I am not black. I am also not a woman. I am not a member of the LGBTQIA community. I am not a lot of things, but for the sake of this book, let’s focus on the fact that I am not black. I did not grow up experiencing the daily moments of racism that black folks face. Nor do I walk this earth with 400 years of the history of slavery, oppression, rape and murder of my people ever present in my consciousness. I can never fully understand what that must be like. Because my brothers and sisters of color are human, and I am human, I believe that there is a small window that I might peek through to empathize with their situation, past and present, perhaps by analogy or comparison, but I acknowledge that I will never fully “get it.”
The matter of privilege is complicated for white folks to understand, and I must admit that I’ve only started to come to grips with the concept in the last ten years or so. It’s difficult because it is so a part of us that we cannot see it. It’s difficult because it is masked by the myths that society and we ourselves perpetuate. Think of the myth of the “self-made” man, from Carnegie and Rockefeller to Gates and Zuckerberg. The myth is that these men worked hard to get where they are, that they had an idea that no one else had had, or saw an opportunity that no one else has taken advantage of, and they made their move at just the right moment, entering or leaving the market just in time to become wealthy beyond belief. All of that may be true, but it ignores how ordinary tax-paying citizens contributed to their wealth, by funding police forces to protect their factories and roads to transport their goods, not to mention the leagues of workers who labored for a much smaller piece of the profits than the bosses made, often at the risk of their health and lives.
That’s how privilege works, even if you’re not a “self-made” capitalist. I worked hard to get where I am, to get into and out of graduate school, to find a tenure track job, to rise to the rank of full professor. It’s hard to even know that it’s happening, but I must acknowledge that at every turning point in my life, there might have been someone else vying for the same prize and seeing that prize go to me because of some (conscious or unconscious) bias in the person awarding the prize. Many paths are closed to black folks because of the immutable characteristics of their skin color. Those same paths remain open to me for the same reason, because I’m white.
I don’t feel any guilt about being white. Why should I? I didn’t consciously pick the immutable characteristics of my being: my gender, my skin color, the family circumstances I was born into. But once you grasp the idea of privilege it’s difficult to hold on to the myths that say “I got where I am today just through my smarts and hard work.” Many black folks are just as smart or smarter, they work just as hard or harder, and the prize eludes them. This is how systemic racism works. And while I don’t feel guilty about being a white man, I do try my best to pay attention, to listen, to advocate when possible and to move out of the way when needed, so that my brothers and sisters of color might not be held back. I don’t say this as some misguided do-gooder with a “white savior” complex. I’m a white man who is trying to be an ally in a world that is totally fucked up, largely but not entirely due to the actions of white men.
If we look hard enough, we’ll find that all peoples across the globe and throughout human history have suffered from some sort of racism or ethnic hatred. My Italian ancestors, considered less than white when they arrived, suffered some of the effects of prejudice. But they were not black. And I am not black. To show the difference between the suffering of my people and the suffering of Baldwin’s people, I cede the last word to him:
I had my fill of seeing people come down the gangplank on Wednesday, let us say, speaking not a word of English, and by Friday discovering that I was working for them and they were calling me nigger like everybody else. So that the Italian adventure or even the Jewish adventure, however grim, is distinguished from my own adventure … by one thing. Not only am I black, but I am one of our niggers. Americans can treat me in a certain way because I am an American. They would never treat an African the way they treat me.
—James Baldwin, from James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, A Rap on Race (New York, 1971) 67-68.