Coming to terms with white male privilege

I am what you might call an WASPHeM. You maybe be familiar with WASP, White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, the social group that has dominated U.S. society since the days of the “founding fathers.” In addition to having ancestry and religious heritage from pretty much all parts of the British Isles, I am heterosexual and male. Add to that the fact that for the past 15 years I have worked in philanthropy, influencing where and how to give out wealthy people’s money to benefit poor people of color, and I am just about the epitome of white male privilege.

And I have been in denial.

For as long as I can remember, I have believed that all people have equal worth. My parents and older siblings never let me believe that women were less than men or that skin color had anything to do with how important people are. I was privileged — there’s that word again — to grow up in a nice, safe Midwestern university town with great schools where those perspectives were reinforced by liberally-minded teachers. And as I went to church and read the Bible, it became very clear to me that living out my faith meant striving for social justice and equity.

I had been taught the lessons, but because my town was fairly homogeneous racially, I didn’t really have to confront my privilege much. As I moved into adulthood, I sought out diversity and opportunities to live out my beliefs. For more than 25 years, I’ve lived in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse and social progressive cities in the world, working on issues of social equity and justice for communities of color.

I lived just a few miles from the flashpoint of the 1992 civil unrest after the Rodney King verdict and was part of a group trying to bring racial healing in its wake. I fought against racially-charged California propositions, the anti-immigrant 187 and anti-affirmative action 209. I believed Anita Hill and thought Nicole Simpson didn’t get the justice she deserved.

It was also during this time that I was truly first confronted with my whiteness. In case you aren’t aware, we white people don’t like to talk about race. If someone asks us what race we are, we usually stumble and don’t know what to say. White? Caucasian? European? White guilt is real.

It was in grad school that I encountered the term “whiteness,” as part of critical race studies that demonstrated how race was a social construct (wait you mean Italians, Irish and Jews weren’t always considered white?). Peggy McIntosh, one of these scholars, described white privilege as:

the invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.[1]

That imagery of my privilege could just as readily apply to my gender. Despite having strong women in my life, the advantages of being a man in our society are vast and not something I am encouraged to think about or acknowledge. With the “Me Too” and other movements calling out gender-based violence and advocating for equal treatment and pay for women, I have been forced to ask myself how I take advantage of my male privilege, along with my whiteness.

Because of our tendency to think only in extremes, the questions invariably comes up, am I a racist or sexist? No, at least I hope not. Do I have racist and sexist thoughts and actions? Unfortunately, yes absolutely. By not acknowledging that fact, I have been in denial.

It’s not easy to admit that I catch myself many times judging someone based on their gender or race. I know I shouldn’t, but socialization is difficult to overcome. I treat people differently based on these categories, and I hate it.

The phrase “white fragility” has become popular for naming the awkward relationship white people have with race. But as Robin DiAngelo, who coined the term, points out in her recent book on the subject:

White fragility is much more than mere defensiveness or whining. It may be conceptualized as the sociology of dominance; an outcome of white people’s socialization into white supremacy and a means to protect, maintain, and reproduce white supremacy.[2]

Because I’ve been socialized into not acknowledging my racist and sexist tendencies, I am contributing to the structures that make male whiteness the norm. The term “white supremacy” conjures up images of extreme alt-right groups defending segregation; but it is really about the invisible power and advantages I can take advantage of as a white person.

Ironically, because I’ve been willing to talk about these issues, I often get complimented by people of color and women on my “enlightened” beliefs. Several months ago, I heard the leader of a major philanthropic organization talk about the diversity, equity and inclusion process they had undergone. He shared that one of the most unsettling parts was how many times he, a white male, received praise from people for being willing to speak out on behalf of an inclusive environment at the organization. Hey people, we don’t need your compliments; what we white males need, is to do everything we can to foster racial and gender justice.

As I have come to terms with my white male privilege, I have had to reflect on what I can do to advance racial and gender equity. I am still learning and reflecting, but here are a few things I’m working on.

Whether in individual conversations, group meetings, or online communication, I am trying to step back and let others, particularly women and people of color, speak and lead. Given my life and work experience, people often look to me for my insight and advice; I can still give it but how I give it is important. If I “mansplain” or “whitesplain” (or heaven forbid “whitemansplain”), I am perpetuating harmful gender and racial structures. I can still give my thoughts, but timing is important, and I almost always find that by providing space for others to speak and lead my perspectives aren’t needed or are changed for the better. When I give space and listen, not only is the process of learning and decision making better, so is the outcome.

In my efforts to provide space, as well as the fact that I am really an introvert, I’ve received feedback that I can at times be too quiet, not vocal enough on why I am giving space. That can be intimidating for others. So, I am working on being more forthright on my thoughts on racial and gender justice to provide context so I can share, listen and learn. This isn’t easy given how I’ve been socialized, and I can trip over myself with awkward language and fragility. Like anything, however, it takes desire, practice, and a willingness to learn and grow.

A practical thing I can do is support groups who are working to break down the structures of racism and sexism. I support causes and organizations working on social equity though my time and donations, but I haven’t been very good about directly giving to organizations advancing racial and gender justice, especially those led by women and people of color. There are many good ones out there, working locally and globally. While equity needs to be integrated into all organizations and causes, it is important to support the people and groups directly fighting for racial and gender equity.

A final area I am working on is analyzing and reflecting on the dynamics of gender and racial inequity in whatever issue I’m working on. Having done social and demographic research for many years, I’ve long been aware of these disparities in areas such as education, employment and income, housing and homelessness, and health care; but it was rare that I raised racism and discrimination when discussing how to improve outcomes in these areas. For too long, I treated the disparities as simply consequences of injustice and thought they would be rectified by improving overall conditions. The history and structures of discrimination in our society are so deep, however, that I’ve come to realize that we can’t make progress on improving outcomes in areas such as affordable housing, education, and employment without taking on racial and gender inequities directly. More than just acknowledging that the disparities exist, I have to work to understand why and how they exist to be able to tackle them head on.

As stated previously, I am working on these things and will likely always be working on them. If you are a person of color or a woman who likes what you’ve read here, you don’t need to tell me. Seriously. Just do me a favor and share it with someone who might benefit from hearing my journey. If you’re going through a similar journey, I’d love to hear what you’re learning and working on. If you’re a white male who is uncomfortable with what I’ve shared or disagree with me, I get it, but let’s talk.

These conversations aren’t easy, but they are absolutely necessary given where we are as a society. We have deep social and political divisions, often based on racial and gender differences. People affected are making their voices known (e.g. Me Too, Black Lives Matter); but it’s time for us white men to unpack our knapsacks of privilege to advance racial and gender justice.

[1]”White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” Peace and Freedom Magazine, July/August, 1989, pp. 10–12, a publication of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Philadelphia, PA. https://nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack

[2]White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. 2018. Boston: Beacon Press.

Social justice advocate and collaborative leader who has worked in the nonprofit sector in Los Angeles for more than 25 years. https://billpitkin.net

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