White Privilege Homework

Last month, I attended the first in a series of facilitated discussions with white people about white privilege. The first meeting was mostly logistics and introductions, with some hand outs and a homework assignment. The homework is to help the facilitators understand where the discussants are and guide the conversation going forward.

I’ve been carrying around the questions for weeks and the answers are due today. As it turns out, carrying the questions around isn’t an effective method of responding to them. I also started this post days ago by cutting and pasting the questions into WordPress. No, that didn’t work either. But I have been thinking about them a lot. Kind of reminds me of writing papers in college. I would read up on the subject at hand and think about it all the time, then stay up the entire night before trying to piece it all together. I’m told this is a sure sign of a true perfectionist, but I digress.

I am sharing the questions and my answers here with you, partially in hopes of getting your response.

Oh, it might help to know that these discussions were initiated in the context of a Buddhist group, or sangha, (thought the facilitators are not Buddhist) so any Buddhist principles or mentions are due to that.

Here goes:

When did I first realize I was white? What did I feel experience in this awakening?

This, I’ve decided, is a trick question. As a white person in the US, I am born with the privilege of being the accepted default normal. (Moreso if I were male, hetero, cis, etc.). It seems like the question should be, “When did I first realize someone else wasn’t white?” And that’s how I thought of it at first. Thinking about when I first realized I was white is a subtle but mind-blowing paradigm shift for me, which I suspect is important to my understanding of white privilege. Claiming an identity, to me, seems to necessitate rejecting the ingrained, default “normal.”

The first time I realized I was white, I was probably 17 or 18 years old and it was because I was one of two white people in a crowded restaurant. I remember very clearly feeling isolated, on display, and afraid. I felt like I was in the wrong place and unwelcome. My friend who was with me, the only other white person there, seemed not to notice. But I remember staying as close to him as I could and really feeling urgency around getting out of there because I felt so self conscious and like I didn’t belong.

What are the significant events along the way that have influenced who I am today as a white person?

Another tricky one. It would be too easy to talk about what things have simply influenced my life and what part white privilege had in those things. But, trying to keep in the paradigm shift I’m trying to get my mind around, I am left to think of things that have happened since I’ve become aware of white privilege.

As part of my training to be a rape crisis counselor and advocate, I took a day-long training with my fellow trainees on “isms.” Racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, etc. When we started talking about racism, we discussed being “color blind,” and I was floored by the reaction of people of color in the room. I was in my mid-30s and had never heard anything negative about being a color-blind white person until that day. In fact, I thought it was rather enlightened of me. What I learned that day was it is my privilege as a white person never to think about race and how it affects me. Or other people. To blithely and boastfully say that I was blind to it was expressing the height of my then-unknown privilege.

During the same training, another one of the counselors in training, a black woman who by then I considered a loved friend, talked about being called the n word by a softball coach when she made some sort of error during a game. He yelled it in front of her teammates, the other team, and everyone who was at the game. As she talked about it and tears rolled down her cheeks, the sense I got from her was not anger, but overwhelming, soul-shriveling shame. The n word is the one word I’ve ever had my mouth washed out with soap for saying, so I always knew it was capital-b Bad. As I grew up, I began to more fully understand the social implications of the word and how it was inappropriate for me to use it ever, for any reason. But until that day, I didn’t even begin to comprehend the emotional weight behind it, the horrifying dehumanization of it. I am certain I still don’t understand it fully and never will. But in that moment, I got a nauseating, Earth-shattering glimpse. I realized then that there isn’t a single word with the same weight, effect, or history that could be leveled against me, and that shifted my perception of myself as a white person. The combination of the frank discussion of color blindness and the introduction to the words “white privilege” made that a life-changing

A couple of years after that, when I was working for the same organization that offered the training, I said something racist to a colleague. Fortunately, I was in an environment that, for all its other failings, fostered confronting the isms it taught about, and a colleague confronted me in the moment. She was very direct and plain, and did not mince her words with any pleasantries or kindness – nor did she have any obligation to. I reeled and walked away, dumbfounded, knowing my intent was much different than my impact (but not yet knowing the importance between the difference). Later that day, I took her aside and told her what she said was really painful to hear. She told me calmly and resolutely that it was not her job to take care of me around that pain and she walked away. Again, I was left with my jaw on the floor. It took me weeks to sort it all out for myself, and I am forever grateful to her for it.

What messages do I hold about being white?

I feel like I have to skip this one. I don’t know. Usually, I (still) don’t think of myself as white. I am learning that as a white person, I am afforded certain privileges. I feel like being a white anti-racist could be powerful. I feel like as a white anti-racist, I have a moral obligation to call out other white people when they are being racist and to otherwise leverage what power and privilege I have to work toward eradicating racism.

