I went to my first race unity dialogue workshop back in the early 90’s, and that’s when I began to get some clarity about racism and how it related to me. The compelling statement I remember was: “Racial prejudice plus power equals racism.” The argument goes: If you’re white, you access power from a system that was created by and for white people, and, if you believe there’s nothing wrong with that, then you are racist. Okay. That’s logical. But, there was another concept, ‘white privilege’, I heard mentioned so frequently in videos and lectures that the message, for me, boiled down to this: Racism is sustained by white privilege. If you’re white, you’re privileged and therefore racist. (This was just my personal interpretation.)
I admit I have struggled with the “privileged” label, and I have on occasion thought, “You’re gonna’ judge me because God put me in a ‘white’ body and placed me in the United States? That’s not fair! I didn’t ask for this privilege.
The following anecdote may shed some light on the nature of white privilege.
At age sixteen when I got my driver’s license, I pestered my parents for opportunities to drive the family car. One evening after dinner my mother said she needed something at the grocery in a neighboring town and asked if I wanted to drive her there. I bolted out the door, leapt into our Buick, gripped the steering wheel and waited impatiently for my mom.
I was pretty comfortable driving down our country road, but when we got downtown, my confidence waned. Tentatively applying my new driving skills I struggled to remember the rules of the road and simultaneously navigate an environment filled with a multitude of stimuli vying for my attention. In the middle of town on a four-lane street I approached an intersection with a traffic light. The light was green but I had stopped behind someone turning left and was stuck. Without checking traffic, I cranked clockwise on the steering wheel, stepped on the gas pedal and propelled our big vehicle into the right lane to neatly whip around the car in front of us, and zip through the intersection before the light turned red. I heard the screech of skidding tires, and then, BAM! we’d been hit.
I saw a young man exit his car and walk slowly around to where our two vehicles seemed to be nuzzled in an intimate pose, fender to fender. I jumped out of our car, ran over to the other driver and said, “It was my fault! I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
I could see that the young man was probably Mexican, and when he didn’t respond to my inquiry, I wondered if he spoke English. (In those days almost all of the Spanish-speaking people in our area were Mexicans who worked on farms during the summer months, then returned home to Mexico.)
I felt someone tugging on my arm. My mother had apparently leapt out of the car when I did and was standing behind me, pulling me away from the young man. “Be quiet!” she said. “Don’t say a word!”
“But, Mom, it was my fault!”
“I said be quiet!” she repeated. “Wait ‘till the police get here. We’ll tell them our side of it.”
I don’t remember the details of the exchange with the police. I remained quiet and let Mom do the talking. In the end, the young man got a ticket.
I’m in my sixties now and I still feel like I should have disobeyed and spoken the truth. I remember feeling disempowered, shackled, the power of speaking the truth unexpressed. How many of us white Americans have learned to remain silent in matters involving race when our hearts are pressuring us to speak up? When we abide by white privilege norms, what is the trade off?