A Blinding Shade Of Privilege.
With so many tragic events recently in the United States, it seems that the real conversation about racism is inevitably beginning.
White people are finally talking about racism, and not just to sidestep the issue by stammering “But… I have black friends…”. After so many centuries of inequality and injustice, we are finding the courage to utter that one horrendous word that sends most white folk spiraling into denial.
The color of privilege is as white as obedient sheep and lies. We have been fooling ourselves, thinking that we have taken great strides forward, when we still live in a society that is afflicted with the legacy of white privilege.
Those of us who are born white in the United States (especially if we happen to have a handy pair of X and Y chromosomes hanging around) have been blinded by the glare of privilege. Most of us choose not to recognize this unsettling fact, because we like to think that we work hard, sacrifice, save, and scale the precarious mountain of success.
We believe that our diligence and perseverance allows us to obtain social and economic stability, recognition and professional satisfaction. We have been duped. It’s not to say that a lot of us white folk don’t put in years of sweat, blood and tears to build our lives, but our life construction is subsidized by the bank of white privilege.
Many of us are terrified to admit this, because doing so might detract from our personal stories of hardship and our grueling pursuit of the American dream, but privilege is a structural monster of a problem that offers you either a helping hand or a punch in the face, depending on the color of your skin.
Admittedly, I have spent little time in the United States over the past 20 years. Most of my conclusions about race and racism come from non-commercial news sources and the diversity of comments posted by family and friends in response to any relevant, racial incidents.
I have lived in Nicaragua for nearly 20 years, a country that is predominantly culturally homogenous, but where undercurrents of racism are still evident. In a country full of brown-skinned people, lighter is better. This means that indigenous people and those of African descent, living on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast, are at the bottom of the ranking.
Coincidence? Marketing? A universal appreciation for all things light and white?
We have created a world — not just a country — that values skin tone above the inherent values of culture and humanity.
Living outside of the United States does provide an interesting perspective on race, however. On my infrequent trips back, the first thing that always astonishes me as I walk through the airports in Atlanta, Miami or Houston is the infinite variety of colors, shapes, sizes, tongues and textures of people.
Arriving in the United States is like walking into an abridged version of the world, where every nation is faithfully represented. There is someone from everywhere, anywhere I look.
Whenever I am treated to this prism view of people, it always strikes me how fortunate we are to have created a country shared by people from every nation and culture on the planet.
It is an exceptional opportunity to build a society with contributions as diverse as the colors in a desert sunset, but we are pilfering that opportunity in the name of privilege. The United States, though, is not the melting pot; we should not expect people to hop into the cauldron and assimilate to a homogeneous flavor.
I like to think that the United States is more like an enormous salad, where each ingredient maintains its particular flavor and color, each one complementing the next.
A couple of years ago, my sister and I took a road trip from New England to Virginia, and we made a quick stop at a gas station on the Jersey Turnpike. I sat on a concrete bench outside the convenience store for what turned out to be an amazing 10 minutes.
In those few instants, I heard at least five different languages, and saw people with as many skin tones as there are leaves on the tree of life.
I soaked it up, trying to let the cultural integrity of each one seep into my pores. I was also disheartened by the realization of how difficult it must have been for each of them to arrive in a country where they would have to fight to prove that color is not synonymous with inferiority.
When I was 18, I thought that I could step out of my privilege, like taking off a pair of coveralls at the end of a hard day’s work. I snubbed my nose at university and the suburban bubble of my upbringing, and moved to the city, where my roommates and I were the only three white people in a several-block radius.
I hung a tool belt around my waist every day and strove to be blue-collar, nondescript and irrelevant.
However, when I decided that I wanted more out of life than roofing shingles, beer and bong hits, it was relatively easy for me to pull the switch and get my life onto a different track. I was still white.
I worked hard to get an education and build a career in the nonprofit world, but I did it within a system of privilege. I worked my way through college by providing services to homeless folks in Richmond, Virginia, but I was the white kid on the other side of the serving table.
They were black and brown, struggling to stay afloat in an ocean of prejudice and discrimination.
At that point in my life, I don’t think I was even remotely conscious of the profound implications of white privilege, but in retrospect I can see that I was walking on a thin, white path through life, with safety nets on both sides and lights to push back the darkness.
Being white in this world affords us a certain amount of unearned and perhaps undeserved credibility, while being any other color merely warrants suspicion.
So, what do we do with this burden of understanding? How do conscientious white people deal with the embarrassing revelation that we have been coddled during our entire journey? There is no easy answer. Perhaps the most important thing that we need to recognize is that empowering people of color is not enough to ensure justice and equality.
We need to dig deeper, to the roots.
We must first modify the system and the white behavior that has created this whole mess to begin with. Just as gender equality cannot be attained until we men change our dominant ways, racial equality will only occur when white folks decide to step aside, step down and make room for everyone else.
Those of us who were born white don’t know what it means to be black or brown in the United States, but we can listen and learn and strive to comprehend the true implications of equality and justice. We can also use our privilege in a sneaky way, to dismantle the system from the inside, the outside, up top or down below.
We can use our whiteness to create change in our schools, churches, workplaces and communities. Most importantly, we can educate our children; we need a new generation, ready to build on all that we have in common, rather than dividing because of our microscopic differences.
Let’s take down the system of privilege. Everything we have done so far is not enough.
Peter Schaller is an artist and activist who lives and works in Nicaragua. He spends most of his time trying to figure out how to reduce his karmic and carbon footprints. He is the author of After the Silence, a collection of poems, essays and photographs, which can be ordered by contacting him directly via email or Facebook.