I was listening to NPR today and there was a speaker talking about the current race situation in America. It was a white man. He talked about affirmative action, and he said “People ask me how I feel about affirmative action and I say it’s great. As a white, male Baby Boomer I benefited from the biggest affirmative action ever. My father came home from the war and through the GI bill got an education and a house. We became middle class. White vets got that. Black vets didn’t.” There’s something about the way that he said it that makes it sound like he should feel guilty for getting that benefit, that he had done something wrong, and that going forward only black people should get it. Now it’s true that some of affirmative action is making up for historical discrepancies like these. But what isn’t true is that the end goal of social justice and race conversations is to flip the positions of white and black, or to leave all people without the supports that white people have historically had.
There’s a fear that underlies all of the ways that white people talk about race and privilege, even white people who are trying to be allies. It’s a fear that they’re going to lose something, that in order to balance everything out they have to give something up in order to help those who need to get more. It’s the fear that you’ve done something wrong and need to change because you’re a bad person for having the comfortable life that you have. It’s the defensiveness that says “but I like what I have. Why are you trying to question it?”
There are two elements to this fear. The first is the fear of changing your attitudes and behavior, which is actually hard. The second is the fear of the end goal of these discussions. From talking to a lot of white people about race, I get the distinct impression that many are afraid they will lose what they have. They might be afraid that they’ll be held to a higher standard than other people. They may wonder if their kids will have the same perks in life that they had, even if they believe they’ve earned those perks.
There is so much fear that our lives will get worse if we make yours better.
But the end goal isn’t for us all to be equal at the bottom. It’s to bring everyone’s quality of life up. The point is not for cops to shoot everyone with impunity or for everyone to struggle to get a job and an education or for everyone to have to go it on their own with no safety net or support from the government. The point is for everyone to get those nice things that you got, the things that you don’t even recognize that you had. Once you realize you HAVE privilege you don’t need to be afraid to lose it. You need to work for everyone to get it.
That is what checking your privilege is: recognizing that somewhere in your past or the past of your parents or grandparents, things were set up to benefit you in ways that they weren’t set up to benefit people of color. You got a GI Bill, or access to good schools, or a presumption of innocence in a trial that people of color didn’t get. That’s great! Those are all great things to get. No one is angry at you because your parents benefited from the GI Bill. They’re angry that they didn’t. They’re angry that often they were used so that you could get the benefits. They’re angry at people who pretend the differences don’t exist.
It’s easy for our conversations to forget what the end goal of conversations about race is. It’s easy to think it’s an us vs. them question, or that it’s people trying to take things from other people. It’s significantly harder to have the hard questions about the ways white people are benefiting right now while also keeping in mind that we want everyone to have those same benefits. There are lots of ways to work through the white guilt and defensiveness stage of privilege conversations, but here’s one that will hopefully help: what people are saying is that any “unearned” help you got is still something you deserve. It’s something everyone deserves. We just have to make sure everyone gets it.