Thursday, July 20, 2017

Responding to White Fragility When White Folks Face Their Privilege

On July 4th this year, I posted this video "No Country For Me" from The Root. The caption reads, "Being Black on July 4th. What's a national celebration of freedom to people who don't feel free?"

That afternoon, I received the following in a private message:

"Regarding the video today: I’m sorry, Beni, but this video just rubbed me the wrong way. I would never embarrass you or call you out in a public forum, but today I’ve just had enough of some of these posts. I am so sick and tired of hearing all this USA bashing, identity politics, white privilege bullshit. Yes, bullshit. I’m white. I went to school with all different kinds of people, including Hispanics and people of color. We all had the same chance to do something with our lives. Privileged? Hell no. My ancestors came here from Ireland. Back in those days the Irish were treated like trash. “Irish need not apply” could be found in many shop windows. They didn’t whine and cry and complain about discrimination. They found a way to survive and thrive. My grandparents and my parents worked their asses off to provide a better life for their children. We never got welfare or any other kind of handouts. We were taught a work ethic. If people find this country so “bad” why the hell are they here? I had nothing to do with slavery. My family didn’t own slaves nor would they ever have. People alive today were not slaves either. So that doesn’t wash with me. The past is past. I don’t think anyone is proud of it, but it ain’t happenin’ today. So no, I don’t think I owe anyone any kind of retribution. I did nothing to them. Throughout our short history, the US has helped the world by sharing our innovations, advancement in science and technology, medicine, defended other countries and then helped rebuild them after wars, provided billions upon billions of our tax dollars to foreign countries year after year (and we continue to), usually the first country to help others during crises. I truly wonder where the world would be without the US. So to those who are not proud of their country and don’t feel safe here, perhaps another country would be a better fit. I love you Beni, but I just had to vent. 💕"

I share this because I feel the exchange can be instructive. 
This message was hard to read. Hard to take from someone who has been in my life for many years, though at a distance. And yet, it was important. Because I got insight into how folks on the other side.
As difficult as this exchange was, I decided to take on the challenge of explaining a few of the misconceptions they expressed in their message. 

So below is my response...

Dear, WW--

It has been hard to figure out how to respond to your message. But I certainly wanted to respond for various reasons. Firstly, I do not want you to think I was ignoring you because I certainly wasn’t. Especially because you are someone I have known for so long.

Unfortunately, these are just not easy conversations to have and I want to make sure to be thoughtful, careful, and measured in my response. 

I am grateful to you, WW, for trusting me to share your thoughts.
If you would allow, I’d like to respond to them.

While I understand where some of your frustrations are coming from, there’s a lot I feel is not being seen. “Identity politics” and “white privilege” are not just “bullshit” concepts folks have come up with to whine and complain. It is freeing language that many have fought for so we can describe our experiences. Yes, it is hard to talk about. For some reason, we have these associations with privilege as if we are dirty for having it. We are not bad because there is privilege that has been afforded to us because of the color of our skin. However, it is critically important that we own it. We must acknowledge it. But to be able to do this, we have to understand it and how having this privilege has made our lives better and easier compared to others. 

Identity politics is not, in my opinion, a fad. It is a life-giving language that allows me to exist, gives me language for my existence and the freedom so many fight for in this country. Denying me and others the language to openly talk about our identities is painful and frustrating--and something folks have access to do because of their privilege. White folks can ignore color. People of color can’t. People of color are constantly reminded of their color by society--by police, by the justice system, by the stares on the street, by the attendant at the DMV that looks down on my mother--the biochemist and immunologist--just because she has an accent. We may want to pretend that we are post-racial and that we no longer discriminate based on color or ethnicity, but there are stories like those of Dylann Roof, who after killing nine people, is still alive and got his fair trial. Meanwhile, Walter Scott was shot in the back and killed following a traffic stop. Why does a murderer get taken into custody alive while an unarmed black man gets killed for not crime? No questions. No fairness. No day in court.

That is what white privilege looks like. It is not your fault, it is just what we own as white and white-passing people.

