If you google the term white privilege you get a wide array of articles and blogs that at first glance can seem very, very messy. As I scroll through these sites I find myself getting a bit fatigued and empathetic towards the average white American trying to find answers on this controversial phrase. The general tone of the top content that comes up related to white privilege is that of white people needing to get their act together and that you need to be educated. Parts of the content remain enlightening while other parts make me cringe. Today I want to give a few tips on how to take the sting out of this phrase and have actual, helpful dialogue with white people concerning race and race relations.
I have had hundreds of conversations related to race in my life probably and they have left me with emotions ranging from sheer ecstasy at being understood to crying in tears of anger. In conversations with white friends and acquaintances I have noticed a trend that when the term white privilege gets mentioned (the new buzzword of our day), that often their face will get red, their demeanor will change, and the whole tone of the conversation will shift. Initially, I would try to force my opinion further, or if other people were present in the conversation, I would try to champion what they were saying regarding white privilege being existent in America. That usually produced more frustration. Often I would leave these conversations confused and more determined to convince more of my white friends of white privilege with statistics and facts so that I could get my point across.
What I noticed though over time was that no amount of statistics, life experiences, or facts could sway the tone of the conversation for the most part once the specific term was uttered. Through many arguments, my own research, watching others have the conversation, and watching panel discussions on the news, I slowly began to learn that the term white privilege came with so much baggage that it was almost impossible to work around. The chasm between the definition and a person’s feelings (of any ethnicity) was too great. Through questions that I was able to ask I began to realize that when people hear the term white privilege they immediately feel that 1. They have some magical key to succeeding in life based upon their skin color 2. They are destined to be rich and famous 3. Their accomplishments are diminished. These thoughts and feelings are extremely hurtful to anyone who has worked hard for what they have in life inasmuch as it is hurtful when someone highlights affirmative action as the only reason some black people get into college and are successful. (Usually the thought is that a white person was somehow looked over for the spot.) With this new found understanding I have made it my mission to be more empathetic and seek common ground when speaking about white privilege.
I don’t want anyone to feel belittled or put down when I speak with them. I think that it is possible to have a conversation about race where both parties feel heard and understood. Here are a few tips I’ve found: 1. Don’t use the term white privilege unless you are prepared to explain yourself in detail. 2. Preempt offense about the word by using clear examples. My favorite is using height as being a privilege over shorter people. The person who is tall is not evil or disgusting. However, when we play basketball the shorter person is at a disadvantage. I also use an example of people in a classroom setting. If the garbage can is at the front of the room and I am sitting in the back, the person at the front of the room has a severe privilege and advantage. Equalizing the playing field would be me being able to pass my trash up to the next person who could pass it up again until the trash is thrown away by the person in front. 3. Anger and hurt is normal when controversial topics are discussed. When it comes up, take a deep breath and ask questions rather than making statements. 4. Reach for understanding rather than being right. These are just a few thoughts I have and look forward to growing in wisdom and understanding.