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“White Privilege” – Says Who?

“White privilege!” This term stirs disbelief, ire, and resentment among so many of us whites, often leading to the counter-charge: “Reverse discrimination!” In “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and mourning on the American right”, Hochschild describes the mindset that perceives non-whites “cutting in line” in front of all us hard-working American Dream chasers.

In this post I don’t intend to tackle the questions of privilege at the societal level. Instead, I’ll describe some of what I’ve recognized as I’ve investigated “privilege” in my own life:

Tyrone Jackson and I were born the same year (1944). Our fathers were both WWII veterans.

After the war, my father was eligible for the G.I. Bill. Because of that benefit he was able to buy our first home on incredibly good terms. This allowed him to invest money into his fledgling business.

Tyrone’s dad was also eligible for the G.I. Bill – in theory. But he found that banks would not grant a mortgage to him, a Black man. There was no legal recourse at that time. His only option was to begin pouring money into rent. He had no financial means to develop his dream of opening a service station. He also could not take advantage of the education benefits of the G.I. bill since he needed to earn money immediately to support his family. Besides, historically Black colleges filled quickly, and very few public or private colleges were admitting Black students – again, with legal impunity.

Our fathers both worked incredibly hard. My father built his business and reaped the benefits. Tyrone’s father worked for others, helping build their wealth and his landlord’s wealth, but building no equity.

My father eventually sold that first home at a good profit, moving us into a larger home. That home was eventually sold at a profit to move into another home. When my parents died, I received the benefit of that home’s value, as well as the substantial value of the business my father had built. Tyrone’s father’s estate was minuscule.

My portion of this story is true. Tyrone is a fictitious character. But in reality, there are hundreds of thousands, likely millions of Black children of his era and his circumstances – and millions of white kids like me.

Of the one million African-American men who served in WWII, just 2% were able to actually benefit from the G.I. Bill. This is one example of white privilege. Although the initial benefit to my family occurred nearly 75 years ago, the impact has accrued with interest to the present. This leg up is what eventually enabled me to attend McQuaid, Georgetown and Northwestern. My McQuaid class of 175 students included no African-Americans. Neither my wife nor I can recall any Black (American) kids in our Georgetown class. And I had no Black classmates at Northwestern Business School. White privilege writ large. It’s this privilege that allows me to sit here writing this rather than pulling another shift at WalMart. And the privilege flows to this day through my children and grandchildren. In a parallel way, the deficit flows through to “Tyrone” and his family. So the dismissive claim that “That was a long time ago!” would be a naïve denial of reality.

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To bring this privilege idea to the present, here are some of the many examples that I now can recognize:

A Black professional who lives in Brighton never leaves the house even on a simple errand without beings shaved and well-groomed. He’s had too many instances of suspicious looks and police encounters. This is Brighton – arguably the liberal bastion among our suburbs. I, on the other hand, will leave the house with a 3-day beard, crummy jeans and a paint-smeared tee shirt – never been questioned, never been stopped. White privilege.

Another Black friend moved his family from Brighton because of the cold treatment from neighbors. He now lives in Webster, and has taken to putting a baby seat in the back of his car to give the appearance of being a family man (his children are grown) to cut down on the number of times he’s stopped on his way home from work at night. The last time I was stopped by the police was roughly 1988, and I deserved to be stopped. White privilege.

Many Black people have told me of the awkwardness of walking into a business meeting, standing out as the only person of color, and wondering how this difference will play out in the meeting. I tend to walk in with confidence and a sense of belonging, of credibility, of equity. Whatever discomfort I have is due to self-consciousness, not due to my skin color. The more meetings I’ve attended where I am actually a minority, the more I can relate to the awkwardness faced by Black people on a daily basis. White privilege.

This is a small sampling of this dynamic of privilege in my life.  The privilege has been there all along.  What is shifting is my consciousness.

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Resources:

“What Does It Mean To Be White: Developing White Racial Literacy” Dr. Robin DiAngelo

4-minute video with Dr. Joy DeGruy recounting an example of privilege: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wf9QBnPK6Yg

“The Perils of ‘Privilege’: why injustice can’t be solved by accusing others of advantage” Phoebe Maltz Bovy – a counterpoint argument.

Action:

Examine your own life – past and present. Identify the accumulated privilege based on history, and the current instances where your whiteness benefits you. Keep in mind this observation from author Robin DiAngelo:
“What about white people who have suffered hardships?”:  “It’s not that white people don’t face barriers. What I’m saying is you have not faced this one (racism). And not facing this one has helped you navigate your other ones.”

Initiate conversations about privilege with co-workers, family, friends, including people of color. Be curious. Be vulnerable.

ACT to reduce institutionalized privilege at work, in your neighborhood, town, city. Speak out, advocate, become involved in supporting candidates who will do the same.

31 thoughts on ““White Privilege” – Says Who?”

