I’m white, my husband is black, and our two daughters are mixed race. I love my family, would find them adorable even if they were one-eyed, one-horned, flying, purple people-eaters, but I must admit that being part of a mixed race family has really opened my eyes to the amount of systemic racism that there still is in this country, and even in my own behavior.
You may have heard the term white privilege being used with reference to the recent spate of discriminatory acts against this country’s minorities, but have you ever really stopped and looked around you at the ways white privilege manifests? I must admit, there are many things that I hadn’t noticed until I became part of a family that is mostly black.
Here are some of the things that I used to take for granted – not even notice. These are things that made my life a little easier, made me a little more confident, made it a little easier for me to assert myself. These are benefits that my daughters likely will not experience, since they are both at least moderately “black-looking.”
- The people on television, in the movies, and even depicted as toys look and sound like me. It may sound silly, but it really does have an impact – are you sure that you would consider the possibility that you could be a scientist or a businessperson if every individual that you’ve seen who fits that description looks nothing like you? Would you feel confident that there was a loving and safe place for you in the world if you couldn’t even find a toy whose features resembled yours? And keep in mind that this doesn’t just apply to black people; it’s hard enough finding curly-haired black dolls, and next to impossible to find dolls whose appearance suggests Asian descent. For mixed-race families, this even applies at the level of the family unit – it’s quite easy to find all-black, all-white, all-Latino, all-Asian, etc. families represented in the media, but although mixed race children often appear in product advertisements, they almost never appear along with their parents. They might as well have been raised by wolves!
- My bosses look like me (more or less). The people who are in positions of power in this country tend to be white men, in most cases far overrepresented compared to the ethnic (and gender) make-up of the same companies’ work forces. It’s easy to imagine how white privilege could work in two directions in this case. Not only is it easier to envision yourself moving into a position of power when the leader of your company looks like you, a white, male boss is also more likely to identify with, mentor, and promote someone who resembles him.
- It’s easy for me to find self-care products. Before I had daughters, I genuinely had no idea how much work goes into maintaining healthy, well-groomed curly hair. Most beauty products are tailored for people with relatively pale, relatively well-hydrated skin, and for relatively straight hair. I’m sure you’ve seen the tiny “ethnic” hair care section in the grocery store. What you may not have realized is how ineffective even those products are. As a result, you have to purchase from a specialty store, which, in turn, means that a greater percentage of your income and time is spent on basic self care. To make matters worse, because the standard of beauty is very caucasian-centric, many non-whites go to extreme lengths in order to achieve a more white-like appearance, including everything from skin bleaching treatments to hair straightening chemicals, the latter of which has recently been linked to the high frequency with which black women develop uterine fibroids.
- My medications work. Recently, it has become clear that, as uncomfortable as it is to discuss, there are some differences between different ethnic groups at a genetic level that impact the efficacy of different medications, as well as moderating the risk of certain diseases. As it happens, until recently, most clinical testing of new medications was performed on white, male patients. As a result, certain medications may not work as expected, or in some cases, at all, on people who are not white.
- No one will ever assume that my behavior is due to race, or infer negative things about me from a single instance. This is a big one – if I’m late to a meeting, people will probably think that something came up that prevented me from arriving on time. They won’t think that I am late because of my ethnic background and, therefore, assume that I am going to be late all the time. If I wear baggy pants and a hooded sweatshirt, no one will think I am a drug dealer. This particular issue even appears in the most extreme circumstances. A white man who kills a large number of people is often cast as a misunderstood loner who took out his frustrations in a reprehensible way. A Muslim man who did the same things would, invariably, be labelled a terrorist.
Of course, the thing that makes white privilege the most insidious is the fact that most people, even minorities, don’t even notice that it occurs. As a result, in order for change to occur, those of us who are white must take action by calling attention to white privilege (ironically, the efficacy of white anti-racist endeavors is another example of white privilege), and, whenever possible, ensuring that people of different ethnicities, religions, genders, sexual orientations, etc. are treated with equal care and respect.
One easy step to take to reduce the negative impact of white privilege is to talk to your kids about race, racism, and discrimination, and to talk openly and honestly about it, being sure to mention that people of any race, gender, religion, etc. are capable of the same achievements, and pointing out, very clearly, when you see that an individual or group is being treated unfairly as a result of their failure to be white. A second step is to build your tribe by finding tolerant, like-minded parents and children who understand that what’s inside is so much more important than what is outside.