Don’t think you’ve benefitted from white privilege? You have. Now use it to benefit Black and Brown people.

First, I want to say: I am a white person and I’m not writing this for the benefit of informing anyone with lived experience as a person of color, or to center my own experience, but to specifically talk to white people who are in my sphere of communication who don’t yet understand the term “white privilege.”

So, white friends: Black and Brown people experience bias, implicit and explicit, every day. In the same way, white people experience white privilege every day. It has taken many different experiences with people of color to become conscious of the structural bias towards whiteness that is invisible to a lot of white people, including me, a lot of the time. But opening our eyes to acknowledge that structural advantage is a necessary step to dismantling it and create equity in our society. This isn’t about feeling bad about ourselves, it’s about seeking justice. It’s about understanding that racism is everyone’s problem.

Before going any further, please read Lori Lakin Hutchinson’s piece for Yes! Magazine, whose piece I was very inspired by. She patiently breaks down white privilege for a well-meaning but oblivious white friend, by describing instances where her achievements and actions were questioned, in circumstances where a white person would never be questioned. Listen to her. Understand what privilege looks like. If you always receive the benefit of the doubt, you will never see it as a benefit — you will see it as the default, or as the result of your personal character or actions. I’m sure you are a perfectly good, law-abiding citizen. (Or, maybe you’re not.) But understand, that’s not the only factor at play.

If you think you haven’t benefitted from white privilege, it’s not because you haven’t. It’s because you haven’t been paying attention.

But there is a step beyond recognizing privilege, and that’s figuring out what to do. Can we use it to amplify the voices of PoCs? Can we dismantle a system of privilege to make our society more just and equitable? I’m going to list a few of the times that I realized, either at the moment, or in retrospect, the systemic advantages I was receiving because of whiteness, and, with the benefit here of hindsight, suggest some small, everyday actions white people can take to be an ally of Black and Brown people when we recognize white privilege in our lives.

White opt-out privilege. In college, my Black roommate got involved in a multiracial student union. They were part of social justice actions that represented the tiny minority of PoC on campus. They were not radical, but very Jesus-based actions. Although my friend was often asking me to join in, I just didn’t feel like it was my issue. Not allowing things to affect you (emotionally) because they don’t have an impact on you (physically, socially or psychologically) is a privilege you have to be in the dominant majority to experience. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to opt-out of thinking about social justice, the idea of being a “minority” or your skin color, that’s white privilege and an example of the signs you’ve been seeing that say “white silence = violence.”

When someone’s life is impacted every day by inequality, they don’t have the luxury of opting out. I’m ashamed of how many times I’ve opted out, and I don’t want to do that anymore. Don’t give yourself an opt-out to social justice. Giving a voice to the people we, as white people, have silenced is our work as much as (even more than) anyone else’s.

White majority privilege. I grew up in a town full of white people, where whiteness was never questioned, or even thought about. Two of my cousins were adopted from South Korea. I remember attending a meet-up of regional Korean adoptees with them, and I was the only white person in the room. It is the only time in my childhood that I was ever conscious of not looking like all the other people in the room. The only time. If you can recall a situation like this, but only because of its rarity, or the fact that you had to go out of your way to encounter it, then you have white privilege.

If you haven’t encountered this, ask yourself how you might actively expand the diversity of your circle. And if you do find yourself in this situation, don’t try to center yourself and your otherness: just listen and learn how other people see the world. Their experience is real and valid, even if you don’t understand it or can’t relate to it.

White housing privilege. I spent most of my years in Los Angeles living in a neighborhood mostly populated by Brown people. I moved there because I loved the neighborhood and already knew some of the neighbors, and also because the rent was relatively cheap. One time when I was looking for an apartment, I called the landlord up and arranged a showing. When he heard my voice on the phone, he wanted to rent me the apartment. I know, because he immediately offered me a discount — before I gave him any proof of income. He didn’t seem to care about my bank statements and sporadic income, which is why I asked for the rent decrease in the first place. He told me I “looked responsible” moments after he saw me. It wasn’t until the end of the interview, when he said “I just don’t want tenants like the ones I had before” that I realized he was so excited to rent to me because I was white. Everyone else on the street was Brown, as the previous tenants surely had been. (The landlord was also not white, by the way.) I didn’t recognize at the time the greater pattern of city gentrification this was part of, and the role my skin played in drying up affordable rental housing in a Brown neighborhood. As I talked to other white friends who had had similar experiences with landlords, I finally began to understand the existence of housing discrimination, and it’s ugly. If you’ve ever been amazed at the ease with which you find rental housing, or can get a loan or a viewing of a house, even if you are in no way financially stable or able to afford said property, that’s white privilege.

