Coming to terms with my white privilege (Blog post written by FC Consultant, Tricia Hennessy)
Growing up, I didn’t think of myself as privileged. In fact, I cringed at the word. I came from a working-class background. “Privilege” sounded to me like “entitled,” as if my family hadn’t overcome obstacles or worked hard for what we had.
But why would I think any differently? I grew up as a white person in the US, in a mostly white school with a white dominated curriculum. The white people around me did not bring up my racial identity, and I don’t remember any conversations about the ongoing impact of systemic racism. I thought of privilege in terms of socio-economics. I was taught to “be nice” and to be “color blind.”
Looking back, I’d point to the day I read the article “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh as a pivotal turning point. That piece helped me see that my whiteness impacted my day-to-day life. It listed things I had lived my life not noticing or thinking about. It made it personal.
I thought about all the ways I’ve benefited from being white in this country. I’ve been taught by, graded by, given medical care by, hired by, promoted by, and mentored by people from my own racial background. People who did not have to pretend not to see my color.
I thought about how much farther back it goes. My ancestors benefited from being white, and that has benefited me. I wonder how my dad’s whiteness impacted his ability to live through the Depression and come out of those days with a job and family. How much did his whiteness give him access to a New Deal program that put teenage kids to work? Did it make the GI Bill freely available to him? Did it enable him to join a trade union, or give him and his wife the freedom to buy a house in the neighborhood they chose?
And that’s just one generation back of one line of my ancestry. Professor McIntosh’s reframing of privilege made me curious about what my experience might be like if I wasn’t white. I intentionally sought out opportunities to listen, through personal relationships as well as books, articles, and movies. I gave myself permission to notice difference, and wonder how it might be impacting particular situations.
It was a bit scary: what if I say or do the wrong thing? It was embarrassing too: how could I have been so unaware before? To my surprise, it wasn’t overwhelming. It was manageable, in that I could think about it at a personal, day-to-day level. Over time I could focus on the interpersonal space of building enriching relationships. Only from there did I start to see a way to have the impact I’d like to have to change systems.
Most surprising, I’d say, was that it was freeing. The reality had been that I did notice difference, but I hadn’t felt permission to think about it, let alone talk about it. I definitely hadn’t felt the freedom to build relationships across race. Now a richer world was opening to me.
I no longer cringe at being called privileged. I choose to focus on how my whiteness can help me advance anti-racism.