with Janee Woods
My dear white friends, someone pointing out how your white privilege might color your perspective is not the same thing as being called a racist. This can be a hard distinction to understand, so let’s break it down.
Imagine that you, white friend, are wearing an outfit that was passed down to you by your mom. You were dressed in this outfit the very moment you were born. She got it from her father, who inherited it from his parents. This outfit has been handed down through the generations for as long as the family can remember. Maybe way back when, an immigrant ancestor had to scrape together pennies from a crummy job to buy cloth and then sew this outfit by hand to wear it in order to be accepted in their new community. Maybe this outfit has gone through some hard times, and needed a button replaced or a hem sewn back on, but it still looks good, even if some people think it’s not fashionable or haute couture.
You wear this outfit to school, because it reminds you of the outfits your favorite characters in literature and history wear. You wear this outfit to job interviews and get hired. You wear this outfit while shopping and the sales clerks treat you like a valued customer. You wear this outfit out on the street and nobody looks at you twice because almost everybody else is wearing a similar outfit. This outfit is comfortable, such a part of who you are and how the world sees you that you never think twice about putting it on every single day. You will wear this outfit when you’re old. You will die wearing this outfit because it never occurred to you to dress differently.
Now imagine that you and I, your friend of color, see each other at a #BlackLivesMatter rally. You are wearing the outfit. We talk.
Me: “Hey, I’m happy you’re here but I think your outfit is not appropriate. Please consider changing into something more suited for the occasion.”
You: “My outfit is perfect. I wore this same exact outfit to the gay pride parade and nobody had a problem with it there. A lot of people wore similar outfits and we really made a difference for gay rights. I’m wearing it here because I am also an ally to black people. Honestly, if more black people wore an outfit like mine then you’d probably attract more allies like me.”
Me: “Maybe. But that outfit is still inappropriate. It might have been great at the gay pride parade, but it’s wrong for this rally. Look around — none of the black people here have an outfit like yours. And the fabric is too constrictive to allow you to march in step with us. Instead, you’re trying to make everyone else match your pace and we can’t wait much longer to keep moving forward. Make some alterations. You’re distracting everyone else with your excuses. You need to change the outfit.”
You: “How dare you call me ugly! I don’t need to change my outfit, and if you keep insisting then you will lose me as an ally.”
Me: “I didn’t say you are ugly. I said your outfit is inappropriate. There’s a difference.”
Do you see the difference? That outfit is white privilege. And just as nobody is saying you’re ugly, nobody is saying you’re a racist either. Calling out your white privilege and asking you to consider how your perspective might be clouded by that privilege is not the same thing as being called a racist. I understand your concern — you didn’t choose to be white and you wish color didn’t matter so much in this world. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong or bad about being white either. However, there’s a lot that is fundamentally wrong and overwhelmingly bad about a system that is designed to privilege your whiteness through social opportunities, economic advantages and cultural acceptance, while people of color are buried down deep in a graveyard of poverty, violence and disadvantage because of skin pigment.
Yes, being told that you need to check your privilege before you can enter ally space might feel like a kick in the gut. Your feelings might be bruised, especially if you feel like you are genuinely trying to get educated about undoing racism, but please get over your misplaced distress and learn this lesson: It’s not about you. It’s about a system. White privilege is the glue that binds systemic racism. If you want to be an ally in dismantling the system then you need to stop being complicit in that system. Every time you fail to take responsibility for your white privilege, you are being complicit.
White privilege is not a good look on anyone and it’s time to declare it out of style, forever. So take it off, my dear. Take it all off.
This post (including the awesome graphics and photos) was published originally on Scenarios USA, where I am a new contributor. Scenarios USA is where young people and millennials go to talk about social justice issues, the Internet, culture, film and whatever else is on their mind! Scenarios USA is a national organization that uses writing and film to foster youth leadership, advocacy and self-expression, with a focus on marginalized communities.