With all the outrage, all the hurt, all the fear coming from the black community, with the BLM (Black Lives Matter) movement comes the issue of white privilege. And with the issue of white privilege, comes the masses of white folks who feel attacked or blamed because they misunderstand the fundamental jist of the phrase.
Full disclosure: I was seriously irate about the term “white privilege” for a lot of years. I grew up struggling through poverty, abuse and mental illness. I grew up as the oldest child in a home where our mother was so mentally ill that she often couldn’t function, which meant that I had to grow up fast. I grew up with a mother who, aside from undiagnosed bipolar disorder, was a hoarder and didn’t know how to clean a house. She was scattered and disorganized, and sometimes did nothing at all – staying in bed, on the couch, fretting because she didn’t know where to start and shutting down. I began taking care of my family, 3 siblings and our mom, when I was maybe 7 or 8. I learned to cook, I changed diapers, I supervised, I got kids to school. When my sisters had bake sales at school, they asked me to bake. I learned to make meals out of nearly any combination of ingredients available. I went to school and was bullied mercilessly. I was abused by several men. I still did what I could because I knew that someone had to be responsible.
I made a lot of mistakes. I had a lot of rage, and a lot of stress, and it was often taken out on my siblings – especially my brother. We were like feral kids, we fought a lot and our mom wasn’t a great disciplinarian either. But we did what we had to to get by, and we took all our stress and fear and anger out on each other. My husband has called me “The Spartan” because of how tough I had to become to survive.
At times we didn’t have food. We often didn’t have lunches for school. We didn’t have decent clothes, and the ones we did have were old, tattered and often dirty. To me it was just normal, but it gave other kids another reason to treat me poorly. We moved often and were often the new kids at school, which didn’t help. I was fearful of other kids, the ones who were confident and had friends and nice things, the ones who bullied me mercilessly either verbally or physically. I was perpetually that new kid, the one who had no friends, had no nice things, had no confidence. I didn’t fit in.
Whatever I had loved about myself before was trampled and I had less and less self esteem each year; no, no… each day. I often only had one or two friends, and they were always the other kids that got picked on too. To my mind they were great kids, simply by virtue of being the only ones kind to me. We understood each other, and that was enough.
After all the abuse, all the neglect, all the bullying, all the responsibility – mental illness was like a monkey on my back. I was diagnosed with depression at 13 and medicated. I was ill-adjusted and my anger finally busted out. Stressed, tired and hungry, I couldn’t function anymore at school and frankly couldn’t care about it. It was low on my list of priorities, with everything else going on in my life and after skipping school half the time, failing entire grades, not being able to focus – I dropped out at 16.
My mental health continued to deteriorate. And in my 20s I refused to be medicated, which made my life and my family’s lives more difficult. Now, with bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety, PTSD and borderline personality disorder all diagnosed – I sound like a mess, but I have everything more under control than I ever did before. Knowledge is power, and all that, knowing what I’m dealing with lets me more properly deal with it.
For a lot of years, for anyone to tell me I had privilege just exasperated me. How could anyone say I had any privilege at all? I’d had none. NONE. I grew up in extreme adversity and I was deeply traumatized, lacking an education, missing key life skills that my mom never had and so couldn’t teach me. I didn’t know how to handle money because I’d never had any. I had to learn to clean a house. I knew how to cook, very well, but a lot of other skills took work. And I worked hard on them, because I didn’t want to live the way I did as a child anymore.
It wasn’t until quite recently, maybe the past two years, that it has clicked to me that my white privilege doesn’t mean that I’ve had it easy. My white privilege is really a baseline, a decency afforded to me simply for being white.
It’s the fact that while I may be disadvantaged in a host of other ways, I am not disadvantaged by the colour of my skin. That is my white privilege.
A lot of white people feel that white privilege means they should feel bad for being white. Guilty. Somehow to blame for being white.
That is missing the point entirely.
The truth is, it’s not even about us white folk, except for comparison. It is about the disadvantage that (here’s a nifty little acronym I was introduced to) BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) face day to day only because of the colour of their skin. We are not to blame by being white, and we should never feel bad about the race we were born. Nobody should have to feel bad about that. Not black people, not indigenous people, not Asians or Indians or Africans, and not white people.
We are not meant to feel guilty, and nobody wants us to either. We spun that. We misunderstood. We felt insulted over something that we took to be insulting, regardless of whether it was or not.
There are some people who misunderstand and who contribute to the ongoing confusion. There are people who use it in a way it’s not meant to be used, on all sides. Some who act as if it’s an issue when it isn’t, virtue signallers who actually do want white people to feel bad, white people who simply don’t, or don’t want to understand.
We do need to understand, however, that we were born into a broken system that affords us basic human dignities that are not freely given to people of different races. The efforts of black people, indigenous people, immigrants, other people of colour, should also be our efforts – to dismantle this broken system and rebuild it with respect for all people. White people have voices that are, sadly, heard better in this society. We can be allies to people whose voices aren’t heard.
We should never feel bad for being white, we should be grateful to be white. To be treated with respect. To have a voice. To be heard.
The “All Lives Matter” bullshit needs to stop. Because the fact is, black people’s lives don’t matter the same. Indigenous people’s lives don’t matter the same. Immigrants. Children of immigrants. No, their lives don’t matter as much because of systemic racism. A person, a lot of people, are not racist. But the system is, and it is stacked against these people. As long as these lives matter less than ours, all lives do not matter.
People are literally fighting for their lives, their children’s lives, their brothers, fathers, sons, mothers, sisters, daughters. For the right to feel safe in their communities. For the right to be treated first as a person, not a criminal. For the right to not fear for their children when they leave the house. For the right to be able to reach for their license when they’re pulled over without being shot because the officer was “scared.” To be treated fairly in a court of law. To not be disproportionately represented in prison. To be treated as if they are smart and capable. To not have to do things specifically to change their profile so that they are treated fairly… for instance, I recently read of a black man who was successful, and drove a nice car. Even though he was single and had no children, he put a stuffed animal in the car’s back window because he was pulled over all the time (black man can’t have a nice car, right, must be stolen) and the stuffed animal changed his profile from single black dude in a nice car, to family man in a nice car, and he wasn’t pulled over anymore. White people don’t even have to consider these things. That’s our privilege.
If you’re reading this and your first response is to get defensive, I really urge you to read it through without your preconceived notions, without defensiveness, and really absorb it. More and more people are understanding the message here, as it’s intended, that it is not Black Lives Matter More, rather, the message is that Black Lives Matter Too. As much as ours. That’s all the BIPOC communities want. And they deserve it.
If you’re a white person, please don’t think that this movement expects you to feel bad for your colour. Use your voice. Be a supporter. Try to feel, rather than shamed, grateful for what this system has afforded you.
That’s what I’m trying to do, and I feel good about that.