Confronting My Own White Privilege

I don’t get a free pass just because I’m also part of a minority that has experienced oppression.
09/18/2017 08:27 am ET Updated Sep 18, 2017
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As an out gay man, I’ve been shot at with a BB gun by frat boys in college and had a carload of guys call me “fag” as I minded my own business walking down the street in Portland. Being on the receiving end of hate, it’s not always easy to feel “privileged.” But I’m a white gay man, and events of the past year have taught me that I can’t afford to pass the buck and say white privilege is someone else’s problem. I don’t get a free pass just because I’m also part of a minority that has experienced oppression.

That’s the hard part: being able to look past the times I’ve been harassed to understand my own complicity in oppressing others, even if it is done unknowingly. That double-edged sword became clear to me when I thought back to my own high school days of being bullied for being gay. It was rough, but I didn’t have it nearly as bad as Randall (not his real name), a gentle, effeminate African-American boy who was relentlessly teased.

There is one day in particular I will never forget. Gym class was over, and the coach disappeared into his office. The other sophomore boys and I filed into the locker room, and immediately I sensed something was different. There wasn’t a lot said, and the quiet held a kind of frightening intent. Suddenly, without even getting undressed, a group of six or seven boys hauled Randall into the showers and began beating him mercilessly. I didn’t see them – I sat on a bench on the other side of the stall and listened, not daring to move or call any attention to myself. Randall didn’t scream, but I heard him crying as the punches kept coming. To this day, I remember vividly how I felt: a combination of fear and relief that it was him and not me. When it was over, the boys – including some of the school’s star athletes – went to their lockers and got dressed for their next class. I left as soon as I could, and as I passed the communal shower stall, I looked the other way.

I still feel a sense of shame for doing nothing: I regret that I didn’t alert the coach or even try to comfort Randall after it was all over. I realize now that what I experienced that day was white privilege. The only thing that separated me from Randall was that I was white, and it was no accident that the other students, black and white, chose him to beat that day.

What is white privilege? Karen Attiah of The Washington Post defines it as “advantages that are conferred and not earned.” Because of nothing more than the color of our skin, we are more likely to get a place at the table – whether it’s in an Ivy League school or a boardroom – than someone who is black. And sometimes we leverage that power without even realizing it. If it means access to better opportunities, why shouldn’t we stake our claim? We’re not hurting anyone, are we? Well, yes, we are. By exploiting this kind of unequal pecking order, we’re perpetuating a treacherous system of injustice. As Shakespeare has one of his characters in Julius Caesar say, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves…” Unless we call ourselves out on it, we’ll never do anything to change it.

We can condemn the actions of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who stormed Charlottesville and feel comfortable that we’re nothing like them. Such overt bigotry makes it easier for us to blind ourselves to our own feelings that may be more hidden, so deeply rooted that we’re not even aware of how they may get expressed. And that’s what makes them so insidious. Unless we pause to see ourselves clearly, to identify the countless ways we use privilege to oppress others, it’s easy to think that we’re not part of the problem.

Those of us who are white and gay may be even more susceptible to thinking that the harassment we’ve experienced gets us off the hook. How can we be prejudiced when we’ve been a target ourselves? We may be able to walk a few steps in the shoes of African-Americans who experience oppression on a daily basis, but we haven’t begun to walk the mile, let alone the hundreds of miles that they’ve walked. That lack of awareness of how advantaged we are, even given the homophobia we still face, is the key issue each of us needs to address. We have to look beyond ourselves to see what too-often remains invisible: the inequality that causes deep fissures in our country just because some are inherently ― through no merit of their own ― more privileged than others.

What can we do? Perhaps we begin by not taking white privilege for granted, by realizing we don’t deserve anything just because of the color of our skin. Maybe it starts that simply. And for gay white men in particular, it means not only marching to support LGBT rights but to rally for Black Lives Matter and Muslim rights, too. It means showing up and seeing that we have brothers and sisters of all colors who need our help and we no longer have the luxury of just focusing on our own community.

Most of all, let’s not use our sense of victimization to create equivalency, and to excuse ourselves from taking responsibility. As the Irish statesman Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

I will always remember the time I did nothing. By owning up to my own white privilege, I can hopefully do my part to stop evil. That’s the least I owe to Randall.

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