Another good critique is that privilege is not just about "race." We all experience privilege in different ways. Rich people have privilege. Men have privilege. Christians have privilege. Heterosexuals have privilege. White people have privilege. Etc. If you are reading this blog on a computer with Internet access, you probably have some kind of privilege, or multiple kinds of privilege, which means you have blind spots.
Another point of clarification is that I don't actually believe that White people (or other privileged people) can get rid of their privilege. There are some scholars that advocate trying to distance yourself from privilege, but I feel that unless you were able to dismantle the entire system by which you have gained privilege, it would be an exercise in futility. However, I believe that you can use your privilege on behalf of others. Some sociologists talk about privilege as "social capital." Capital is, of course, the currency by which you acquire things in a capitalist system. So I feel that if you have it, you should spend it on behalf of those that don't.
One particularly awesome comment from a White sister went something like this: "How do we tackle this issue? I mean, I've personally identified/recognized White privilege in general, but there are so many ways it shows up. So now what? What I am I supposed to do? Besides teach my children?"
I am really in the beginning stages of figuring out what to do with all this information, but here are a few initial thoughts.
1. Develop a healthy White racial identity.
One of biggest defenses I hear/read from White folks involves some form of guilt or shame related to their racial identity, or attempt to deflect or resist either of those emotions. As a Christian, I believe that God made people in all different shapes, sizes, colors, languages, and cultures. God loves diversity and every human bears the image of God. Every person should begin to develop a healthy identity based in reality.
A psychologist who works in the area of racial identity development theory (Helms, 1992) designed a really useful activity for this purpose. The task is to try to list all the reasons you are glad to be White. However, you can't use any reasons that compare yourself to any other racial/ethnic group. So for example, you can't say, "I'm glad I'm White because I'm better/worse at [pick an activity] than [pick a racial/ethnic category]." It has to be something that is not dependent on a hierarchical view of "race."
Not so easy to do, right? We are so used to thinking about racial identity in terms of a racist view of society, that it's hard to think about why it's good to be a White person that doesn't involve disparaging another racial group. But White people are also made in God's image, so it's important not to wallow in guilt and shame, but instead figure out what it means to have a healthy White racial identity. Why are you glad to be just the way God made you?
2. Talk to your kids about "race."
The White sister was right on when she suggested that one of the ways White people can engage privilege is to talk to their kids. If this is the only anti-racist activity you do in your lifetime, this would still be huge. Children are learning about "race" from the time they are babies, whether you talk to them or not. And children form theories based on the experiences, stereotypes, and other information that they take in. Imagine how difficult it is to learn about "race" and racism as an adult, after years of socialization into a racist society. What I hope for my children is that they don't have to undo so much programming, but instead that we can start having honest, open conversations from an early age.
The key to these conversations, as with any kind of "talk," is that they should be age-appropriate. Let the child lead the way. Right now, my 3 year-old and I have conversations about different colors of skin, because that's the first thing that children usually talk about. He says something like, "That man has brown skin." Instead of saying, "Shhh, don't say that so loud!" (which sends the message that "race" is a taboo subject), I say, "Yes, isn't his skin beautiful? God made different colors of skin."
I make lots of mistakes along the way, but I think it's better to try than to remain silent. For example, I realized that in my attempt to celebrate diverse skin tones, I only made comments when I saw Black or Brown people. This implicitly sent the message that "White is normal" and everything else is divergent. Or in my zeal to give my son a variety of words to talk about skin tone (black, brown, olive, peach, tan, and only sometimes "white"), I was still privileging Whiteness. I treated "black" and "brown" as if they were monolithic, but gave various shades to "white," while still avoiding the word "white." Fortunately, children are both perceptive and honest, and my son recently informed me that "tan" is actually "White" (indicating that he has already internalized this racial category). Because it's true. So we're learning together.
3. Keep listening and learning.
The hardest part of being a privileged person is a lack of knowledge, an inability to empathize with other people, and a tendency to devalue the experience of others. The remedy for this is relatively simple in theory, but an arduous activity in practice. It involves listening to people who might be mad at "people like you." It means learning things about your country, culture, or people group that might be less than flattering or even downright shameful. It requires humility, empathy, and the ability to keep your mouth shut sometimes.
This is a really important step, although it doesn't feel like "doing something" all the time. However, partial knowledge can be just as damaging as complete ignorance. For example, middle-class White people learn a little bit about racial inequalities and segregation, so they decide to move into a "transitional neighborhood" (i.e. poor Black and Brown folks) in order to create a diverse community. They come in with their rehab projects, art galleries, and community gardens, and before you know it, they have caused the housing prices to go up so much that the original inhabitants of the neighborhood can't afford to rent an apartment there anymore. These well-intentioned White folks perpetuated one injustice while trying to eradicate another.
This is the hard part, because I don't believe we should remain stuck in inaction and silence. But I also think that wisdom and humility are more important than feeling good about myself because I'm "doing something." And I also know that "doing something" will look different for different people. My personal goal is that I would be able to raise my children in a diverse community, where they learn to value and celebrate many different ways of being human. Heck, I hope I can learn to do that. We are a long way from that goal, but by God's grace and mercy we will keep learning, moving, and growing.
I would love to hear thoughts about this topic. What steps are you taking, or have you thought about taking, in order to wrestle with the issue of privilege?
Derman-Sparks, L., & Ramsey, P. G. (2011). What if all the kids are white?: Anti-bias multicultural education with young children and families (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.
Helms, J. E. (1992). A race is a nice thing to have: A guide to being a white person or understanding the white persons in your life. Topeka, Kan: Content Communications.
Tatum, B. D. (2003). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?”: And other conversations about race. New York, NY: Basic Books.