Is White Privilege Unfair?

If life is unfair, and I better to get used to it... does that mean that I never fight for what I want or deserve or have rights to? Does that mean that when someone steals from me or takes credit for my work or prevents me from reaching my potential, that I should simply sigh and remind myself that life isn't fair and there is nothing to be done about that?

When I experience unfairness, it feels like an assault to my dignity. I feel indignant. I can feel defensive, hurt or angry. I almost always feel an intense urge to correct the imbalance.

Last night, I saw a video on Facebook of a white man in his car ranting about an interaction he'd just had with a black man who, it seems, cursed the white man and his privilege. Conversation ensued. Then the white man got in his expensive car and made a video ranting about how hard his life has been and how everyone is personally responsible for their circumstances. It is really something to behold. To me it was a clear case of, "white fragility".

When I see the term, "white privilege" taken personally, or I hear a white person deny white privilege, or incredibly, say that no, they are the oppressed... I assume the person thinks, "'white privilege' is an unfair assessment against me." But, "white privilege" is not something an individual has done. It's not always about you. It's about American society. It is just a thing. And it IS a thing. It's not saying you are a bad person, or have bad intentions. It is not saying you have never suffered or experienced unfairness or even racism. You may have even worked hard to support a just and fair society that doesn't discriminate against black people so viciously.

We can read books, watch movies, take history courses, talk with people, listen to people, listen to a true variety of voices... and, if you look at the data, it is undeniable, America is still very racist against black people. Over two centuries ago, a white majority in power subjugated many black people into slavery, and since then has tried to keep black people out of education, healthcare, jobs, politics, and IN jail. Those efforts still affect the demographics of our society, and in some places, those efforts are still underway. Just like women are underrepresented in leadership roles, government, ownership of land and businesses, educational achievements, so too are black people underrepresented in those same areas and more. Still. And because those disparities have persisted for so long, they have become deeply embedded in our culture and our psyches, in our policies and systems, too often in ways we don't even recognize.

Becoming aware of those systemic disparities is an intense experience. I was offended at the very idea that I could ever be even remotely thought of as racist. Oh god the horror of being considered racist. Please no anything but that. It's not my fault. I didn't mean to. I didn't understand. Whatever. But the reality is, I'm affected by bias just like everyone else. It is a human feature. Nobody is not biased. Like jealousy, it exists for a reason, though it can manifest in very ugly ways, one can learn from it. It's just information. To accept that my thoughts and behaviors are affected by bias felt uncomfortable, to say the least. And after that settled in, I felt so ashamed, so sorry, so much yearning to Do Something to help. I'm gonna help and fix it!

This happened recently: I felt a deep need to apologize (and explain myself at length just so I was clear that I wasn't being racist) to a black person who I assumed thought I was racist for assuming something negative about him. (You know what they say about assumptions...) I know why I thought and said the things that I did, and I wasn't intending to be racist, but I am willing to accept that there may be biases in my subconscious or that I am in denial about. That awareness is maddening. The guilt. The shame. The pain.

But then something else happened. Some women friends and I were discussing sexism in the tech industry, how special that is. It's a real cupcake. A man present for that conversation volunteered an apology for, you know, any contribution he may have made, wittingly or not, to our oppression. I could tell he feels really bad about it. Oh the guilt, the shame, the pain.

I thought about it for awhile, and I realized that that doesn't help me. I guess it's nice that he's sorry, but what that tells me is that he feels bad and wants to be relieved of that bad feeling, which... I fully understand, but if the aim is to alleviate this social ill and/or to be an ally to me, as a woman, here's what I really want and need: I need to hear that you SEE sexism where it exists. I want you to be able to IDENTIFY it. I want to have this oppressive circumstance ACKNOWLEDGED. And, I would really love to hear you say that you UNDERSTAND how and why it is a disservice to women, as well as men. If you could also make DECISIONS based on the belief, if you do believe, that a more equitable society benefits everyone, that would be super.

The data makes it clear that women have do not have equal representation in power or decision making in this country, not proportional to our percentage of the population and not fair in the spirit of being considered equally in the eyes of the law and, you know, humanity. We are aiming for this though. Every infuriating, awkward, vulnerable conversation, clickbait, meme or video that gets you upset or makes you write a REALLY long post about this issue or talk heatedly with a friend or trade snarky comments with a stranger... that is the hard work we are doing to sort this out. 

It's ugly. It is painful. It's embarrassing. I don't want to step in it either. I get it. I would love for things to be equitable and fair for EVERYONE - but they are not. 

Do I think our society will ever be perfectly so? No. That's not the point. Nothing is ever perfect. We still strive.

Some may dismiss the effects of systemic oppression and say it's everyone's individual responsibility to rise up beyond the barriers they face and not blame "society" or external circumstances for our failings. And sure, I believe that, to the best of our ability, we should do that. Sure. But, I'll just say it again, you do not get to say what another person's reality is. I don't get to say what your reality is, and you don't get to say what mine is. But you must believe other people when they tell you what their reality is. If you listen to the voices of black people in this country, and I do, the overwhelming majority say that they experience racism every day in ways white people cannot fathom. And even when the stories are told, all we have is empathy. We might feel the urge to minimize it and say, "Well, that's just.." But one thing after another, all the time, amounts to something that is a major challenge to rise up and conquer. Too often, racism takes the form of an immediate life threat (like being black and having an interaction with police), or disrupts lives and families in ways that can take years, decades, to recover from (like the bail bond system), or just the sheer pain of hearing about how your friends and family constantly deal with it too. That is the experience. That is real. It is because black people say it is. You don't have to agree, or see it the way they do, but they do see it that way, so that's how it is for them. It's as simple as that.

If you are trying to convince someone that what they experienced or felt wasn't real... you are gaslighting them, and that's not cool. Not cool at all. And, to that, I can't say that you, white man, don't experience racism, bias, unfairness, or any other circumstance. I believe you, but your experience does not cancel out a social structure. I ask that you believe me. As a woman, I experience and see sexism every day. It exists, and it sucks. And I believe black people who say they experience racism.

Is it so much for it to be acknowledged, recognized, seen? Is it so hard to say, oh, I see how that perpetuates assumptions that put people in arbitrary unfair boxes that don't apply to everyone...?

If you happen to be someone with power, who makes hiring decisions, who decides policy, who is in charge of anything, if you are aware of, can see and can acknowledge racism or sexism or any other unfairness, and perhaps you are also aware of the known benefits of diversity in groups, I hope you make those decisions with these issues in mind. We can at least try to move closer toward that ideal, toward an equitable, just and encouraging society.

Does that sound fair?