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Sometimes, I catch myself being envious of those who are comfortably disinterested in race, be it race relations, their own racial identity and community, or the history of racist oppression around the world. Frankly, I disdain that the concept of race exists at all, but I will continue to force recognition of the way race (unequally) structures our social world. I hate that I have to be conscious of the way my own racial identity operates as a force in my life, but, with so few people willing to acknowledge the continued existence and significance of race and racism, I cannot in good conscious block it out of my mind. Ignorance may be bliss, but once you know, you cannot turn it off or ignore it.
On Being Multiracial
Since I was old enough to conceive of the concept of race, as a social force and as an identity, I have known that I am of two racial ancestries: African American (Black) and European American (white and Jewish). As early as kindergarten, I can recall being frustrated by the insistence of official forms and documents that I choose only one racial category when I so clearly fit into more than one — a battle that has been a consistent theme in my life, as well as the lives of other multiracial people. Unfortunately, upon moving from Maryland to Indiana, I felt a sense of racial culture shock, moving from a place where interracial couples are fairly common, to one where there seem to be little awareness that a person could occupy multiple racial categories. This meant, for a brief period, feeling that I was forced into the category of Black. My anger and frustration with some of my new experiences as a Black person in the Midwest fit with what many other Black people experienced. But, with time, I have re-realized that I am not Black. I am not white. I’m neither, yet both – a complicated description of my racial identity which reflects the complexity of my experiences with race and race relations.
My White Privilege?
Along with my Black racial identity and white racial identity comes the associated racial disadvantage and racial privilege — in particular, the disadvantages, stigma, discrimination, and prejudice experienced by Black people and the privileges and sense of being the normal, default racial category experienced by whites. Yep, that’s right. In all of my years of acknowledging being simultaneously Black and white, it has never occurred to me until now that I have white privilege. Gag! My anti-racist self is nauseous just at the thought. But, in a number of ways and on a number of levels, I am privileged by my presumed and/or actual whiteness.
Direct, Interpersonal White Privilege: In two ways, I am privileged as a white person, or at least not disadvantaged as a Black person. The first, of which I have always been aware, is being read either as a light-skinned Black person (and, thus not burdened by the stigma associated with darker skin color) or some other non-white race. In thinking about sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva‘s research on race, namely his theory of moving toward a tri-racial system in the US in which there emerges as third, middle category that is treated as honorary whites (e.g., Asians, light-skinned Latina/os), I am arguably more privileged, or at least less disadvantaged, than many Black Americans. The second of these two ways, wholly new to me, is being read as a white person — a white male, to be more specific. As such, there are an innumerable number of encounters in which I have been presumed to be a white man and, arguably, afforded the privileges that are associated with such interpersonal interactions. (Could it be that the times, at least some of them, that I have concluded that a white stranger was especially nice was a product of my presumed whiteness?)
Secondary/Indirect White Privilege: At two levels, both interpersonally and structurally, I am afforded white privilege through my relationships with white people. The largest, most sustained batch of white privilege has come from my white heterosexual male father. The privileges he is afforded through interactions with others and those that come from the structured pattern of race relations have, in turn, been handed to me through our father-son relationship. That means that, in part, my process of becoming socialized was shaped by white heterosexual male privilege. (This was, of course, in combination with the Black female disadvantages by mother is afforded.) Although weaker and not as sustained , I also am benefited by the white privileges afforded to extended family, professors, colleagues, friends, and past and future romantic partners. An interesting story was released recently about the secondary white male privilege afforded to scholars of color who have white male mentors; although the findings are overstated, the idea of privilege being trickled down to others who are denied those privileges directly is quite interesting and relevant for my family, friend, and work relationships.
What To Do About White Privilege?
Well, sheesh, I feel a bit at a loss about quickly moving to the “what next?” question so soon after being hit with the realization that I have white privilege. My initial reaction has been surprise and guilt — a similar reaction to the eventual awareness that I am privileged as a middle-class male. As I encourage others, I must acknowledge such privilege and attempt to be critical enough to see when I am being privileged simply because of my presumed whiteness, or maleness, or middle-classness, or even the rare instances of being presumed heterosexual. But, on the flip side, I have entertained the idea of capitalizing on these privileges for anti-racist pursuits. For example, when I asked one of my professors to write a recommendation letter for graduate school on my behalf, she noted that she was surprised I was not white (after seeing my personal statement) — she had assumed whiteness and was proud of my frequent comments about race and racism in our class. In some instances, members of the privileged group are afforded more room to speak, are listened to, and their words carry more weight because they are assumed to be from a place of genuine concern rather than self-interest. (And, as I have argued before, white people are likely less often challenged or doubted in general, even on matters outside of race.) But, as I am continuing to learn, reflect, and evolve, I suspect that I will have a better sense of the “what next?” question in the future. Thus, expect more to come.