You mention going to school with People of Color and Latinos and that you all had the same chance. While that is fair and true of your experience, it does not apply for every black or brown person--and potentially does not apply to every brown and black person you went to school with. Not every black or brown person can go to [a private school]. Not every black or brown person can get a good public education, even. Not every black or brown person can take the time to study--and it’s not because of laziness or lack of a work ethic. Oftentimes, black families, brown families, low-income families--they have to work extra to make it. It isn’t necessarily lack of will power to get the education they need and want, but a lack of access because of financial limits. This is an experience that impacts all low-income families of any color, true.
What’s difficult is that there are systems in place--like the examples I mentioned above depict--in our country that benefit some while hurting others.
We are white and white passing people that don’t need to teach our children how to engage with police to diminish the chances of getting shot. We do not have to teach them how to walk on the street so as to not seem dangerous. White folks do not have to teach their children that they must work 3 times as hard to get half the chance that others have.

This is not a fiction, WW. I wish it was. This is the reality.

For a black person to be seen as smart, intelligent, accomplished, they have to work twice as hard or more to be seen half as worthy as a mediocre white politician, for example.
Much the same way that women have to work harder than men to be taken seriously. I have seen this in my own places of employment. A man may be half as good at a job as a woman, and yet he will be taken more seriously. As a culture and a society, we take white male with more weight and seriousness than we do women or people of color.

I understand how you mention your family’s immigrant experience and I appreciate and understand that. What I read implies that black folks are complaining, getting handouts, and have little work ethic. I would challenge you to consider what gives you that impression.
Unlike other immigrants who, as you mentioned, also struggled when they first arrived in this country, brown and black folks didn’t have access to loans from banks, or to get elected into office without fear of being lynched. Upward mobility for white immigrants was accessible and made acceptable. Meanwhile, in 2017, we still have to applaud “the first Black…” X or “the first Latina …” We don’t have to say that for Irish Americans because they’ve been doing it for centuries.

You also mention slavery. Yes, slavery ended in 1860 with the Civil War. I get that. However, the Civil Rights movement happened in the 1960s because black folks were still treated as second class citizens. That is in our lifetimes. And those things were not magically erased after the Civil Rights movement. The unfair treatment of black folks continues. So, yes, while slavery is over and no one alive today was likely a slave at any point, they are often still subjects to unnecessary, unfair violence, unjust systems that keep them down--with limited access to education, continually in a system that feeds prisons.
So, no, no one is blaming you or saying you did any of these horrible, bad things. However, as a nation, we are all complicit in the fact that systems of oppression continue. And you are blessed that you have not had to be aware of them.

I would like to point out that your language towards the end was painful… and for various different reasons.
Black folks --many-- did not choose to be here. But this is the country that chose them--in fact, it bought, sold, raped, and killed them. I wonder how we would feel if we could trace our lineage to a mother that was raped by a slave-owner, or a father that was left to rot from a tree.

And despite that history, they LOVE this country. And this is their country, too. They do not have to leave. But it is our freedom as Americans that we can criticize it because in that critique, we are moving us toward betterment. WW, this is our country. The black, brown, poor, middle class, rich, educated, homeless--ALL of it. We get to love it and critique it and constantly improve it.
I hope that just because you see I am constantly critical of what I find to be morally wrong does not mean then that I, too, should leave. I love living in the United States and being an American citizen and getting to make this country even better. That is why I do stay.

Just because this country has done some good in the world doesn’t mean we don’t get to criticize it when it’s failing some of its citizens. (As a sidenote, especially because some of that good as been as a way to make amends of the messes we have created in other nations through our uninvited involvement. My home country of Chile is a prime example of this).

I am sorry that you felt so offended by my post. And given what seems to be clearly different standpoints, I expect that may continue to happen. But in a way I am glad it did in this case because it has opened up the opportunity both for you to express this frustration, and for me to explain this perspective.

I hope you were able to remain open to it and receive this. 

Thank you and have a wonderful weekend,



This was a lot. It was a lot to write, and I am grateful for a couple of friends who encouraged, supported, and gave me constructed feedback as I drafted this. This was emotional and mental labor. It was important, but I can't lie that I've been a little emotionally tapped out from writing it. 

I don't have the answers. I don't know how we fix the discrepancy between folks' different world views. Well, I do--it takes communicating and helping folks see each others' humanity. I just don't know how easily accessible that task is for us. 
So I continue to fight the battles. I choose them carefully before engaging them. But I also know the spaces where I can make a difference are sometimes small. It's all I've got to work on.
So I share it here with you in the hopes that this can serve you, too, as you try to take on the work of dismantling white supremacy, toxic masculinity, and patriarchical values that keeps us down and divided.