Acknowledging My White Privilege

Photo by @eves_art_project on Instagram

By Kjersti McDonald

I’m a white woman with internalized racism.

I’m also actively on a journey of becoming an antiracist and dismantling white supremacy. In order to embark on this journey authentically, I had to come to terms with the fact that the nature of white supremacy is that it infiltrates our institutions and societal norms so seamlessly that ideas of white superiority, who and what constitutes “normal,” and my perceptions about people of color have been affected by the white supremacy narrative. I cannot divorce those ideas from my consciousness without first acknowledging that they exist. This is the work of undoing white supremacy indoctrination. 

Our society has long been averse to calling out behavior and people as “racist” because we’ve attached a moral value to racism. Racism = bad. This filters racism down to individual acts that can be judged as racist (bad) or not (good). What this binary ignores is the fact that our whole society is steeped in racism. Everything we’ve been taught, the way our institutions function – it all happens through the lens of white supremacy. As the poet Guante illustrates in his amazing poem “How to Explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist,” white supremacy isn’t the shark – it’s the water. The whole system is white supremacy, which means that we cannot escape the fact that our thoughts, feelings, words and actions are influenced by it. 

An example of how we can shift our thinking to accommodate this truth is to ask not if something is racist, but rather, HOW is it racist? Starting with the assumption that there will always be racial implications, we can invite ourselves into a process of exploring the ways white supremacy has manifested, bringing us a step closer to imagining the ways we can undo that racism.

I understand that acknowledging one’s white privilege is a process and not a task that all white people have been up to thus far. Because I think we have to acknowledge how racism manifests in ourselves in order to see how it manifests systemically and interpersonally, I want to explore the pushback I’ve witnessed when it comes to acknowledging white privilege.

The myth of meritocracy tells us that people obtain what they have based on their individual efforts – that nothing is gained that isn’t earned. Meritocracy sits at the heart of our society’s ideologies, hence the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” but this ideology is, in fact, just myth. This is a necessary truth to grapple with if one is to open their eyes to the existence of white supremacy and white privilege. 

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If white privilege is real, that means our society doesn’t exclusively award opportunities and justice to those who have duly earned them. And when I say “those,” what I internally feel is “me.” That right there is an uncomfortable call-out; one that asks each white person to reckon with the fact that their merits alone may not have earned them their accomplishments.

This is not to say that all white people have had it easy. There are many, many white people who have suffered, do suffer, and struggle to make ends meet for their families, to advance their station in life, to survive. The idea of white privilege does not posit that white people are exempt from any and all opposition and struggle. 

Poor white people are still disadvantaged by their socio-economic status. White members of the LGBTQ+ community still face bigotry and discrimination. White women still face sexism and misogyny. Differently-abled white people still have issues with accessibility and marginalization. And on and on. The theory of white privilege simply states that those struggles are not because of their skin color. And for people of color who fall into those other marginalized groups, their identities intersect and amplify their oppression in unique ways. (See my earlier article Intersectional Feminism or Bust)

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We didn’t create the systems of oppression we were born into, and like everyone ever born, we never got to choose the color of our skin. Thus, the privileges we are afforded are not a result of any of our actions. And yet, this knowledge is often met with a feeling of guilt. I’ve sometimes seen that guilt do one of two things to a white person: overwhelm them with feelings of despair, hopelessness, and helplessness, paralyzed by the apparent futility; or thrust them into defensiveness and denial that they actually have these privileges and/or that there is anything useful they can do with that information.

I’m privy to the former. I recently attended a 2.5-day antiracism training with some of the members of my staff, where we discussed the long history of white supremacy since European colonialism, the history of resistance against colonialism and white supremacy, the traits of dominant culture, the ways our institutions participate in and perpetuate white supremacy culture, and the manifestations of internalized racism and ideas about white superiority and POC inferiority.

Suffice it to say, this was an overwhelming experience where I was reminded of things I already knew and exposed to new ways of thinking about my whiteness, privilege, and responsibility to work toward becoming truly antiracist. I felt depressed, hopeless, and largely, very angry. Angry at every intentional and unintentional act of white supremacy that brought us to the place we are at. Angry that I had been robbed of the opportunity to live in a society free of the social construct of race and instead forced to face the seemingly insurmountable challenge of dismantling white supremacy.

