The term “white privilege” makes me anxious. On one hand, I imagine that in order to give up privilege I need to do it literally—like sell my house and shed possessions. On the other hand, as a white, fully-abled, heterosexual woman, I see my privilege all the time. I understand the historical context and want to work to ameliorate societal inequities based on race. Now what? How does one turn good intentions into action that will make a difference?
If you are not sure what constitutes privilege or where you fall on the privilege continuum, Buzzfeed created a quizlet a few years ago. The survey asks a variety of eye-opening questions that highlight privilege around different societal norms in the U.S. related to religion, ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, race and more.
Focusing on race-based privilege, for so long, whiteness, as the majority culture, was considered “the norm” and then there was everything else. Think of earlier iterations of Diversity work that have evolved into Equity & Inclusion and onto cultural humility and awareness of unconscious bias. Celebrating multiculturalism was often realized as foods and dance and arts from other cultures. The underlying framework was that ‘white’ was a starting point and multiculturalism was a time to shine on everything else. It was equally problematic because it excluded white and isolated other cultures outside of day-to-day actual core work. And it did not even scratch the surface of how institutional systems affected people of different backgrounds differently.
“The issue with privilege is demonstrated when someone is confronted with the truth – with the facts of discrimination – and they choose not to believe it, or don’t seek further information in the first place,” says Farzana Nayani, a Diversity and Inclusion & Intercultural Specialist. Nayani understands that sometimes people may not recognize the impact of institutional systems that are discriminatory if they are not personally affected by them. “It’s not necessarily someone’s fault if they don’t know, because of the systemic efforts to erase these historical, oppressive practices from our collective memory and consciousness,” she says. However, “people who have a choice to say that redlining, for example, didn’t exist, exercise their privilege to ignore a real issue because it hasn’t impacted their reality,” adds Nayani.
Rather than getting defensive when you are faced with new information or decrying “I know! I am the problem!” here are some practices that can help in turning privilege into allyship.
Take Responsibility for Learning More
Saying “yes, tell me more” in a conversation about privilege is being able to acknowledge what you don’t know and making a point to learn. What are the historical and current practices that perpetuate inequality? Start with one issue like redlining (refusing–a loan or insurance–to someone because they live in an area deemed to be a poor financial risk). What does that mean for someone in terms of where they can live, how they build assets, where their children go to school, and how that impacts if or where their children go to college?
Accept the Language
Terms like “white privilege”, “white fragility”, “Black lives matter”, were all coined to describe phenomenon already happening in society. If a term or concept makes you feel uncomfortable, that is the moment to dig deeper and ask yourself, why? Reacting defensively gets stuck in the terminology—getting caught up in the language rather than in the phenomenon it is describing.
Learn the language of equity and anti-racism movements and use the terminology as it is used by people in the movement. Examine how terms developed. “Black lives matter” evolved because in so many instances, systematically, people of color were not being given the same consideration. Saying “Black lives matter” is not in opposition to other groups. Of course all lives matter, but for people in the majority culture, that recognition wasn’t an issue.
Intent does not Equal Impact
We may say or do things with the best intentions. But, inevitably, someone may be offended or hurt. Explaining your intentions can help someone else understand what you were thinking.
However, explaining intent does not absolve you of the impact. You still need to listen and accept responsibility for the impact. And, in particular, if someone tells you how you hurt them, believe that this is true for them. Just because something wouldn’t have caused you pain, doesn’t make it less painful for someone else.
Live a Culture of Teaching and Learning
None of this is meant to minimize the deep history and hard work that still needs to be done for us to truly create a “post-racial” society. But this work has to start with you and be perpetuated in your day-to-day actions. How do you truly appreciate the perspective of life from another person’s viewpoint?
One approach comes not from the field of D&I, but from a 90-year-old Grandparenting Activist, Jerry Witkovsky, who works tirelessly to coach grandparents on how to create a culture of teaching and learning in the family. A teaching and learning culture is one in which knowledge and experience are shared in all directions, from young to old and old to young. When people take their passions and teach those around them, everyone involved learns new skills and gains new knowledge. All gain greater insight and connection with loved ones. The learning is multi-directional and intergenerational.
When Witkovsky talks about a culture of teaching and learning, he implies you automatically accept what the other person says is their truth. You acknowledge that their world is different than yours and the goal is to try to figure out how to enter their world.
In other words, when someone tells you something new that doesn’t conform to your reality, rather than being a point of denial, it becomes an opening for deeper connection and understanding.
About the Author
Deanna Shoss is a marketer, writer, interculturalist in Chicago. As CEO of Intercultural Talk, she provides digital, intercultural and real-life marketing to help ordinary people achieve extraordinary dreams post-50. Be sure to follow her on Twitter!
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