I live in a segregated society. I grew up in a white family in the white suburbs of the Bay Area. I was educated by white teachers in white elementary and high schools. My college was largely white; my employers have all been white; my friends are white.
Whiteness has been so pervasive in my life that I never identified it as a culture. If anything, I thought of myself as representative of the American culture, which afforded me great opportunity to attend the college of my choice, to succeed in a chosen profession, to travel freely, to live in beautiful San Luis Obispo.
I've never considered myself racist. White racists were those ugly individuals who threw rocks and slurs at blacks. Who flew Confederate flags. Who advocated white supremacy in order to elevate their own sad standing in society and bolster their fragile self-esteem.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a racist in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee; Trayvon Martin was assassinated by a racist in 2012 in Sanford, Florida. Racists marched in Charlottesville a year ago, and a handful marched again on Aug. 12 at the Unite the Right 2 rally in Washington, D.C. While acts of racism and racial terrorism have punctuated front page news throughout my life, they've seemed distant.
But they're not. If I honestly take stock of the effect of racism in my life, I see its saturated, toxic presence. I see racial insults posted on black student rooms in one of my college's dormitories in 1972, and I see that police were called to that same college this July because a black student seemed "out of place" in a common room. My college.
Last spring, racists smeared graffiti on the doors and offices of students and professors at Cal Poly after a white student appeared in blackface. My Cal Poly, where I worked for 20 years. And several weeks ago at dinner, a friend blithely joked in condescending dialect, "Yessa, massa!" in response to his wife's gentle chiding.
All this in my country, which I love so deeply.
Perhaps it's the accumulation of evidence that reveals our president as a racist; or the unending cycle of black deaths, incarceration, and injustices; or the weight of racial history in my own life that impel me to take stock. But I've come to the juncture where I've got to ask how I've benefitted unfairly from our social system.
We all know that there are white people who suffer bias—Jews, the poor, gays, the disabled, many others—but we also know that they too have societal advantages over ordinary people of color, especially black and brown-skinned people. That's why it's time to realize that the successes in my life may not have accrued because I'm so very exceptional, but because as a white person, I've benefited inequitably simply by being white.
Hmmm, you're thinking. Amy's wading into loaded territory! Yes, I am. And I invite you along not to blame or shame, but because I believe we all should be accountable as individuals in the hard work of reconciliation. Besides, I know you can take it.
Where to begin? I started by reading "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Dr. Peggy McIntosh. Those of you who are farther along than I in recognizing the effects of racial identity will undoubtedly know this excellent article. In it, McIntosh asks us to consider the "unearned assets" of whiteness.
For instance, off the top of my head, I know that because I'm white I can hail a cab New York and be assured one will stop. I'm pretty sure that I won't get pulled over for an innocuous or imaginary traffic infraction. I won't be regarded as suspicious if I'm strolling in a largely white neighborhood. I can be reasonably sure that I can obtain a loan to buy a house or send my kids to college.
McIntosh's list helps make clear that while my life is not lived as an act of aggression against non-whites, I do live in the confines of unconscious privilege, and that privilege comes at an enormous psychic, social, and economic cost to people of color:
• When learning about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
• I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that recognize the existence of their race.
• I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
• If a law officer asks me to stop in the street, I don't fear for my life.
• I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
• I can buy a "flesh" colored bandage and know it will match my skin.
Whether seemingly harmless or blatantly damaging to people of color, the items on this list of white advantage overlay a narrative that infects all our society. A narrative that too often presumes the superiority of whiteness.
Talking about race can be uncomfortable and humbling. But as we work toward healing the divide, white folks like me might best take stock as a first step. Δ
Amy Hewes is actively involved in grassroots political action. Send comments through the editor at.