It’s hard to know how to solve housing inequity and the worldwide housing crisis that has been the result of the drive to profit heavily from a basic human need. It’s one of those very intersectional issues stemming from massive income inequality (which is often generational), power imbalances (in the case of neighborhoods that are disrupted or devalued because of infrastructure/pollution/zoning/other local micro-issues) and other systemic issues (ahem, back to racism). If you’re a white landlord, you can choose to give people a break sometimes, cancel their rent if they lost their job in a pandemic, give them a second or third or fourth chance if they were late with their rent — all of that, maybe most especially if they don’t look like you. If you’re a white homeowner, make sure to include and welcome your neighbors who are PoC — especially if there aren’t many of them around. If you’re a financial lender, extend credit to PoCs. More generally: housing should not be about return on investment. It should be about providing people with a basic standard of health and safety from which to conduct the rest of their lives. Housing (especially in a rich country) is a human right, not a privilege.

White language privilege. I’m not talking about English, which is another “dominant language” privilege. I’m talking about the Latina friend who introduced me to the term “code-switching.” When we spoke together, or when she was with other friends and family, she had a fun way of mixing Spanish words and phrases in with her dominant language (English) in an accent that I would totally recognize as culturally-specific. But I heard an entirely new, “standard English” speaker when I heard her talk to her white bosses and colleagues. I asked her about it, and she told me about this standard way of juggling between contexts — between speaking in her natural tone, cadence and vocabulary, and speaking in a way that would be “respected by white people.” If you don’t have to think about code-switching because your way of speaking is so engrained in the dominant culture and anyone you’re speaking with will immediately assume you are “professional” or “educated” (or even just worth listening to, regardless of your grammatical correctness), you have white privilege.

If you’re white, make an effort to learn a second language. Try Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, or Arabic. It’s going to be hard, and you’re going to feel stupid sometimes. And that’s okay. You will gain respect and perspective for anyone who does code-switching.

White shopping privilege. When I was working in Bangladesh, I met a young Canadian woman who was an adoptee from Bangladesh. In her early 20s, she was revisiting her birth country for the first time since she was a baby. The two of us walked into a retail store with security guards at the front. We were with another white friend. As we walked into the store, something caught my eye and I walked over with the white friend. A minute later, we noticed that the Brown Canadian-Bengali friend wasn’t with us. She had been stopped by the guard at the front door, harrassed, and required to leave her backpack while she shopped. My backpack, of a similar size, was not taken from me. In this case, even though we were in a Brown country, all Brown people were treated with a suspicion of theft while white people were not. This is maybe the most insidious form of white privilege, and it speaks to the depth and corrosiveness of white supremacy. Colonialism in Asia, Africa, and throughout the world has trained people of color in colonial systems that internalize and perpetuate racism towards people who are not white — even by people who are not white. This is the damage of European and American imperialism coming full circle. If others assume the best of you in nearly all circumstances, even when they are a different color than you, that’s white privilege, and evidence of a societal bias towards whiteness.

This is why you have white privilege. This is why it’s your job to see your whiteness rather than pretend you’re color blind. Acknowledging white privilege is not about “feeling guilty for the sins of our forefathers”; it’s about recognizing the generational privileges white people have that were built, strengthened and sustained on the backs of Black and Brown people. To unpack white privilege more, read this. If you deny that you have it, you’ll never use it to build bridges and raise others up. When you can recognize that privilege, use it to empower and amplify the voices of people of color. Use it to speak out for people who are being silenced. Use it to stop police violence, shut down biased arguments, fight for equal pay. It doesn’t mean you don’t matter, or that the world’s racism is squarely your fault. It’s just acknowledging that Black and Brown people, who don’t have the unearned and undeserved social power that you do, matter just as much as you do.

You are white, you have white privilege. Understand it. Then notice it. Then don’t let anything ever be the same again.

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Wordy and worldly. Filmmaker and freelance writer covering culture, philosophy, travel, urbanization and theology. Based in Berlin.

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Emily Manthei

Emily Manthei

Wordy and worldly. Filmmaker and freelance writer covering culture, philosophy, travel, urbanization and theology. Based in Berlin.

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