In the United States, few words are more polarizing than “race” and “racism.” Yet, Americans suffer from constant racial tension, race-based economic disparities, and institutionalized racism. White Americans must listen to people whose experiences and perspectives could inform and enlighten us. Our blindness to our own privilege is oppressive. Our sense of entitlement is embarrassing.
No single blog post can begin to untangle this topic. This one merely attempts to offer 10 steps in the right direction.
Author’s Note: This article on race and privilege is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Network Beyond Bias.
My gratitude goes to Sabrina Bristo, MSW (see bio below article) for her contributions to this article.
So Close, and Yet So Far
My first undergraduate degree was in Criminal Justice, with minor concentrations in Sociology and Spanish. I was one course shy of a second major in African-American Studies. (The deficiency was the result of a misunderstanding about how my credits would be applied, rather than a failure to complete the required number of courses.) I loved reading Richard Wright’s novels, Maya Angelou’s poetry, and Dr. King’s speeches.
Yet, despite an almost insatiable desire to understand the history, contributions, and perspectives of black Americans, I know so little about race in America. In fact, the great tragedy is that I didn’t learn how to be an ally to people of color as a result of my studies. I thought, in my youth, that I had checked all the right boxes to speak with authority on racism. I had no understanding of how ignorant and arrogant I was being.
Now, to be fair, my youthful arrogance and lack of empathy were indiscriminate. But where those character flaws overlapped with my racial (or any other) privilege was especially damaging to the people around me. I am embarrassed and ashamed for all the times I was – and probably continue to be – ignorant of my impact. Despite my best intentions and attempts to educate myself, I am certain I will continue to make mistakes. By being careful, cognizant, reflective, and observant, I can make fewer mistakes and ones that are less severe.
What I’m Getting Right about Race
For white people whose friendship circles and work relationships are overwhelmingly, or perhaps exclusively, white, here are some first steps:
- Get to know people of color by cultivating friendships with people from different backgrounds. Build each relationship slowly over time, and be intentional about being inclusive.
- Avoid saying that you’re “colorblind” or “don’t see race.” Race and ethnicity are important components of an individual’s identity and are central to their experience of the world. Many times white people avoid mentioning race or ethnicity at all or downplay its importance in an effort to avoid appearing racist.
- Don’t ask people of color to speak for their entire race or ethnic group. Realize that all demographic groups have as many nuances as your own in-group, rather than a single monolithic, shared identity.
My associate, Sabrina Bristo, MSW, gives a great example of a true friend and ally from her own experience:
One of my closest friends from college (undergraduate studies) is a white woman from San Francisco. We became friends because she is very comfortable talking about race and inequality. She went to a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) because the tuition was affordable. But she was already comfortable being around very diverse groups. That’s the kind of relationship building and cultural humility that fosters understanding, which most white people never really experience.
My Way Forward
I commit to:
- Help others feel safe in my presence by standing up for them when necessary
- Avoid engaging in microaggressions and intervene when I observe them. Speak up when anyone makes a racist comment or joke, whether overt or subtle, regardless of the audience or the power dynamics at play
- Listen to people of color without judgement, defensiveness, or denying their experiences
- Amplify the voices, stories, and concerns of people of color without speaking for them
- Notice when people of color are excluded from a discussion, a decision, or an opportunity, and do what I can to include them
- Pay attention to whether people of color seek me out as a mentor, partner, or ally, and look within myself if they do not
- Continue to educate myself about the history, contributions, challenges and oppression of these communities
- Think critically and contextually about racial bias in the media, institutional racism, and the pervasiveness of white supremacy / primacy in American culture
- Constantly declare my desire to be an ally and act accordingly
- Wait to have the title of “ally” bestowed upon me by others before I consider claiming it for myself
All of this combined may still be insufficient. When I fully understand the next steps in this journey, I hope I have the courage to commit to them.
As a footnote, I want to extend my gratitude to Sabrina, who helped ensure I didn’t let myself off the hook too easily in this article. Here’s a little about her and the awesome work she’s doing.
About Sabrina Bristo, MSW
Sabrina Bristo is a native of the Metropolitan Washington, DC area, and spent 18 years with the District of Columbia court system before relocating to North Carolina in 2000. She worked as a victim/ witness legal assistant with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office for eleven years before returning to school full-time at North Carolina Central University.
She received her Bachelor of Social Work in 2015 and her Master’s of Social Work in 2017. Throughout her career, Ms. Bristo has been deeply interested in assisting victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse navigate the criminal and civil court systems. Her current position involves community education about domestic violence, training first responders about the effects of trauma on children, and helping families access therapy and other resources for domestic violence survivors and their children. She also does training on cultural competency and diversity.