What is White privilege and why is it so difficult for people to acknowledge? The main reason is that people who grow up with privilege tend not to see it. They don’t have to. Life can seem complete and full-filling in the isolation of a White dominated society. Everyone else is relegated to a ‘less-than’ status. Subservient workers come from the ‘less-than’ group. Why bother to change this?
When White privilege is in place, everyone loses out. No one benefits because of the lost possibilities that people of color could make. When they are not included and allowed to contribute to their highest potential the loss is tremendous. Who knows how many leaders, scientists, teachers and engineers have been lost because their potential was not realized?
Understanding how White privilege works may be best explained by reflecting on a life lived within that ‘norm’.
I grew up in a White middle-class community. At no time was I ever directly confronted with racism. Except for television and a few localized incidents in my youth, I did not see or hear about it.
The system that I grew up in promoted privilege as a right, an entitlement. We were encouraged to work hard and we believed that we would be rewarded with success. It never occurred to me that the playing field was not even for people of color or people who grew up with economic insecurity. The society around me had no reason to focus on inequality or discrimination. I was well protected by my family, my schooling and my opportunities for advancement. I was taught that in “America” everyone was rewarded for a steady effort. The system supported me even if I stumbled with adolescent missteps.
I never saw nor understood that there was a significance to the privilege of living in neighbourhoods that offered better equipped schools, good health care and safety from localized crime. When doors opened for me, I thought it was because I deserved the opportunities given me. I did not realize that others were not given the same chances in life. I believed in the “American Dream”. Belief in the dream permeated every step, every opportunity, every benefit I encountered.
As I look around the globe and I listen to the rhetoric that is evident in so many media sources, I see that many people continue to live in darkness or ignorance, but the events of 2020 should awaken and enlighten them. If people chose to deny their privilege, it is most often out of fear, greed or something more ominous that lies deep in their hearts.
As a global society, we will never heal the divisions that perpetuate disunity and inequality until the idea of White privilege is thoroughly examined and understood by all of us regardless of race or class. It is a way forward to end the anger and mistrust that keeps us imbalanced and divided. The solution lies not in guilt, but in looking forward. There are basic elements of society that need to be addressed so that we can even the playing field. In the end, we will all win because of the abundant contributions and benefits that will result.
Alis Headlam, Ed.D.
Retired educator and promoter of race unity.
She lives in Rutland, Vermont.