To White Vermonters: Thinking About Being White
I am a white person. But I did not always think of myself as a white person. When you are in the majority, you have the luxury of thinking of yourself as just a “person,” and people not like you become the specific others, like “black people” and “Hispanics.” You can see the problem here. If white people are the default, then everyone else becomes “racialized,” identified by their non-white race. White people in America do not have to think about race. So I try to remember that I am a white person and that that is just one of several races. I try to remember that race itself is an invented concept which did not always exist.
Racism has been referred to as America’s original sin, and no one wants to be identified as a racist. I used to think that some white people were racists and some were not, each by choice. But the hard truth is that if you grew up in this country and are white, you learned racism. “Not me!” I want to say. “My parents taught me to respect all people.” My parents, however, were a tiny drop in the tidal wave of racism. It’s everywhere.
Imagine that you lived in a world that, long before you were born, arranged to separate you from a large portion of humanity. Imagine further that this was done in a way that made it very difficult for you to notice it. First, society was arranged so that your group and the other group, for the most part, lived in different places and went to different schools. Your group got benefits that the other group did not: more jobs, higher pay, better housing, better schools, better medical care, improved treatment by those in authority. Your group occupied most government positions, made the laws, headed industry, and was shown as heroic to children. Even worse, you were taught the implicit myth that the other group was responsible for their position in life. You were taught they were unambitious, unintelligent criminals.
This is the world we live in, and this is white privilege.
Joseph Barndt, in Understanding and Dismantling Racism, defines a racist as “any white person who willingly or unwillingly, wittingly or unwittingly participates in and benefits from white power and privilege” (p. 115). This is very different from intentional bigotry. All white people benefit from white privilege, whether we want to or not. We cannot choose not to participate. We benefit from white privilege even if we are not privileged in other ways: even if we are poor, or disabled, or female, or queer.
If you’re white, it’s easier to get a loan or job; businesses, institutions and government agencies are more responsive to white people. We are less likely to be stopped by police or followed in stores, and if we are, we are given the benefit of the doubt. We see ourselves in textbooks: did you learn that white people made America great? We even see ourselves in depictions of biblical figures. As Barndt says, “Everything goes better with whiteness” (p. 106).
Rarely is this intentional. State employees and bank loan officers do not get up in the morning planning to treat people differently based on skin color. Racism is self-perpetuating, and we do not need to actively choose it in order to participate. Rarely, especially here in Vermont, are we in a position to notice that we are being treated better than people of color. We will need to ask ourselves the question: how might this interaction have gone if I were not white? Racism wants us to give and receive its benefits without awareness. Questioning white privilege threatens racism to its very core.Knowing that, there is a world of possibility in choosing to see white privilege.
Although difficult to admit to myself, I have benefitted from racism. My white skin has meant that I have lived my entire life in a culture designed (at least racially) for my advantage. There are benefits to acknowledging white privilege. It means that you can be open to change. People often say that they don’t see race. If you “don’t see race,” you won’t see racism.
If Vermont is to lead the nation in this struggle about race, one place to start is to think about what it means to be white and what it means to have white privilege. Grace Lee Boggs, a lifelong activist for racial justice, reminds us that “Revolution is evolution toward something much grander in terms of what it means to be a human being.” Are you willing to work for that?
Here are three steps you can take: 1) Think of yourself as a white person. 2) Look for situations in which you take for granted that your race is not a barrier to success and may even be a benefit. 3) And finally, admit that you have benefitted from, and continue to benefit from, racism. To solve a problem, you first have to see the problem. White Vermonters, let’s work together and begin to solve this.