I know, the title is already taken. But bear with me.
Let’s start with some basics. White privilege (male privilege, hetero privilege, cis privilege, age privilege, religious privilege, class privilege) isn’t about individuals. It isn’t about whether people are nice or not. It isn’t about whether they have a Black (women, gay, trans, old, Muslim, poor) friend or family member.
Privilege is about structural advantage that has accumulated over centuries. It is about the fact that some people, in this case, white people, have had access to the opportunity structure for centuries, while Blacks have been denied access. White people could own property, including other human beings, and pass down this accumulated wealth to their children and grandchildren. White people who could afford it, have always been able to go to college. White people have always been able to live wherever they can afford a house. White people have always been able to do any kind of job they want to. White people have always been able to see the game over the fence.
So, when events take place that expose racists behaviors by whites in leadership roles, we should not be focused on individual qualities of the person exposed, but rather on the structural privilege they have taken advantage of that has resulted in the leadership position they now occupy.
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog entitled “Dear Governor Northam.” In it, I suggested that Governor Northam resign after the yearbook images surfaced of him in blackface. [link to blog. My recommendation was that since Northam stated he had learned about his privilege, that he resign and turn his office over to someone whose ancestors had experienced structural racism. That’s what people with privilege do, when they realize their privilege, they open doors of opportunity for other folks who have been systematically denied the keys to the door.
In the weeks since Governor Northam’s yearbook revelation, colleges and universities have become the site of the scandal. In some cases colleges and universities seem to be trying to get ahead of the curve by looking into their own yearbook archives and managing the narrative and in other cases they seem caught off guard when yearbook photos of their faculty and staff emerge in the media.
I’m tired of white people saying they are sorry and thinking that’s enough. I’m here to say, as a white person, that it’s NOT enough. Not even close.
To truly come to terms with one’s privilege is to acknowledge that no matter how good you are or how hard you try, you have benefitted from a system that gave you privileges while it put blocks up in front of other people. You didn’t have to work twice as hard to get half as much, the way that people who are part of marginalized groups with historical and structural oppression have. You have always been able to see over the fence.
High level public servants in Virginia and Maryland, deans on elite college campuses are in those positions precisely because of the benefits that white privilege afforded them. The vast majority of Black people in the same age cohorts as these folks who were exposed wearing black face or standing in front of the confederate flag didn’t have the opportunity to go to college, and certainly not an elite, white, southern college.
So, if you are claiming that you’ve learned, that you now understand white privilege, it should be obvious to you that you can just say “I’m sorry”, “I’ve changed”, “I know it [black face, confederate flag waving] was painful then just as it is now”.
Take the privilege you have and open the door of opportunity for someone whose oppression you benefitted from and then step aside. Don’t ask for a thank you or a pat on the back. Ask, how can I continue to support you? And, if the answer is to step aside, do that. Step aside and let those who have never been given a chance to shine, shine. Without your help, they don’t need it. They’ve spent a lifetime working twice as hard to get half as much. Imagine what they can do without you in the way.
Oh, in case you aren’t sure what is OK and what is not, I’ve compiled a list….and this is just what has surfaced this month. Black History Month, February, 2019.
- Don’t wear black face: https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/01/politics/northam-blackface-photo/index.html (Ralph Northam)
- Don’t take your picture with the confederate flag https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2019/02/25/wake-forest-searched-its-yearbooks-photos-linked-racism-and-found-its (Dean of Admissions and Admissions staff, elite southern university)
- Don’t refer to neighborhoods using the “n” word: https://baltimore.cbslocal.com/2019/02/26/mary-ann-lisanti-uses-n-word-prince-georges/ (MD delegate Lisanti)
- Don’t give cotton to black children and ask them to think about what it would have been like to be enslaved and pick cotton: https://www.cnn.com/2019/02/27/politics/va-first-lady-cotton-black-children/index.html (First Lady Northam)