And I felt guilty for benefiting in many ways from a system that offered me, without question, many privileges that should be freely offered to all people: the assurance that my race wouldn’t work against me during interactions with police and other authority figures; the assumption that my experiences are largely “normal” and fit into the dominant culture; a positive reflection of people who look like me in the media; and a plethora of other experiences that look a lot like what is listed in Peggy McIntosh’s paper “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”

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Here’s the thing: it’s not helpful or productive to sit in feelings of anger or guilt. Though it’s not hard to understand why many white folks get stuck in that stage: the deeper one delves into the reality that is institutionalized racism, the more daunting dismantling it seems. When people don’t see a clear path of action to take to address an issue (especially a deeply-rooted, far-reaching issue), it can seem like the only option is to give up. 

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But that’s what white supremacy wants us to do. In fact, it counts on it. Because at the end of the day, white supremacy actually harms all of us, not just people of color. 

There is deep trauma that exists in white people because of the violence enacted by our ancestors. We cannot escape the knowledge that our forefathers stole, captured, sold, bought, profited off of, raped, brutalized, and murdered African slaves. And despite that being in the past, and no fault of our own, that history lives within all of us and that trauma has shaped us, just as the ancestral trauma of today’s descendants of slaves has shaped their identities and placement in today’s society. It isn’t healthy to have internalized feelings of superiority. It is painful to see law enforcement that looks like us subject people of color to violence that so closely resembles the experiences of slaves escaping plantations. The unconscious harm institutionalized racism inflicts on all of us manifests as our inability to come to terms with the reality of race relations, the lack of reparations, and the abject failure to speak honestly and transparently about the history of racism in our schools and institutions.

As I’ve experienced healing in various parts of my life, I’ve started to realize that healing is a painful process, one that has to happen consciously. We can’t passively hope that racism will go away the further we get from the Emancipation Proclamation. We can’t expect that our everyday efforts to be “colorblind” will adequately address the centuries of oppressive policies that have systemically disadvantaged people of color. 

I’m embarking on this antiracism journey, and I’m going to make mistakes. I’m going to miss the mark and have to correct myself and adjust my perspectives and confront my deeply held beliefs about myself and society at large. But the only way to move through this is with a deep humility, a willingness to fail and a commitment to failing gracefully, accepting critique, and centering the experiences of people of color. I intend to read every article and book I can get my hands on about white supremacy, white privilege, systemic racism and reparations – ideally written by people of color. I intend to actively seek out opportunities to listen to and work with people of color in my community. I urge you to pause when you feel the urge to react defensively at the mention of white privilege, and to instead participate in some pointed self-reflection of how you have been indoctrinated by the dominant white culture. Then I urge you to move forward into action in undoing white supremacy wherever you are, however you can. For as Fannie Lou Hamer said: nobody’s free until everybody’s free.

Looking for resources for understanding white supremacy and racism? Here’s a non-exhaustive list that will inevitably grow:

Confronting Racism

Me and White Supremacy

Dear White America

White Fragility

White Like Me

Waking Up White

Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?

Race Forward

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1 Comment

  1. Not sure I “get” (really understand) everything you are saying. Just like to add a few sentences. I applied for a job with the post office, took the test. Not sure how well I fared in the group who applied. HOWEVER, job was given to a member of a “select” group–military with injuries. The guy who got the job had one of his “balls” shot off. That’s his qualifying reason, never mind actual test scores or interview. I had been given a job based on fact that I had been “Out of Workforce” for a long period of time (8 years) basically raising children. Also on the list of “eligible” reasons were things others could qualify for same position, such as reciepients of food stamps or ADC. So, in other words, the better paying, benefit jobs, government jobs over private enterprise, had definite ‘reasons” to hire, itemized on a list. Ordinary people NOT in any of those categories could never obtain a job there–they had to fight for the crumbs in private enterprise. How does all this figure in to white privilege?

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