The Exercise That Opened My Eyes to White Privilege

3 years ago

I used to be what I would consider "white privilege neutral." I believed it existed, but I unknowingly had the wrong definition in my head. I thought that white privilege was class exclusive, and that it was really only financially pertinent.

When I thought of white privilege, I thought of all the rich kids that I went to high school with getting into good colleges, and having nice cars and never really having to ask for anything. That's what white privilege meant to me. It wasn't until I was 29 years old that I realized how wrong I was. However, it wasn't the true definition that shocked me so much. It was the fact that I didn't even understand the real meaning of white privilege simply because I was white.

Image: Becca Rapin via Flickr

I grew up middle-class for my middle and high school years. When I was young, though, we were poor. I often joke that the only reason I can't say I grew up in a trailer is because it was a modular home, so it was just missing the wheels. Although my high school years were comfortable, I have early memories of shopping for clothes exclusively at yard sales. So you can understand that I don't see much privilege there. My shoes came from Kmart, and many dinners consisted of cereal or sandwiches. I never felt privileged. I got made fun of for not having Filas when all the black kids seem to be able to afford them. One of the biggest houses in my neighborhood was owned by a black family. And there we were, in the smallest house in the neighborhood. You know... the trailer without wheels. So no, I didn't see white privilege there. If anything, I felt as though I understood struggle, that I understood better than most white people what it must be like to be on the outside.

About two years ago, my church offered a month-long learning community on race. We are a very diverse church, and a group of men took the same course when it was offered at Stanford. They brought it back in hopes that it could tie together the wide variety of the church population. To be completely honest, I took the course in full confidence that I would be one of the attendees helping to educate everybody else. I have spent my whole life in diversity. It was a key moral that my mother instilled in me, and it came down from her mother. I have always lived in diverse neighborhoods and gone to diverse schools. I grew up visiting African-American homes and other homes of ethnic diversity. I am pretty sure that I coined the phrase, "I don't see color." In other words, my ass got schooled.

The first thing that we did was an exercise on white privilege. We all went outside and stood together in a horizontal line. We closed our eyes, and someone asked questions about privilege. But this was about true privilege, not just about financial privilege. They asked questions like, "Growing up did your parents tell you that you could be anything that you wanted, and you believed it?" Or, "Have you ever been followed by the police because of the color of your skin?" and "Did you take family vacations every year?" Each time we were asked a question, we either had to take a step forward or step back, depending on our answer.

Going into the challenge, I was sure that I would end up where the black people were. All of the other white people in the class grew up very comfortably; they were still comfortable, if not well off, as adults. I knew that I didn't match them in lifestyle or social status. So that only left me to end up with the African-Americans, right? Wrong. So wrong.

Once the exercise was over, I opened my eyes and looked in front of me. The rest of the white people were about 5 to 10 steps ahead of me, depending on who they were. Then I turned around. Every single African-American person was a good 20 steps behind me. My heart fell to the ground. It was quite possibly one of the most humbling experiences of my life. There was even a young man in the group who had described himself as "growing up like the Huxtables." How could he be back there? He grew up rich and comfortable, and went to private school! Half of my childhood was poor and uncomfortable and mocked. What was more inexplicable was that there was a big variation between where the white people were standing; a number of steps divided us, yet we were still ahead of all of the black people. When I looked back and stared at my black friends, they were all far behind me, and they were all in a more or less horizontal line. Their social status didn't really matter when it came to privilege. At the end of the day, because they were black, they were all at the end of the line.

I didn't know that much could affect me after this exercise. My world had just been rocked. I felt as though I had been blind for 29 years, yet I hadn't known it. There was such a huge divide, and I had been living life ignorantly thinking that we were all equal. In fact, I had prided myself on that, that I was on my black friends' level. I felt like such a fool.

Sadly, this exercise was just a primer for the pain that I was about to take in. Over the next few weeks, I sat as my peers and elders of color told me stories that I could not fathom. I heard about the training black men receive as adolescents. How they are taught not to scare or intimidate white women. I sat in shame as men that I looked up to informed me that their fathers taught them to slouch around women who looked like me. One young man's father instructed him never to get on an elevator with a white woman, so that there could never be a chance for allegations. These men—good, Christian men—had lived their entire lives tiptoeing around the Caucasian race. It was ingrained in them to take extra steps so as to not set off fear. It was all so foreign to me. Unfathomable. Every cell in my body wanted to believe it was untrue. How I could I have lived in close community with a whole race of people and been completely oblivious that this was happening? That's not possible, right? So I set out to seek truth.

I started contacting all of my black childhood friends I could find. I even found my friend who lived in that big house in my old neighborhood. Surely, their experiences weren't the same! We grew up together; we played in each other's homes. I would have known if these guys had been getting messages like I was learning about. The Lord must have heard me when I asked for truth, because I got it. Without fail, every friend that I contacted told me the same thing. This crushing message was stuck on repeat, and it echoed eerily similarly every time.

To top it off, I heard more stories. The police profiling my friends; store clerks following them for no reason. Ludicrous! These are some of the most gentle and kind guys I have ever known! When I tried to add in the history that we all know, that got us here in the first place, and then the history that has never been taught, it was just too much. The curtain had been lifted, and my world was permanently shifted.

I spent months after this experience being angry. And I spent months more second-guessing every single thing I did with every African-American I came in contact with. Like I said before, I had always been so comfortable and confident with all races, I really never thought much about it. I guess you could say I went through a phase of white guilt. Now, it's settled in more. I can't blame myself for not knowing the truth before I did, because there's really no way I could have. But I know now, and there is definitely no arguing it, so I have an obligation to my brothers and sisters to speak up.

I think that people try to deny or ignore this issue, mainly because it's just too big—it's too painful—and as white people, we just can't wrap our minds around it. It's not our reality, so it's easier to dismiss it, or to say it's not real, than to fight a fight that's not technically ours. But if I had a friend who came to me and said she was struggling with something I had never been through, it would be cruel if I ignored her, or told her she was overreacting, or told her it didn't involve me, so I didn't want to hear about it. No true friend would ever do that! But that's what we as a people are doing to our brothers and sisters!

And it absolutely kills me the most when I see it from people that call themselves Christians. Because here is the newsflash: We all have racism. We all have judgments based on skin color or ethnicity. We are fallen, and worldly. But the point of striving to be more like Jesus is to pick ourselves up, swallow our pride, trust His word and take care of our neighbors. We are going to have conflict. There are going to be things I don't understand about other people. I am going to mess up and offend someone, and people are going to offend me. But the day that I leave my brothers and sisters stranded... the day that I allow them to be mistreated and abused, and I don't do anything about because it makes me uncomfortable? That's on my head.

We have got to get out of our comfort zones. I truly believe that it is going to take more white people speaking up to fix this sick and terrifying pattern of violence. We have to say, “Enough is enough!” Just thinking it doesn't count. At this point, not saying anything is just as bad as being on the same side of the barricades as the tear gas and the attack dogs.

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