Last week, when the Iowa House of Representatives debated a bill that prohibited race and sex stereotyping in diversity training held in public schools, community colleges, and public universities, the concept of “white privilege” came to the forefront.
Several Democrats wondered aloud if concepts like “white privilege” would be allowed under the bill. One Republican lawmaker said he believed “white privilege” was a racist term.
I am personally not a fan of the phrase “white privilege” because I believe it is used too broadly and does not take into consideration a person’s personal history, socio-economic background, and geographical location.
For instance, would a white person in Appalachia be considered privileged? Compared to some, perhaps, others not so much.
Before I go further, it would be helpful to define privilege. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor.” In particular, a right or immunity “attached specifically to a position or an office.”
The University of San Francisco has a “white privilege resource guide,” they define privilege as “unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.”
They encourage white people – mainly white, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class, or upper-class males, to “check our privilege.”
They state, “becoming aware of privilege should not be viewed as a burden or source of guilt, but rather, an opportunity to learn and be responsible so that we may work toward a more just and inclusive world.”
Unfortunately, “check your privilege” has regrettably been a phrase to silence debate and shame people.
However, the concept that certain groups have had “unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group” is historically accurate, I don’t know how anyone can deny that fact.
So I have to disagree with the Republican lawmaker who said the term is racist, at least not inherently. As a concept, I don’t always think it’s used constructively, but I can agree that I have benefitted from historical privilege as a white man who lives in the United States. That said, I don’t believe our country is inherently racist, but we need to be willing to recognize our historical warts and where historical privilege has led to systematic disadvantages for some as we seek to become a “more perfect” union.
I do believe systemic racism exists because I believe we are born with a sin nature and live in a broken and sinful world.
I also don’t believe I should feel guilty or ashamed because I was born white. I was “fearfully and wonderfully made” just like you were and everyone who has walked this earth are. We are all image-bearers of God and, as such, have dignity and worth. Our problem, historically, is not original skin, but original sin because ever since the fall of man, bigotry has existed.
A bit of my background, I grew up in a small town outside of Des Moines. My class, I believe, had just one person of color, someone I think was of Native American descent. I could be wrong about that, but that is my recollection, and I’m a few decades removed from that experience. It is accurate to say my class was practically all white.
In my freshman year, I moved into Des Moines and attended Hoover High School. I went from being in a practically all-white class to join a class that was still majority white but remarkedly more diverse than the school I had attended before.
I cherished that experience. It was enriching. But it was also frustrating at times and pushed me out of my comfort zone. I learned about and from perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences that were different than my own. I also was extended much grace because I’m sure I said stupid things at times and asked dumb questions.
My experience at Hoover also opened my eyes to the reality of bigotry within my hometown.
After attending Hoover for a few months, I went back to visit some people I knew in the town where I grew up, and it was eye-opening. I was asked questions that I’m not going to repeat here, but some people I knew revealed themselves to be racist.
I was shocked.
The fact I was shocked points to my “privilege” because while I knew racism existed historically and theoretically, but I never saw it firsthand. Because the town I grew up in was homogenous it did not bubble to the surface. Race was really never part of our conversations, not because we were color-blind, but because there was no diversity.
Suddenly, being exposed to (former) friends’ racist attitudes I also saw my “privilege” because it wasn’t directed at me. Though rebuking these former classmates and defending some new friends I made at Hoover was not well-received (putting it mildly).
I’ve had experiences throughout my life that exposed me to diverse backgrounds and points-of-view. When my wife and I were married, we lived in married student housing at the Christian college I attended in the Chicago suburbs. In our apartment building, we had Korean and Black neighbors, and we treasured the time we spent with them. While at that school, I tutored in a public housing complex in Chicago, and I learned more from the Black kids I tutored than I’m sure they learned from me. We lived in Miami-Dade County and experienced Cuban culture (when moved from there to a community that hosted the 2nd largest Amish population in the country, so talk about cultural whiplash).
When in Miami, as part of an urban sociology class my wife and I took together (the school I attended had a campus where I finished my degree), we did a ride-along with law enforcement. While on that ride-along, I witnessed law enforcement officers degrading Black people they had interacted with after calls. It was eye-opening, and the fact it is eye-opening, again, reveals my “privilege.” While I believe most law-enforcement officers are exceptional public servants, there are bad apples.
This is something that many of my Black friends have lived. In all the times I have been pulled over by police, which fortunately hasn’t been that much (I currently have a clean driving record, and it has been years since my last ticket), only twice did I not know the reason I was being pulled over.
That’s not the case with several Black friends of mine. That is not my experience, and it is something I don’t have to worry about.
That’s just one example. There are many others.
Now, in the classic definition of privilege, it shouldn’t be a “privilege” not to experience racism or not be pulled over or stopped because of the color of my skin. We all should enjoy that. It shouldn’t be a special “right or immunity.”
So, in that regard, I think the word “privilege” falls short.
Also, this concept doesn’t just apply to race. For instance, as a male, I generally don’t have to worry about being assaulted when walking outside by myself at night. My wife and my daughters have to be mindful of that, and the fact that I don’t shouldn’t be a “privilege” either.
I designed and led diversity training that was part of the volunteer training for a Christian non-profit I served for ten years because we worked with a diverse clientele. In that role, I also had the opportunity to speak before and visit various community organizations and churches. It was an enriching experience. It was a humbling experience (my first sermon at a historically Black church was nerve-wracking initially) because it pushed me out of my comfort zone (which is a good thing).
When it comes to diversity, I have learned two primary things: 1. Don’t make assumptions about someone’s experiences (or, in other words, “check my privilege”). 2. See it as an opportunity to learn and ask questions.
I think that is true regardless of who you are or what your background is. When it comes to discussing racial differences and diversity in general, it requires humility and patience from everyone involved.
Unfortunately, too many people who engage in “conversations” (if it’s even accurate to call them that) lack both things.