I once published a piece about White privilege, and my White friend’s dad lost it. He read it and immediately called his son at work and asked him, “What are you doing right now?”
My friend replied, “Working, why?” My friend worked as a carpet cleaner, backbreaking labor for sure.
“Well, Jamie says you’re privileged. Do you feel privileged right now as you bust your ass to feed your family?”
“Are you kidding me?!? Screw him! I’ve never had anything handed to me!”
And so the story goes. How many times have you tried to discuss privilege with someone who is well-meaning but who has no sense of their own privilege and gotten a similar result?
After a while, my friend brought up the conversation he had with his dad, and we discussed it. It didn’t go well. He immediately got defensive, so did I, and the conversation ended in anger. As I reflected upon our talk, I took stock of some of the tools I have been given over the years to make this conversation more accessible and less hostile. I decided to try again, so I reached out to my friend. The second conversation was tense at times, as any conversation about privilege can be, but this time it went really well, and I think it did because I worked hard to change the tone of the conversation. Afterward, I couldn’t help but think, “I need to share these tools!!!”
Thus, whether you’re trying to talk Male privilege with your dad, White privilege with someone on the bus, or right-handed privilege with your golfing buddy, here are a few things to consider before jumping into the conversation:
1. Start by appealing to the ways in which they don’t have privilege. One of the fastest ways to disarm a person’s defensiveness about their own privilege is to take some time to listen to the ways in which they legitimately do not have privilege and validate those frustrations.
I once attended a workshop with Peggy McIntosh, the original author of “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” The goal of the workshop was to give people tools for leading workshops of their own on privilege and oppression that get past the defensiveness. One of her suggestions was to have people divide a paper in half. Have every person start on the left side of the paper and write down all of the ways in which they do not have identity privilege. They can include everything from being left handed and having to drag your hand through the ink to being a woman and having to deal with the gender wage gap. Then folks would write on the opposite side all of the ways in which their identity does afford them privilege that they did not earn.
From there, folks pair up and do a listening exercise where they listen intently to the other person talk about both sides of their list. Doing so allows people to air their frustrations at being denied privilege while also acknowledging that they do, indeed, have privilege. From that place, it is a lot easier to help folks understand the power of privilege in creating a system of oppression and how eliminating that system is liberatory and transformative for everyone.
Now, to do this, you don’t need to turn it into a workshop. Just try asking the other person to talk about the ways in which they don’t have identity privilege, and validate those hurts and frustrations. Simply listening can go a long way! Plus, it’s a starting point for helping them build empathy for those who do not have their same privileges.
For this week’s post, I wanted to highlight a study done by researchers at the Institute on Assets and Social Policy that was released recently.
The study found that the wealth disparity between White and Black households has more than quadrupled, regardless of whether a family (White or Black) is making a lot of money or a little bit of money. To understand the study, it’s important to understand the difference between wealth and income. Wealth refers to the total net assets to which a person has access (owning a house, a car, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, retirement accounts, etc). Income, on the other hand, is the amount of money that someone is making at any given time.
As such, the study found that the average White family has 18 times the wealth of the average Hispanic family and 20 times the wealth of the average Black family. This has been a problem for a while (as in 1995, White families had 7x the wealth of Black or Hispanic families), but the current economic crisis has brought the wealth gap to historic inequality.
That kind of disparity was hard for me to understand until I saw it in dollar amounts. The median white household today has a net wealth of approximately $113,000, while the median Hispanic family has a net wealth of $6,325 and the median Black family has a net wealth of $5,667.
Check out a great video from CBS News that highlights the problem.
Now the frustrating part of this study is that it should be a call to reform in the United States, a call for us to understand the root causes of this problem and look for just and equitable policies that can change this reality.
However, we list in a society that says that regardless of what racist or sexist policies exist, regardless of what weight history places on the current generation, or regardless of what sociological patterns exist, we live in a society of rugged individualists. If your net worth is low, it must be your fault. Thus, much of the commentary and commenting being done across the internet in response to this startling study has been placing blame on Black and Hispanic families for (among other things) not saving enough or for being too lazy (despite the fact that white and black families save at the same rates).
However, we do not live in isolation. We are a product of our history, and when one group of people has a 600 year jump on wealth accumulation (or even a 10 year jump), that makes for some drastic inequality, for wealth (not income) is what is passed from generation to generation.
For those who doubt the concept of white privilege, this is yet another example of the ways in which we, as white people, have a leg up. Our families have had, for the most part, significantly longer than families of color to accumulate wealth and invest our wealth in areas that are less liquid (in bonds as opposed to the housing market). As such, we have easier access to the ever-more-expensive world of college education, and we have more stability and safety during times of economic upheaval. Even our tax policy today is designed to benefit white folks, for our lowest tax rates are on investment or capital gains, which, according to this study, are primarily a tool of white wealth.
In this time of calls for economic reform, there is indeed a need for economic reform, reform that helps those who have been historically and are currently oppressed and discriminated against to accrue wealth in ways that will lead to a more just nation.