A White Guy Talks About Privilege

Back in the early 1990’s, I was teaching a night course at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.  After the 7:15 class, I was heading to my car along a dimly lit sidewalk that ran along the side of the library building parallel to the parking lot.  A young woman, maybe around 20 years old or so, was walking in the opposite direction.  As we approached each other, her eyes quickly darted up to meet mine, then she looked straight forward.  Her body seemed to tense up, she clutched her books and bag closer to her. I wanted to tell her nothing to fear here.  But of course she walked in a fear in that dark night that I did not experience.

I’m a white, straight male.  Because of those biologically determined facts, I have been privileged in social, economic, and professional ways. Privileged.

Coming to a level of consciousness of my privilege was a process for me.  It was an awakening rather than an epiphany.  As with other awakenings, it was in fits and starts, not a steady progression from unconsciousness to consciousness.    Don’t most awakenings — spiritual, ethical, moral — happen that way?  How many of us have a “burning bush” experience?

In my late adolescence and early adulthood, I was too caught up in protecting my own emotional security and physical survival to be aware of “privilege.”  After my father left when I was 12, my mother, a Registered Nurse at a local hospital, and I moved from our large Victorian house to a two-bedroom apartment.  Three years later, due to the economic challenges from being a single mother, we moved to a basement apartment.  Six months later, we moved again. It’s difficult to be conscious of privilege when you’re struggling to hold it together.  Perhaps, too, it was because of my last name which isn’t very American sounding.  I had to pronounce it repeatedly for teachers; I had to spell it out;  I had to explain its nationality.  It may be difficult to be aware of privilege when, as an adolescent, you are shaping and explaining your very identity.

But I do not offer that as an excuse or a justification for not being conscious of my own privilege.  I offer that to suggest that coming to consciousness is, more often than not, a process of accumulated experience, a dialogue with others, and an education which may come in a variety of forms.  In fact, William G. Perry’s work on intellectual and ethical development would support the idea that as people grow and mature, they pass through clear stages of moral, intellectual and emotional development.

On my journey to understand the privilege of my white maleness, I had to experience some degrees of “otherness.”  Of course, that in itself is quite a challenge.  In my early adulthood, though, I deliberately created opportunities to be in the minority for even the briefest of times.  I have been the only white male in a college course on Afro-American History. I have been the only male in a course on Women’s Literature and Literary Criticism.  I have been one of a handful of straight males at gay and lesbian events, the most remarkable being a poetry reading and subsequent discussion with feminist and lesbian poet, Adrienne Rich.  I have been the only white male in a bar, the Shadowglen Lounge, in the mid-1970s.

These experiences offered opportunities for discomfort — emotional and cognitive — that enabled me to reflect on my place in the world.  Granted, these singular experiences do not begin to replicate the day-to-day experiences that women, minority, and gay or lesbian people endure each day.  But they were an attempt for me to hear the experiences and perspectives of not being male.  Of not being white.  Of not being straight.  Hearing the life stories of others, or others’ responses to pieces of literature, or their non-white, non-male, non-straight perspectives on our own country’s history allowed me a new perspective on my own.  As Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, whom I read as a graduate student, writes, “No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.”

In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, I was engaged in a handful of conversations both online and face-to-face about privilege.  My contributions in those conversations were often shot-down.  I was misinterpreted as arguing that white males are victims.  I was accused of not taking responsibility for my own actions.  I was vehemently ridiculed for not acknowledging the benefits I have from my privileged position in society.  So I stopped talking and buried my interest in being in the conversation.

I am not a victim, certainly, of my white maleness, but I am a victim of a society that tolerates, fosters, and gains from a social, political, and economic system that privileges one over another.  Again, Friere, says “[The oppressor] cannot see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have.”  I inherited, was born into, a system that I can only work to change.

So my silence is not healthy for me individually.  The silence of any group is not healthy for us, societally, and in a larger context.  I cannot undo my white male straightness.  I’m “stuck” with what I was biologically dealt.  No biological solution, however, exists for a social, political, racial, and economic problem.  The solution isn’t found in silencing any group.  Yes, I need to listen more to hear.  I need to reflect more than respond or react.

Dialogue and conversation means that we are going to say the wrong thing.  It means we are going to be misunderstood.  I read somewhere recently that white people cannot understand or talk about race and racism.  I disagree.  Perhaps for too long we have had a monologue or disingenuous dialogue.  We all need to move toward gaining a new understanding.  How will new knowledge be gained if dialogue is denied?

Paulo Freire writes that “A word for so long a time attempted and never spoken, always stifled in inhibition, in the fear of being rejected — which as it implies a lack of confidence in ourselves — also means refusal to risk.”

The risk of any missteps in getting to a new and deeper level of understanding has to be taken, though, because the consequences of no dialogue, no conversation, are too great.  Those consequences get people shot, communities burned, countries fractured.

One Response to “A White Guy Talks About Privilege”

  1. I was thankful school was out this week knowing that conversations of hot topics quickly subside for 6th graders. I imagined comments of teachers at the lunch table that I might like to avoid. I seethed when reading some FB posts avoiding comment. I avoided ReTweeting those things that I thought most powerful. I quietly commented on two blog posts, yet in actuality, I am for the most part silent. I have been that woman, eyes darting away keeping a posture of assurance but picking up the pace. I guess I am still that person, eyes darting away feigning assurance, living avoidance. You’ve piqued my awareness. I hope the words will come when the time is right.

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