What privileges do I hold/enjoy because I’m white?

I think Peggy McIntosh covered it pretty well in Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. More specifically, I can catch a cab on K Street here in Washington – even after dark. I can complain about services or products in a restaurant or store and not be suspected of trying to get anything over on anyone. I am generally perceived as non threatening on sight. I can be angry or belligerent or loud in public without it being attributed to or perceived as a bad reflection on my race. People don’t comment with surprise when I speak intelligently and without an accent. No one is ever surprised after they talk to me on the phone that I am the race I am. When I interview for jobs in my chosen profession (writer/editor), most people look like me. Most of my political leaders, CEOs, and bosses look like me. I can find a community of people who look like me in any urban or rural setting. It goes on.

How often do I talk directly about race with other white People? What do I find difficult to discuss?

Outside of anti-racist groups and in a general blogging/twitter sense or among people I know are anti-racist, almost never. I try to get a feeling for where they are on the subject before I bring anything up.

I find it difficult to discuss the fact that I think all white people are racist, including me. It’s difficult to discuss whiteness outside of privilege.

When and where do I get stuck? Not show up very effective or competent as a white anti-racist? How do I feel when I’m stuck and less effective?

Talking to other white people about racism, especially when it comes up in a group or professional setting. When I am stuck and ineffective I feel like a jerk and a fraud. I feel anxious and ineffectual and angry.

What do I know about my practice of Buddhism and how can I apply the “awakening” to this group process and beyond?

A big part of being “awake” is being in the moment. I think there’s a key part of understanding white privilege and being white that I can uncover and understand by listening honestly to my heart in the moment I react to something, the moment before I pile on all the stories I tell myself – all the old, learned responses that obscure and even completely bury honesty and clear thinking. It’s the internal version of hitting the snooze button without even becoming conscious (or waking up!). To unpack, as it were, ingrained, learned, immediate responses around race and identity and see things as they are with clarity in the moment would really help me not only fully understand my own internalized racism, but be more conscious of racism when I experience it externally – from individuals or institutions.

So, there it is. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve left out some questions and responses, mostly about group dynamics. If you are dying to know the other questions and my responses, I am happy to share.

I would love to hear your responses and questions, whether you are white or a person of color. I especially encourage white people to think about being white and what it means, what messages it carries, and what identifying as white means.

4 Responses to “White Privilege Homework”

  1. Lee Says:

    I went to a friend’s wedding some 20 years ago. My friend was black, as was his fiancee, and so unsurprisingly most of the people who attended were black as well. That was the first time I’d ever had the “glowing in the dark” feeling, and without even thinking about it I chose to sit next to the only other white person I saw. Then I realized what I’d done, and felt ashamed. It would have been just as easy for me to sit next to one of his other friends, and talk about how each of us knew him.

    As a white person of my generation (born in 1956), I don’t think I’ll ever be able to be genuinely unaware of race, inside my own head. What I can DO about that is to try not to let that awareness shape my actions — and I will sometimes fail, as I did that day. I can give myself permission to fail (which is not the same thing as giving myself permission to be LAZY about it!), and pick myself up and soldier on as best I can.

    I also remember very clearly the first time it ever occurred to me to wonder why I only saw couples of the same race when I was out with my family. I was about 6 at the time, and I didn’t say anything to my parents about it. But if interracial couples had been more common in that time and place, so that I might have seen at least a few before that moment, I would have accepted it as being perfectly normal. Rodgers and Hammerstein had it right — you have to be carefully taught, whether overtly or just by immersion.

  2. Henry Says:

    I’ve said this on other posts and will say it on this one. Focusing on this concept of white privilege will lead to nothing but hostility, blame, anger and racial distrust. The primary purpose of the white privilege movement as portrayed by people like Jensen and Mc Intosh is to place white people into a perpetual cycle of neurotic self confession and it places so-called people of color (white is a color) as sole arbitrator of which white person passes the “your not a racist test.” Of course one just has to read mc intosh’s list to see that no white person will ever pass. Most of her so-called privileges are based on feelings not facts. One of my favorites is when she says that ” I can say something and not have it reflect negatively on my race” Not surpisingly the white privilege movement blames every white person for being a racist whether they have any contact with other racial groups or not. If you begin with the premise that all white people are racist you’ve already lost the anti-racism battle since you then deny that other racial/ethnic groups can be racist as well.

    If there is such a thing as white privilege then there must such a thing as brown or black privilege as well. Thus if you were to visit Afghanistan or Pakistan would you tell someone there that he/she has brown privilege?