  1. Frank, your post on white privilege reflects your clear, personal understanding from experience. Thank you for that as it prompts me to reflect similarly.
    As to Howard Eagle’s participation; other commenters have made their case and you’re reinvited him. I look forward to Howard’s next entry.

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  2. I’m glad you decided to “allow” Howard to continue to contribute to this conversation, and I hope he feels inclined to do so! I’m assuming you let him know that he had been “univited” from participation. White fragility and isolation will only feed the beast of [white people’s] ignorance and racism. It’s unfortunate that some feel timid about engaging in conversation and asking questions, because it’s when we make mistakes and reveal our flawed thinking and attitudes that we learn. We’ve been socialized to believe that everyone always has to be nice to us, or we take our ball and go home. Here’s an opportunity to take our lumps, grow from the experience, and venture out for some action steps to change the status quo. Howard and other leaders in MAMA have some concrete ideas about how to do this within the Rochester City school system, specifically. They meet on Thursday evenings at FIGHT Village community center, 186 Ward St at 6:00.
    Or, come on Tuesday, June 19th to Rochester City Hall at 6:30 to show support for a civilian-led Police Accountability Board and other criminal justice initiatives.

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  3. Frank, wow! This really is too much. May I suggest a new post and an OPEN uncensored dialogue about tone-policing, silencing, white fragility, white centering, the angry black man, white supremacy, white discomfort vs an actual life and death matter. Others have said this, but also again. How is it that you, a white man, determined that learning about racism wasn’t happening because a black man was posting hard truths and challenging your words? His words were getting in the way of your message, and clearly yours is more important… Why? Ste fou the white savior? White people were threatening to leave if a Black man was allowed to post. You had choices. So, in removing Howard, what anti-racism lesson are you teaching? To silence those who make you uncomfortable. If a black person doesn’t give you a cookie for your effort, no matter how off base you are, no worries. Just take their voice away. Exercise your power. White comfort is more important than black lives?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Frank,
    regarding White Privilege, I am the most, or at least in the top 1%, of people with White Privilege. The opportunities that I have been provided without any/limited effort on my part have had a tremendous impact on me.
    I look forward to giving back these privileges in my remaining life. I need to listen so that I don’t give in a paternalistic manner.
    Peace,
    Mike

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  5. Frank, I agree. Howard Eagle should a Blob member. His dialogue at times is personalized tough. I have experienced it and dropped out of one group with him. Still different / diverse perspectives are important for us to move forward, regardless of who we are. We learn from perspectives and it is sometimes the tough communications that helps me learn more deeply about my own feelings and values.

    Mike

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Silencing Howard Eagle because his responses are unpalatable to some, even the majority, of subscribers is much more than sad. It is unjust. You are silencing a “minority” voice that needs to heard, despite the discomfort it may provoke. Please recall that majority rule without minority rights is called tyranny.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Joe, I don’t know what difference it might have made if I had heard from more folks who see it as you do – while this was unfolding over the first several posts. I was only hearing from those who were retreating, those who were unwilling to engage for various reasons. I ask you to please stay engaged here yourself and comment on what you see.

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  7. Those who have already commented, Frank, about your decision to drop Howard Eagle’s comments have expressed themselves extremely well. I have not experienced Howard Eagle to the extent that they have. I have heard him speak on a few occasions. He is one of the most intelligent people I have ever heard. His vocabulary alone is like no other! Sad to say that his message and purpose do not come through in ways that encourage a healthy exchange. I hope he will take into consideration the feedback posted here. Rochester needs his leadership.

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  8. Frank, if you know who I am at all (my name is Ingrid Bock–I don’t know what ‘signature’ WordPress will give me, as I have two blogs), you know me as someone who has frequently objected to the way Howard Eagle communicates in emails. HE definitely knows that. I found him a wonderful teacher at the recent MAMA sessions, and a terrific speaker at a Take It Down presentation, all of which I’ve told him. I wish that he would communicate more effectively in emails and written responses, and I wish like crazy that he would get at least a small clue about how to use positive reinforcement as a training tool, but bottom line, those are his choices to make. He surely can be a PITA, but the answer is not to refuse to respond to him. It’s tempting; I know this well. One has to gird one’s loins before calling Howard out on anything. Why did I bother trying? Because Howard may be the best teacher we Rochesterians have for racial justice issues, and we white people have so much to learn that we have an undeniable responsibility to get our education where we can find it. We need to take the initiative to separate the wheat from the chaff. Howard has a lot of wheat to offer. I beg you to reinstate Howard’s voice here. And I beg the people who told you that they wouldn’t answer because Howard was ‘in the room’ to think long and hard about that. I feel sure they can grow enough courage to engage, but even if a few cannot, we must not allow fear to drive this conversation. You, Frank, would never have begun this blog had you not been courageous. I say, Keep it up, and don’t silence a man with a fire in his belly to educate white people on racism. Think of the courage THAT takes. We’re very lucky to have him, ‘warts’ and all. And we can continue hoping that he will eventually see that it’s within his power to remove from the conversation those aspects of his interactions which serve only to distract from the ‘wheat’, and slow down our learning and the subsequent actions he hopes we’ll take.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Ingrid for your response. And I do hope other subscribers read it as well. You and I and a number of others separate the wheat and continue to learn. More white people need to learn this. But if, at this point, they’re unwilling to risk, and if that keeps them out of the conversation, then I want to provide a space for them to examine and get through that block. I know I started this “work” several years ago and was no where near ready to engage at the beginning. We live in hope. Please, please, continue to engage here. You have much to teach us.

