to develop a deeper understanding of what culture is, then reframe my perception of my own culture. This was difficult, and I don’t consider reaching that new perception the finish line. Rather, it is the starting line. The beginning of a lifelong work in progress that comes with my commitment to a new paradigm. The paradigm shift is that of going from “my white culture is THE American culture” to “my white culture is one of many subcultures that exist in America.” Only when I own my white culture for what it is, one of many subcultures in America, I am able to understand and own the extent to which white privilege exists.
I believe that the existence of white privilege in the USA can be boiled down to an intellectual half and an emotional half. Overarching support for white culture: intellectual, and what I’ll call “privilege shaming”: emotional. Both of these halves are tightly knit together, but let’s approach them one at a time… starting with overarching support. By stating that white American culture is just one of many cultures that exist in America, I separate white culture itself from the American institutions and social systems that have been put in place. This separation is important and necessary because it levels white culture with the rest of the cultures in our society. Black culture, native american culture, hispanic culture, gay culture, etc. And by placing white culture on the same human plane as any other culture, frankly where it belongs, privilege is revealed.
The saying goes: “you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole.” Well, I imagine American social systems are the round hole, and white culture is the round peg. Black culture, then, is the square peg. Native american culture never got a damn peg, hispanic culture’s peg is too large, and gay culture’s peg isn’t straight. To me, white privilege is all the subtle benefits that come from being part of a culture that fits neatly into the existing social system. A round peg in a round hole. What sucks is that nobody gets to choose the shape of their peg. To me this is what movements like Black Lives Matter mean. Bringing the truth of white privilege into the light. When you shine light on the whole truth, you reveal the ugly parts of it that were hidden in the shadows.
This brings me to the notion of privilege shaming. Shame is a very difficult subject to talk about, so I will only speak to how it impacts me personally. When I hear the term “white privilege,” I feel shame. Learning to support myself while feeling this shame was the biggest hurdle to clear in order to reach my new paradigm. I don’t want my skin color to associate me with slave owners. I don’t want to acknowledge that my childhood home is on the favorable side of the red line. I don’t want to admit that I benefited from a massive head start in the pursuit of everything I am proud of. I don’t want to accept the off-colored jokes I’d say and hear as part of me. But the truth is it does, it is, I did, and they are. The moment I stop denying these parts of me is the moment my belief shifts from “I am a bad person because of my culture, I can never be a good person” to “my culture is part of who I am, but I will not let it define who I can become.” It’s about acceptance, not approval. I can and must accept white privilege as a part of my culture, but that does not mean I have to, nor do I want to, approve of it.
I don’t think I’m alone in the way I feel about this, but maybe I am. What I worry about are people like me not having support in place to handle shame. It seems to me that circular social media debates, “backlash” to NFL players taking a knee, and offense taken to protests are all driven by this underlying shaming. Without being conscious of this, my discomfort is perceived as being assaulted. One — that isn’t always the case, and two — that is what fuels divisiveness in our country. I need to support my own shame, and in doing so I can start to differentiate between feeling uncomfortable and actually being under attack. I believe that if white people can support that shame, it can be set aside to make room for the truth that is white privilege. If we can support our shame, the ugly truth can be accepted without judgement. But hold on a second! Didn’t I just say earlier that overarching support for white culture exists in the USA? Great question, the answer is what tightly ties the emotional and intellectual halves of white privilege together.
Now, if you’re not white and you’ve read this far: thank you for your open-mindedness because I know there is an enormous kicker that still needs to be discussed. If you’re white and you’ve read this far, buckle up because this was the hardest and most important concept for me to grasp.
Where does the support for my shame come from? The world doesn’t owe me this. Black people sure as shit don’t owe me this. It is my responsibility to look within and realize that I am the only one that can support that shame. And to expect otherwise is the very essence of white privilege. Expecting this support to just be there to cater to my entitlement is white privilege. Saying “oh well if others supported how I feel, then I’d be able to be a better person. If society supported me, then I’d be able to use my voice for good. Then I can be an ally to people of color. Then I’d be able to not be racist.” This is victim mentality. This applies to every aspect of life, but we’re going to stay on the subject at hand. To my white-suburban, high-school-level historical knowledge: with the exception of the Goddamn Holocaust, white people were rarely ever actually victims of oppression. Digging further into my understanding of history, I learned that white people were objectively wrong to believe that our race is the superior race. We ARE NOT a superior breed of human, and as such, we feel the same emotions that people of all cultures feel. As such, we can learn self awareness, we are capable of this as humans. If I can learn it, then I can lead my fellow white people by example. This is my responsibility as a white man, and as a human. But staying stuck in a victim mentality leads me to squander my privilege. Staying stuck in a victim mentality deafens my ears to the cries for help from my fellow humans in pain. It blinds my eyes to actual injustices. It robs me of my natural ability to show compassion for myself and others. This is the ugly truth about privilege shaming.
So where to go from here? Seems like an impasse: I need to support and own my shame to realize the existence of white privilege, but I’m blind to the fact that white privilege has me stuck believing that support will be given to me by someone else. There’s hope though, because I did make that realization. How? Honestly, with the help of a psychologist. I know, how white of me… but actually, how did he help me reach this realization? By listening to me, and pointing out my blind spots without judging me. Him listening to me helped in two ways: one — it enabled me to get out from under my own shame, and two — it set an example for me to listen to others without judgement. Am I fixed now? Am I perfect? Am I enlightened? Absolutely not. I am aware. Aware of what I was previously blind to, both emotionally and intellectually. Aware that I don’t need to be a psychologist to listen to people, I just need to be a human. With this new awareness, I am able to join the ranks of other allies to humanity. I always have been.