Can We Use White Privilege to Broker Change?
Diversity Campaigner Nova Reid argues we must move beyond a place of guilt and take action
My, what a tumbled web we weave. We’re talking white privilege today. Are you ready? Let’s go.
White privilege is an academic concept that is relatively new to the mainstream and therefore often misunderstood. It is a subject that is hugely emotive, used to encourage people to wake up, and at times, as a stick with which to beat them (definitely no pun intended). This term is often met with discomfort, rage, eye rolls, confusion, guilt, defensiveness, general awkwardness and a whole lot of toe curling.
As a black woman, I can talk about race with ease amongst my black peers. But with my white peers? Not so much. Generally speaking, I’ve observed that white people have been taught that it’s taboo to talk about race. Damn, you may even have been taught not to see colour at all.
But the existence of white privilege forces us to do two things:
White privilege often elicits guilt and denial, which gets in the way of progress. It may go some way to explain why in 2019 we are still struggling to talk about race and racism with each other without blowing a gasket.
So what exactly is it? White privilege was originally named white skin privilege. It is a term coined in the 1960s during a 40 year analysis on the subject by a white American academic and civil rights activist, Theodore W Allen. It is simply an in depth assessment of the common societal privileges that benefit people who identify as white, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances.
Feminist Dr Peggy McIntosh discusses her own experience with white privilege in 1989; “As a white person, I realised I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.”
Our automatic association with the word privilege often links to wealth or greed, which can derail conversations about white (skin) privilege. Of course white privilege intersects with class, but it has absolutely nothing to do with wealth. It doesn’t mean that you have lived a life of luxury and have never experienced inequality, poverty, or injustice, absolutely not. What it means is that based on your genetic makeup, through no fault of your own, statistics and social constructs prove that if your skin is white (or white passing), you are, by default, afforded more unearned privileges than people who are not white, and that these people may need to work much harder to have access to the exact same treatment or opportunity as you. That’s it. Being able to acknowledge that should not take away from your own experiences.
Here’s an example: as a white person with a traditional English-sounding name you are 74% more likely to be shortlisted for an interview and are highly unlikely to regularly experience racial profiling when innocently doing your food shop in your local supermarket.
Let’s look at my personal experiences. Statistically I may get overlooked for roles, I have to travel over 100 miles to find a hairdresser that can work with afro hair, I struggle to find basic everyday necessities in the high street like nude coloured tights. Even though I fall under the category of an ethnic minority and I am female (by default less privileged, statistically I will face more inequality than my white peers), I experience some societal privileges too. For example, as an able-bodied person, I am more privileged than my physically disabled peers – I can take a trip to London without having to restrict my route to only explore parts of London that are close to accessible tube stations, or to only visit shops that have access points wide enough to fit a chair through the door; a constant battle for wheelchair users in London.
Whilst the concept of white privilege can feel like an attack on liberal society, an attack on your identity or even on your upbringing, it is simply an inevitable by-product of living in a country that was founded on white supremacy and colonialism. It is a construct that disrupts, interferes and turns our shared utopia of what we thought Great Britain, or whatever country you live in, was or is, upside down. But it is not an attack on you.
We don’t blame or want every single man we come into contact with to feel guilty about the privileges they’ve benefitted from the patriarchy, do we? Absolutely not. It is unearned guilt. It is not your fault, but is your responsibility to be aware of the inbuilt societal privileges you have and recognise how to leverage this to help others who may not have the same societal advantages as you in order to effect change.
Because white privilege is quite a superpower if you allow yourself to move from a place of guilt to a place of action.
To self interrogate, and begin to understand how it affects you. This will allow you to instead use it to broker change.
I am noticing such a powerful movement of women rising up to create change and it is so inspiring. From parents who want to raise socially conscious children and people who are no longer staying silent, people want to live in a world where there is justice and equality for all. We’re realizing we are part of the solution to bringing forth that change rather than waiting for others to lead us. It is our responsibility to be self aware and it is our responsibility to not repeat patterns of modern day oppression by choosing to remain blind.
Being an ally goes beyond being a good person. We have to choose to be actively anti-racist, and that takes courage. It also takes self interrogation and turning what you’ve learnt about racism upside down. As I mentioned in my last article for Restless, “We need to understand that racism goes beyond a single act of conscious hate by an individual. We have to listen more, then move out of denial and into action. Accept that you WILL have racial biases. Seek them out and confront them – you cannot treat the symptoms if you don’t know the cause.”
When it comes to understanding white privilege and it’s inevitable intersection with racism and inequality, it can sometimes smart a little, but we have an important choice to make. We can choose to be offended, or we can choose to rise up and be part of the powerful solution.
Artwork by Esme Rose Marsh