Updated: Sep 23, 2022
By Laura Matheos
I first heard the term “White privilege” from a co-worker who was training me for a new position. I told her how my rookie mistakes gave me empathy for my son as he was learning how to drive. I then shared an embarrassing story of how, running late, I rushed to get us to his driving class and was pulled over for speeding. This led to an unplanned lesson on how to behave when pulled over by the police.
“Did you tell him to make sure his hands stay on the steering wheel when a cop approached?” she asked.
“No, I told him to have the registration and his driver’s license ready,” I explained.
“White privilege,” she muttered as she shook her head.
I looked at my Black co-worker, feeling a little offended and defensive. “What do you mean? I had to give ‘the lecture’ to my son on being super respectful, how to never argue with a cop. How am I being privileged?” I challenged.
“I bet you never felt the need to pull out your phone to film what was happening – and I’m sure you never worried about being shot,” she answered. “My son will need to learn about both of those things when he learns to drive.”
My co-worker spent the next hour – and many days afterward – teaching me about White privilege. White privilege is more than just not worrying about being shot.
It can be any of the following:
It’s my White neighbor jogging past our house, never thinking about her skin color or whether she “belongs” on our street. Yet my Black neighbor never gets to forget about his skin color and will only jog on his treadmill because he doesn’t feel it’s safe for a large Black man to be seen running on our cul-de-sac.
It’s my Black co-worker knowing that a customer was rude to her on the phone because she “sounds Black” but that same customer was polite to me because I “sound White.”
It’s thumbing through The Drummer and seeing photos where everyone looks just like you – unless you’re not White.
It’s looking through your child’s history book and seeing most, if not all, of the material told from a White perspective.
It’s buying Band-Aids, makeup, or hair products and never having to wonder if they’re designed for your skin color.
It’s not having to teach your children that equal rights may not result in equal treatment.
It’s going through your day being unaware of your own skin color as you interact with the world.
White privilege doesn’t mean that White people don’t struggle. It’s acknowledging that we don’t have an additional set of struggles simply because of our skin color. The term “White Privilege” can feel like an attack, as if someone’s suggesting you were born with a silver spoon or that you didn’t have to work hard for what you’ve achieved. That’s not what the term means at all. It means when you’re White, you have the privilege of not thinking about the color of your skin. But when you’re Black, you’re always aware that White people tend to see your skin color before they see the rest of you, and sometimes they make decisions about you based on that alone.
It’s uncomfortable to come to terms with this reality. After all, I didn’t ask for this privilege and I hated feeling guilty for something I didn’t create. But this isn’t about feeling guilty or apologizing. We have no more control over being born into certain categories than any other person. But when people of color ask me to acknowledge my privilege, they are asking that I at least recognize that they face challenges I never will. I’m being asked to speak up when I see wrongs. I’m being asked to be an ally.
When I asked what I could do, it was really frustrating to hear “Be an ally.” What does that even mean? I thought it sounded pretty passive. But I was wrong. First, it means that along with privilege, I have a responsibility to look out for times when I can think, speak and act differently.
Second, I have to make time to learn more about our uncomfortable history and how racism is built into our society in ways I never realized. Future articles will focus on some examples. In the meantime, if you’re interested in exposing yourself to history beyond what you learned in school, there are some helpful resources listed at https://www.granbyracialreconciliation.com/resources. You should also check out the book and YouTube series “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” by former NFL linebacker Emmanuel Acho at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8jUA7JBkF4. He answers a lot of questions I was too embarrassed to ask.
Finally, I have to expand my social circles to include people who don’t look like me. When I heard this advice, I was skeptical. Living in a town that’s 95% White, how do I get to know people who don’t look like me? I started by volunteering with Granby Racial Reconciliation and attending events. I made more of an effort to get to know my non-White co-workers and delicately started having uncomfortable conversations. I started reading news and stories told from different perspectives. I’m embarrassed to admit I still have prejudices and that it’s hard to unlearn beliefs I’ve absorbed in my lifetime. But now I’m trying to live up to the responsibilities that come with my privileges. If you’d like to join me, please consider attending one of GRR’s next events so we can get to know each other and break down barriers.