Friday, December 23, 2005

Bearing Witness to White Privilege: Further Reflections

In recent weeks I have had several conversations regarding race/race-ism/white privilege with a number of people, many of whom are white.

One of these conversations really stands out, as it exemplifies the assumption of white privilege, yet demonstrates the possibilities that (re)education about race and white privilege in America’s history might offer and what a willing heart/spirit/disposition (to learn) might bring.

Setting the scene: I am eating lunch with several people at a restaurant, and one of the people there is a white female in her 50’s, wealthy, politically conservative, patient, thoughtful, and also a Christian. This woman’s background includes family members who are racist, and who regularly use racial slurs towards non-whites. Not a regular witness to this aspect of such a familial orbit anymore, the woman about whom I write has a number of non-white friends, some very close, as well as a number of African American co-workers.

Through the course of our conversation over lunch, through the lens of race we discuss history, politics, the Christian church, and interpersonal dynamics – people’s personal or ethnic “space.” It was a lively conversation, and very interesting as well. As we finished our meals and as conversations were winding down, this woman remarked (paraphrasing): “I’m just at a point in my life now where race doesn’t matter to me; I mean, I don’t look at people as African American, etc., I just look at people as people. Though I grew up around racist people, I did not adopt their point of view, nor do I condone their slurs and inappropriate comments. A person’s race just doesn’t matter to me.”

Anyone who knows this woman and who heard this conversation knows that these comments are sincere: this woman truly does love people, and pours her heart out for people all the time.

Yet, with eyes to see, the subtlety of these comments is clear and visible: this woman, by virtue of her whiteness and by virtue of the fact that she takes comfort in not being personally racist, she can say that to her race doesn’t matter. As a white woman in her 50’s, as a white upper-middle-class woman, as a white female Christian, she has the privilege to say that race does not matter. Would her non-white friends who are in their 50’s (or any other age for that matter) say the same thing?

Here was my response (paraphrased): “But, that’s just it: from a privileged position of whiteness, white people can say race doesn’t matter because, most likely, being white has never cost you anything. In other words, in U.S. society, being white is a currency that is taken everywhere, it is a key that unlocks numerous doors, it is a welcome, open door to almost anything, anywhere – without undergoing questioning or interrogation, without assuming you harbor ill-will or malice, without suffering the inhumanity of suspicion because of one’s ethnicity. It is called white privilege. From this lofty position, it is always others who play the race card.”

I will never forget the look on this woman’s face; she realized after my response that, as a white woman [or person], she had the “privilege” to say that race doesn’t matter. For the first time in her life, I think, she realized not only what white privilege is, but what it means, and that it is something on which to reflect deeply and about which to think critically and educate robustly.

Do you have any stories to share?


Anonymous said...


This is a great example. Thanks for sharing it. This series is very good. Anthony's told me much about you. I hope we get to connect sometime too.

Steve K.

Phil said...

Thanks, Steve; likewise, and blessings.


nadine.w said...

Great Insight!