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      1. Well, now, that is really wonderful news! Great decision, Frank, and welcome back, Howard. I’m sorry I’m responding only now, but I don’t know how to get here unless I get an email notification. I will try to stay more current with your blog. Thanks so much for this great news.

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  9. I urge you to reconsider your decision to exclude Howard Eagle or anyone else from a public conversation. I rarely comment on a forum unless I think my input is unique, constructive, or helpful, and as a white heterosexual person I have significant privilege that reminds me to spend more time listening/reading and less time talking/writing. In this situation it’s clear to me that Mr. Eagle should not be silenced simply because his “style” is not palatable to some. This focus on style (or tone/disposition/personality/affect/etc.) detracts from the focus on content, and is so often more about a person’s reactive feelings rather than the legitimacy of the statement in question. I can’t speak for your other readers, but my white fragility is constantly bruised, and it makes me a more useful asset. If this is ultimately a space of filtered content and abbreviated exchanges, as I reader I will choose to spend my limited time elsewhere.

    I hope you will change your mind and approve all comments. There can be no “free exchange” if voices are suppressed. Silencing a strong voice – particularly the voice of a person of color – is precisely one of the many ways that we perpetuate white supremacy.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Erin, thank you for weighing in. I do not like blocking Howard. I personally continue to learn from him. Still, too much of the conversation was about Howard and his style, while the content was getting lost – to your point. If you read the last post, you know that I challenged subscribers to do just as you’re suggesting. The clear feedback was: that’s not going to happen. I ask you to stay with the blog because you obviously have so much experience and insight yourself. I’m also hoping that other Black subscribers will come forward to contribute. Thanks.

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  10. I was disappointed and frustrated to see that Howard Eagle is, once again, being used as an excuse by some to avoid honest discussions about race. He has certainly provoked anger in me, frustration, embarrassment and other feelings. But those feelings are mine, not his. They are my responsibility.
    But here is the bigger point: if any of us is going to be deterred from important self exploration, we will need to develop skills we might not have already. As white people, we are not generally prepared to be spoken to harshly by people of color, or to have our view of the world (often skewed toward a European lens) challenged. If people cannot handle one person and his style (whether it be judged constructive or not) I have little hope.
    And let’s not forget… we are talking about white people who are anxious about words. We are not even talking about changing our social norms, changing our laws, our economic system, etc. If people cannot bear criticism or cannot even choose to ignore it, if we have to just exclude someone to preserve a constructive forum, I really doubt that forum will lead to anything substantive. Certainly it will not lead to the social change that is centuries overdue.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Hi Frank – I hear you, and I disagree with the idea that we can evaluate that a specific dialogue “was not leading anywhere.” I have also assessed conversations and felt that way, and yet what authority do we have to make that determination? This boils down to tone policing, and while I understand folks’ decisions to withdraw from conversations, I do not think we can determine there is no possible positive outcome. Possible positive outcomes: a bruise on white fragility awakens understanding; better understanding of another’s passions; inspiration to action.

        Liked by 2 people

  11. Frank … I’m going to contrast your pre-script re: Howard Eagle to your heart-felt blog today to the topic of the blog … i.e. White Privilege. The more I refeflect on my own life of white privelege, which as you know has some parellel with yours, I continue to be amazed as to how oblivious I was (and perhaps still am) to what now seems … and is … so obvious; that is, that the entire US economy of today is premised on the backs of slaves who actually made America great in the first place with their multi- millions hours of unpaid labor in the cotton fields to launch the careers of thousands of Northern and Southern businessman … and we whites of today are still reaping the benefis in the face of continued obliviousness to the racial oppression that still mightily exists. That’s why your decision to block Howard’s comments saddens me because we need to hear voices like his to become more aware and better shatter the construct of white privelege that surrounds us. And as you and Howard both know, I am saying this as somewhat a product of Howard’s relevations furthering my continuing understanding of the dangers and depths of white privelege in our society including mine. Howard’s words are not for the faint of heart and there has to be a much deeper awareness of where he’s coming from after almost 400 years of black oppression in this country and how it continues to be manifested in so many ways including in our own community.

    Keep up your great work … Bill

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This saddens me too, Bill. I hope that hearing from people like you and Aaron Wicks will help spur more honest dialogue about all this – and eventually lead to some courageous action. As things were, that wasn’t happening.

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