Privilege and Guilt– One Activist’s Perspective

January 21st, 2014

There have been several articles in the local media in the Madison area lately that have caused quite a stir among some of the White activists in the area.  Writers, both Black and White, have had the audacity to bring up the subject of racism in our liberal bastion and its making some people uncomfortable.

In that discomfort I see hope.  There’s no reason to fix a problem until we see a problem exists.  Right now some of my activist friends are looking into a glaring light and their eyes are hurting.  They want to turn away.  Instead I hope they will give their eyes the chance to adjust and that they will do the work that needs to be done on this issue just as they do on so many related concerns.

There is a particular term that has been thrown about lately and seems to be being inappropriately defined.  I’d like to offer my fellow activists some more accurate definitions.  The term that is generating heat and misconceptions is White privilege.   White privilege simply means that by the nature of our skin color White people, as a group, have access to resources at a different level than do People of Color.  As a group we are more likely to have access to jobs, education, and other positives. We’re also, as a group, less likely to experience the negative impacts of these systems like jail, homelessness, poverty, etc.  That doesn’t mean that White people don’t go to jail or aren’t homeless, or aren’t struggling economically.  Most certainly many are.  However the research is clear White folks have a better chance in life just because we were born White.  That’s reality.

Now, that’s something different than what I’ve been hearing some of my fellow White activists turning to.  They are quickly pulling out White guilt and claiming they are being made to feel White guilt.  White guilt is about feeling bad about yourself because you were born with White skin and frankly, it’s a waste of time and energy.  No matter how badly you feel or how many tears you cry your guilt isn’t helping anybody.

So why talk about privilege if it isn’t to make someone feel guilty?  Here’s why;  when people with privilege are willing to act in their every day to assure that everyone gets their needs met and privilege is no longer a reality we all win.  If you believe in social, economic, environmental justice and in peace, it can’t just be for some people.  If it is, well, then it’s really not for anyone.

I know, we’re all working hard on the issues we’ve chosen and can’t take on one more thing.  Well, don’t take on something new.  Instead, ask yourself what am I doing in my current action that makes this work for everyone?  How am I acting in my everyday?

A few months ago I had the good opportunity to travel to Tennessee with a group of students of Color from the UW.  Along the way I got into a conversation with a few of them and one young man was speaking to how racism affected his every day.  He told us of how White people would rather stand on the bus than sit next to him, a young Black man.  It made me think.  How do I respond in those moments?  I encourage my fellow White activists to ask yourself over and over again in those little moments in which you are engaging with people of Color what are you thinking?  What prejudices are defining your actions?  How are you overcoming those prejudices?  I encourage all to do the same exercises in those moments in our groups and activities to learn about ourselves and how we unintentionally welcome or turn away those who do not look like us.

Let go of the guilt.  It’s doing none of us any good.  Instead start asking questions of yourself and the world you live in and start acting.


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