written by Grace Holmes, guest contributor
From a young age we are all given the illusion that we have complete control of our lives and the choices we make. That every single one of us is provided the same set of options. That every single one of us is privy to the same set of ideals and belief systems. That every single one of us has the same opportunities to become educated and succeed in life.
But these options, ideals, and opportunities are framed by the physical communities we live in, which in turn is made up of specific religions, cultures, and perspectives.
Many might feel that brainwashing is too strong of a term for this phenomenon. But brainwashing is exactly what it is. We practice the religion our parents taught us, we adopt the political ideals our parents taught us, and we view society the way our parents taught us.
Beneath these surface ideals, are where your inherent biases lay in wait. Inherent bias refers to underlying assumptions and prejudices we have about the world around us. These biases are reaffirmed constantly by our communities and families, making them difficult to even recognize.
Even those who eventually reject their surface ideals later in life will still retain these core biases to some degree.
I rejected my parent’s religion and other surface ideologies from a young age – but the underlying and associated prejudices remained.
When I was 10 years old, I would have told you I wasn’t racist. But I was also very willing to accept the perception that my family was wealthier than those in parallel financial positions, due to their skin color. When I was 15 years old, I would have told you I wasn’t racist. But I was willing to judge what someone may have spent their food stamps on. When I was 16 years old, I would have told you I wasn’t racist. But I said that Trayvon Martin’s murder was not a race issue. I could do this all day.
As a 17-year-old, I began to be exposed to a different set of perspectives. My friend group changed. So did how I viewed the world.
When I went to college, my world expanded even further. I was hit with a whirlwind of culture and new perspectives. I began to hear people talk about things that no one where I was from ever did. Politics, religion, and philosophy became multidimensional; I had never found myself surrounded by so many people who were thinking critically about the world.
While in college, I took a Gender Studies course that forced me to acknowledge my inherent prejudices. The professor gave us an assignment one day: pick an essay written by a black woman and write a personal response to it. In my response I acknowledged, for the first time, that I had displayed racism in my life. I was 20 years old.
Dr. Cornel West, a renowned American philosopher, gave a speech at my college that I was lucky enough to attend, and I think he summed up my experiences in college perfectly. He said that college was a time in your life when you were meant to die and be reborn. To shed not just those surface ideals, but to truly rebuild the core of what you believe in your subconscious. To become a free thinker, able to catch those long-ingrained prejudices before they fly out of your mouth. To become considered and thoughtful. That all it takes is an effort to see beyond ourselves in a way that acknowledges our singular perspective.
Notice, nowhere above did I use the word perfect. Perfection is not what is being asked of white people in the United States of America. We are being asked to simply consider. To consider that you cannot know the life experience of others, just as they cannot know yours. To consider that you have never had to have a conversation with your child about how not to get killed when interacting with law enforcement. To consider that you have never been profiled because of the color of your skin. To consider that your life experience does not reflect the truth of other’s experiences. To consider that someone else’s life experience holds truths unseen to you.
Alright. Now that we all understand consideration, let’s move on to privilege.
As a white woman, I expect privilege on a daily basis. Yes, you read that correctly: expect. Do I do this because I think I am inherently better than other people? No, I know I am not. However, I have lived all 25 years of my life being treated a specific way by society.
There are countless everyday examples to support this: I expect to be liked rather than disliked upon entering most rooms, I expect to be smiled at by customer service workers, I expect to be helped by these same customer service workers and then left alone, I expect not to be pulled over when a cop sees me talking on the phone, I expect cops to treat me as if I always have the best of intentions, I expect someone to believe me when I say that I forgot my wallet in my car, I expect not to be harassed on my own property, I expect not to have the cops called on me for any reason. I expect all of this and more, every single day.
I’ll be honest with you, writing the above paragraph made me really uncomfortable. I started to feel a little nauseous. I even erased it once and then wrote it all out again. But let me tell you: I felt this way because everything in the above paragraph is true.
Black Americans expect to be treated a certain way in our society as well due to their daily experience. It is the exact opposite way that I expect to be treated. This truth makes me sad and angry, but most of all it makes me uncomfortable.
We as white people need to learn to recognize this discomfort and to sit with it. Instead of becoming defensive when called racist, we need to ask ourselves what the cause of our defensiveness is, and why we feel this way. The honest answers to these questions will be uncomfortable, but we must move past this discomfort.
Being white does not inherently make us bad people. And neither does having ingrained biases. However, we must challenge these ingrained biases and allow ourselves to grow as people. Make yourself uncomfortable at every opportunity, because each opportunity will become a learning experience. I have had my greatest growing moments when facing this discomfort head on.
The first step is admitting your privilege to yourself. No one is asking you to feel guilty every single day, (although a little guilt might be necessary to move forward). You don’t have to lament your white privilege. But it also doesn’t mean that other people don’t deserve to experience the same privileges you experience. So, take responsibility of your privilege and use it to help others.
Use your privilege to help the young black kid who was stopped and searched outside of a store after a security alarm went off. Ask the officer why they didn’t search the other kids. Use it when you see a customer service representative following a black person in a store. Ask why they’re not following other people. Use it to inform your coworkers whenever they display racism that it is not okay.
And don’t worry about retaliation in any of these situations. You’ll be fine. That’s our privilege. Use that. Ever hear the phrase, with great power, comes great responsibility? Well, our white privilege is our power – we must use it with great responsibility.
- Grace Holmes
Grace Holmes attended Virginia Commonwealth University and graduated with a degree in Biology in 2017. She currently lives in Georgia and works in grant implementation. In her free time Grace likes to read, spend time with her boyfriend, do yoga, and can often be found midday napping with her dog, Peanut.
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