|The following was originally run on May 11, 2018 as part of our Social Justice Column.
Tackling Institutional White Privilege
by Pat Uribe-Lichty,
No one “wants” to lose their privilege. I think most people join in anti-racist work out of a sense of fairness: “It is not right that people are treated differently because of the color of their skin.” We see this inequality in so many ways: the white mass murderer taken alive while black people wanted for trivial offenses are killed, the bag/receipt only of people of color checked as they exit stores, the wildly disproportionate arrests for drugs for people of color compared to whites when the percentage of use is the same, and so on and on.
Once people begin to see these differences—once they move out of denial (for example, saying that Blacks commit more crimes and that this justifies the discriminatory treatment)—they are left with the question of what to do next. Often, this is the point at which white people feel hopeless and helpless, because the problems are so big and so entrenched, and they are systemic. White people fall back on the “But I have a lot of Black and/or Latino friends” defense as they withdraw from the struggle to create systems free from racism.
We are often afraid to look at the extent to which systemic racism has benefited, and continues to benefit, us. Federal housing programs dating back to the very beginning under Roosevelt were designed to be for white people. The GI Bill, which benefited so many returning white soldiers, giving them the means of rising into the middle class, discriminated systematically against veterans of color. And since where we live determines where our children go to school—and the quality of that school is dependent on the tax value of our neighborhood—our children also benefit from our white skin privilege. It has been shown over and over in studies that even today, apartments and houses become “unavailable” when black families come to rent or own them, and then they once again become available when a white family comes. For many people, this whole system of housing discrimination and, therefore, of segregated schools creates another level of denial. “Well, I worked hard to get where I am, and if ‘they’ would too, then they could live in this neighborhood as well.”
No, my friend. It was not only your hard work that got you where you are. You started miles ahead of People of Color. And those miles of difference embody white privilege. But your retreat and denial of the enormous elephant sitting in our national living room are a retreat and denial of the systemic racism that pervades our institutions from our neighborhoods and schools to our churches and courts.
How do we change systems that are so much larger than ourselves? Can it even be done? Is there any reason to hope, let alone try? Even a moment’s thought will point out the connections between each system; pulling one thread out is impossible because it is knotted with others.
And yet, with patience and care, a ball of yarn can eventually be untangled. Yes, there will be times when you might choose to find the scissors to cut through a knot, but mostly you will use patience to untangle the yarn.
In the same way, institutional racism can only be untangled by starting where we are and teasing out the threads. We start by recognizing how “the system” benefits white folks at the expense of others, and how we are complicit in it. We admit our privilege in the ways that we know it—and seek to learn more. We analyze, alone and with others, how the institutions we are part of use white supremacist values in various ways. We try to imagine other ways of doing things, and then how to actually do that, and finally we take the step of changing our institutions. And at every step along the way, we dare to acknowledge our mistakes.
Julica Hermann de la Fuente in the recent webinar “Changing Systems, Changing Ourselves,” said that “perfectionism is a white value.” The need to be “right” often gets in the way of learning from our mistakes. But if we become defensive when “called out” or allow our feelings of guilt or shame to get in the way of learning what we did and what would have been a better response, we stop growing.
It takes an enormous amount of courage both to begin but also to continue in the struggle against racism. It is, I think, easier to begin than it is to continue. To begin is something that we can undertake alone, but to continue requires that we do so in relationship with others. It means participating in conversations, it requires patience with others and openness in ourselves, and it takes a commitment of time and energy.
Most of all, a serious commitment to anti-racist work requires that we recognize that progress is not always visible. It will take the ability to persist when we do not succeed, and the ability to go on with courage when we are dis-couraged. It calls for a willingness to act in the faith that, although we may not live to see it, there will be a future where justice will prevail.