Confronting (My Own) White Privilege

The first time I was really forced to confront my privilege was my junior year of high school. Of course, being the good, liberal Washingtonian that I was, I was aware of the vague idea of “white privilege” but failed to see how it directly impacted my own life. Although active in many social justice causes––including many projects that involved race––I failed to see how I could still be complicit in a system that benefited me.

 

I was many things in high school: a decent student, a swimmer, part of my school’s ASB, but most important of all, I was the principal’s daughter. As much as I tried to distance myself from this daunting identity, it was ever-present in every relationship I had in school. With my peers, my teachers, and the administration. Every bad grade, every missed class period my dad would know about instantly. There wasn’t room for much teenage rebellion as it felt like I had eyes on me at all hours of the day. While most kids had a (sometimes much needed) break from their parents, my dad was just footsteps away. Being an awkward teenager trying to fit in with all the other awkward teenagers, I failed to see how this was a privilege at the time, but it was.

 

When teachers saw me, they didn’t just see me, they saw their boss’ kid. But even more than that, I was granted something many students would never have the privilege of knowing: understanding. Of course (as the child of educators) I have the utmost respect for teachers and I know that they try their best to care for each and every student that walks through their door. But the reality of it is that I was granted extra empathy solely due to my relationship to the system. The teachers saw me as a full person, they knew my family and saw my perspective when I sat in the classroom. I think I knew this at the time but didn’t realize that this wasn’t every kid’s advantage––the teacher couldn’t see a little window into their home life as they could mine.

 

I sat with this reality (a little uncomfortably) until it all came spilling out my junior year. Following a contentious national election in my sophomore year, my school erupted into chaos about what to do about race. I did not shy away from this conversation as I’d always thought of myself as an ally--not one of the “bad” white people who perpetuated racism, but one of the “good” ones who actively fought against it.

 

So, when my dad (yes, the principal) found himself labeled as one of the “bad guys”, I found myself utterly stuck. With curriculum labeled as Eurocentric and a less-than-diverse staff, students criticized the administration for the systematic problems our school faced. While––from my perspective at the time––these seemed national problems rooted in age-old teaching methods, many of my peers were desperate for any sort of change in the classroom. Following a particularly rough open mic about race, I left the assembly in tears as I felt my family was completely demonized by the conversation. I knew my dad wasn’t racist; I’d seen him work tirelessly to fight against racism within the school. And, (perhaps a little selfishly) I wanted my peers to see me as one of them, not part of this system of adults so far up and unreachable.

 

Like all things in high school, this conflict eventually came to an end. We never really solved our race problem, but we did keep having conversations and worked toward a more equitable school than the one we had before. I, personally, got better at swallowing the lump in my throat whenever the “administration” (essentially code for my dad) was blamed as a source of conflict.

 

Reflecting on my experiences a few years later, I wish I could take back those tears. Though maybe more directly than most people will experience it, I was being forced to confront my own privilege. Using my emotions as a weapon, I essentially made myself (a white girl) the victim in a conversation about race. Rather than questioning the ways in which I upheld a problematic system, I made it seem like it was an attack on my very character.

 

While, sure, many angry kids didn’t consider my feelings at that open mic, did I consider theirs? Education is really the foundation for everything, and in a system where detention in school is an indicator of future incarceration, kids have every right to question the status quo. In American schools that systematically favor students that look like me (let alone students who had the incredible privilege that I have), what right did I have to do anything but listen?

 

My story is a very specific one, but I think my experience revealed something telling about white privilege. Not everyone will be called out on a literal stage, but I think every person with privilege will have some sort of moment like mine. White kids (especially in a place as homogenous as much of Washington state) are indirectly taught to never even think about race. When finally confronted with this idea that maybe we uphold a system of inequality, the immediate reaction is to be defensive. Rather than looking within ourselves and confronting our biases, many white people would rather sit comfortably with our prejudices.

 

Learning from my mistakes, I urge everyone to consider their privileges and reflect on them critically and honestly. One helpful tool for confronting your own privilege is the Project Implicit’s bias test. As a member of any privileged group (whether that is of race, gender, or sexual orientation, to name a few) it is our job to label our biases and confront them accordingly. Though it might be uncomfortable (or even painful in some circumstances) it is necessary for people in power to understand their relationship to the system.