The White Privilege Field Guide to Progressivism

07/25/2012 04:41 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2012

There is an existential crisis afoot throughout much of the United States. Many members of the demographic known as "white progressives" find themselves torn between their chosen political identity and their biological (and sometimes economic) identity. Many of my peers seems to have difficulty in reconciling these different, but not incompatible, identities. This often manifests in awkward comments, self-denial, and patronizing behavior. As a writer intimately familiar with the experiences of the white, middle class progressive, I offer this field guide as an attempt to find nuance in the realm between privilege and progressivism.

  • You can accept and even embrace being white without being a white supremacist.
  • It is OK to be called out. It is OK to be wrong. It is OK to learn.
  • There is a very fine line between being open to having frank conversations about race and possibly offending people. Understand this, be thoughtful, and if you offend someone, apologize, adjust, and continue to share your opinions on the subject.
  • Don't treat severely economically distressed neighborhoods as ethnic theme parks.
  • It's great that Tupac or Cornell West or bell hooks or Carlos Mencia said something that concurs with your opinions on race relations, but this does not make it law. There are literally billions of non-white people on the planet, each with his or her own opinions.
  • When saying unambiguously non-offensive things, whispering when you get to words like "Mexican," "black," or "Jew" implies that you think there is something dirty about these words. There isn't.
  • You found love with someone of a different race. That's great; I hope you two are happy together, but you don't have to make a big thing out if it.
  • The struggles of the Black Panthers, Zapatistas, and the African National Congress are very exciting and inspiring, but don't feel left out because you haven't had similar struggles; feel lucky. Please do not try and replicate these struggles in places they do not exist.
  • It is OK to like country music.
  • It is OK if you work at a corporation. If it makes you feel any better, those of us in the non-profit world can assure you that corruption, cronyism and exploitation exist here as well. These are endemic to human culture and are not byproducts of IRS tax filing statuses. Please continue to make our widgets.
  • If you went to college, you are allowed to be proud of this and other accomplishments. You should be able to find a way to do this without denigrating those who have lived their lives differently than you.
  • You are, however, still responsible for the work you do. No job is free from moral conflict; please use common sense and nuanced thinking to decide when the conflicts are too large to justify.
  • If listening to Kanye West isn't a form of "acting black" for you, don't assume that listening to Blind Melon and wearing Vans is a form of "acting white" for those who are not white.
  • Know that white people sometimes need your help too. Please don't choose an ethnicity or race as a pet project; that's what sewing and extreme wake boarding are for.
  • When traveling the world, don't rank countries by their "authenticity." You don't need to visit places overrun with American tourists and cruises named after Nordic kingdoms, but the residents of those places probably think of their lives as rather authentic.
  • The anarcho-syndicalist book club at Sarah Lawrence College may oppose any interactions with formal governmental structures, but know that poverty, starvation and oppression are real, and their victims often rely on working with that status quo to receive some level of relief.
  • You don't need to pretend you are OK with female genital mutilation if you are not.
  • Speaking to your black coworker in an abnormally polite manner does very little in the way of remedying the residual effects of slavery.
  • If you haven't decided whether you think the term "African-American" or "black" is more appropriate, that's OK. Either term is probably more suitable than "persons of Haplogroup A3b2-M13 descent."
  • With all the talk of being open to discussing race, remember that sometimes your opinion isn't necessary. It's been taking our people awhile to come to terms with this, but sometimes it's not really about us.
  • If you have wealthy parents or a trust fund, count yourself as lucky. You don't need to flaunt your wealth, but you don't need to pretend to be poor. Self-renunciation is not the antidote to ostentatiousness.
  • If you're not particularly interested in the culture of Appleby-in-Westmorland, don't assume your friends are strongly invested in Accra, Mazatlan, or Hanoi. Likewise, just because they may have been born in Redondo Beach doesn't mean they're not invested in those places.
  • You will be a victim of racism at some point, but depending on the severity, you might want to just drop it.
  • Things that are OK to say in one inter-racial friendship may not be OK to say in another. This will confuse you, until you realize that these are two separate human beings.
  • Race and class are pretty complicated, bro; have a strong heart and thick skin and you'll get through this.
  • Keep in mind, this list was written by a middle class white guy.