    I’m glad that I’m white and it matters not if pocs think that i am racist or not. I’m not ashamed of being white nor do I take any blame for the behaviors of others. Lastly, I do not fall into this trap of group guilt, if you read your history that concept has been used in a number of genocides-genocides committed by white people (Nazi Germany) and pocs (Rwanda and Cambodia.
    Oh. when I went to a wedding at a black church I made sure to sit in the middle so I could see who was hesitant to site with the “white guy”!

  3. _k Says:

    I’ll start by copying wholesale something I wrote in 2005:

    “For all that I call class “lesbian class”, we’re far more often talking about race and class and privileges than queers specifically.

    It’s all gone into a larger cauldron of thought that is fed with the passing statements and observations I make or overhear day to day. Maybe class has made me think about it more. Perhaps people around me are also pondering these things more. I’m not sure.

    Scarcity, heritage, and privilege do seem to be coming up a lot.

    20% of my grade in this class revolves around a group project. We got assigned the topic “queers and race”. Now, I’m happy to work on queers and race. But I’m also intensely aware that, in a group of 4, I’m seemingly the only caucasian. Well, to be fair, it is only lately that I’ve become intensely aware of it, as no one else in the group seems willing to start work on the project. (and I’m left to ponder on my own)

    In trying to think about the project, and the course, I’ve formed some ideas, but I don’t know what to do with them. To me, race seems inextricably tied to heritage. There’s a whole host of assumptions and history and cultural mores that go along with belonging to one of the worlds tribes. Its a shared history and experience.

    What if one has no history? If you’re culturally unmoored? I look white. But my heritage begins and ends in a hospital far away, with a name tag of a vaguely Italian name. I’m an abandoned mutt, of some variety. Does it even matter what kind? Finally taken from the child-pound at the age of three, I embarked on a new life. But you can’t give a new history wholesale to a 3-year-old. They remember too much.

    So how can I approach race? I have no tribe. My mom came from Dundalk, she was raised to be a wife; her dad worked steel, became a foreman when he lopped the fingers off his hand. My dad ran a car parts store when they adopted me, and has failed to hold a down a job for more than a few years ever since. That’s my tribe, an adopted tribe of three.

    Mostly, I let my past lie lightly on me. Perhaps it lies lightly because there is not much accumulated past to weigh it down. But how do I approach race and heritage with people, my classmates, my group mates, who must have a different perspective? I have no clue. I’m at a loss.

    So. Scarcity. The idea that there is a finite amount of privilege- wealth, attention, accolades- and we must all scrabble and scramble for our small bits of it; once garnered, they must be held onto like a magic talisman. That any bit of privilege someone else has acquired means //less for me//. I’ve never understood this idea. I cannot subscribe.”

    In the last several years, I’ve observed that there is a certain type of racism/bigotry that happens in people of a certain age: their world view was formed in a different era, and it hasn’t changed much. So despite the fact that they were decidedly progressive and anti-racist in another era, the world has changed around them. What used to be enlightened is now bigotry. But they cannot change their own perception of themselves as enlightened.

    When I got engaged, my mom sighed, “i just… I just wanted you to marry a nice catholic boy.” I was confused. “But, mom, he *is* a nice Catholic boy.” “I MEANT,” she retorted, “a nice IRISH Catholic boy.”


    I, uh, failed to get that memo. Ironically, I failed to get that memo *because* of my upbringing, which *was* “enlightened” for the time and place. I first became aware of race when I was around 7, when a playmate pulled me aside and away from the path of a black man on a sidewalk, and followed it up with some hateful (and loud) comments on black people in general. I was thoroughly confused and went home and asked my mom about it, who did what was probably an amazing thing for the era: she stridently contradicted everything and then had to explain to me that there were people in the world that treated others badly solely on the basis of the color of their skin, and my classmate could only have reacted that way if she had been taught to do so by people like that. I learned to feel sorry for my classmate, who was being raised by racists and thus would not likely learn any better, and also to not associate with her.

    This was the same mother who later sarcastically called me the “League of Nations” because my first semester in college my dating circle included people whose ancestors came from Taiwan, Japan, Ecuador, and India.

    race is fluid. culture is fluid. how we react to them is fluid. I accept that I may be perceived as racist in the future. I also accept that disowning race, or trying to avoid privilege, is not going to help anyone. The goal is to make everyone equally privileged… adding to each others knapsacks, rather than trying to empty our own. To otherwise is to subscribe to scarcity.

  4. Having a Seat at the Table and Avoidance « mazzie Says:

    […] Now that we’ve met twice, we’ve talked about white privilege … not at all. Our homework last time was enough to prompt more than half the (15-member) group to express misgivings about […]

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