I know that these two words will immediately make some of you defensive and angry. In this divisive culture we live in some would say these two words only cause more division. If this is you, please hang with me through this, and if after you read what is written here you still hate these two words and think I'm only advocating further division then lets chat!

A little about me...

I had a tough childhood. I was awkward, shy, and never really felt like I fit in. To make matters worse I was often a victim of bullying. It usually took me a long time to make friends which made our family migrations really hard to handle. Many times I felt that we would move not long after I became comfortable enough to really start making friends.

Not that all the moving was completely negative. One of the pros of moving so much is that I'm an expert packer and mover. Another pro is that I've had the opportunity to experience many different types of neighborhoods and people. And I'm thankful for this part. I've lived in many types of communities: rural, suburb, urban, trailer park and even in a holler (in the mountains of eastern Kentucky). Some of these communities were poor and some more affluent. The people that I lived around and went to school with also changed greatly. I've gone to schools where there wasn't a single minority and I've gone to some schools where I was one of few white students.

I grew up comfortable with people who looked different from me. Skin color wasn't something I thought about at all throughout my elementary years.

That all changed when I moved to Kentucky. Now, I have to admit something here as I tell my story, my memories from childhood are many times hazy. Sometimes they are momentary flickers of memories.

Anyway, my first memories of really seeing racism was when we moved to eastern Kentucky. It was the first time that I heard my peers speak derogatorily about black people. It was the first time I remember hearing the n-word, at least in a way that was meant as a slander. It was my first exposure to a group of peers who stereotyped a whole group of people based on the color of their skin.

We moved back to Ohio right before I started High School. I went to 2 rural high schools from my freshman to junior years. I remember seeing swastikas and not knowing why they were drawn on buses and walls. I remember confederate flags. And I remember being called the w-word and seeing my cousin mistreated because of his skin color.

I spent the second half of my junior year and all of my senior year of High School at Meadowdale High School in Dayton, Ohio. It was quite the change of demographic from my 4 years in Kentucky and rural Ohio schools. I went from schools that were comprised almost entirely of white students to a school that was comprised of almost entirely black students.

I didn't want to go back to the Meadowdale HS because it was the place where I experienced a lot of bullying during my elementary years. But it was at Meadowdale HS that I started to feel a little more comfortable about who I was. I also started to experience a sense of belonging that I hadn't had in other schools.

With all that said, it may be tempting for anyone in my position to say they understand what it is like to be a part of the black community. It may be tempting for someone who has spent a lot of time in community with black men to say "I understand what it's like to be a black man in America."

And you'd be wrong. No matter how much time I spend with my friends and family in the black community I still will never know what it is really like to BE them. I can sympathize, I can listen, I can strive to understand, but if I ever try to dictate how they should feel or respond to anything by using my own experience, that would be pushing my experience, as a white man, as the norm. That is white privilege.

What white privilege is NOT

I know the hangup that most people have with this topic. I've heard folks say that to speak of white privilege is racist towards white people. That it is being used to shame people like me. That it is extreme political correctness. And the way that I hear some people speak of it, I can understand why they think that way. So, here is what white privilege is NOT:

  • It is not saying that you should be ashamed of your own skin color
  • It is not saying that your life has been easy
  • It is not saying that if you are successful it is only because you were privileged
  • It is not blaming you for all the atrocities and injustice dealt not only to the black community but to other minorities as well

To talk about white privilege is not to say your struggles don't matter or that you haven't also been disadvantaged or struggled or worked hard. In no way does this conversation discount all the ways that you yourself have suffered nor does acknowledging privilege make you a racist.

White Privilege {as I experience it}

If you go to the knower of all things, Google, to find a definition of white privilege you will find that there is a plethora of information about white privilege. South Park has done an episode on it. Scores of white folks have taken to the internet to check their white privilege and to shame others who haven't, all in the name of awareness.

I want to make something clear, I'm not writing this to shame you or to tell you that you have to think like me. Nor am I looking for affirmation from you or to be seen like an especially enlightened white guy. Nor am I simply trying to raise awareness. Awareness that doesn't lead to action is useless. If I was aware of someone drowning in a swimming pool while casually sipping Mai Tais but was not moved to action then I've become complicit in their drowning.

This is about starting a conversation, just as the blog introduction stated. I won't be providing an extensive list of what constitutes white privilege nor will I be creating a complete view of systemic racism. This is about starting a conversation that will hopefully lead to not only some self-reflection but also a desire to take action against systemic racism.

It'd be easy for me to buy into the idea that I've not experienced privilege in my life. I'm overburdened with student loan debt, I've experienced a lot of brokenness and struggle with family and other relationships, and I've taken a hard road professionally. I'm a college drop out who worked in retail for 6 years and went back to college while working 50-60 hours a week. I worked hard to get even where I am now and even so I feel disadvantaged professionally, relationally, and financially.

Even so, I can walk by a police officer and feel no fear that he/she is watching my every movement because of the color of my skin. I also don't worry about how a police officer will treat me when pulled over. I've never been pulled over by a police officer and not known why. {I had a speeding problem when I was younger!}

When looking back at my struggles in my life I don't ever think about whether the suffering I've experienced had anything to do with my race.

When I've started a new job I've never had to question whether others in the building wondered if I got the job not based on merit but on some diversity policy.

I have never been asked to speak on behalf of all white people everywhere.

I feel free to be myself in public without worrying about whether others will make judgments about all white people based on what I say, how I say it, or how I act.

And here is a big one, I've been free to not have to think about race. I can go day-to-day and not have to consider race in daily interactions with people, businesses, or media.

I see that I have experienced privilege in many areas of my life despite the struggles I've faced. Fact is, I know that a black man who has gone through very similar circumstances is more disadvantaged than me. This is what it means to experience white privilege.

White Privilege {as I see it in our culture}

It is difficult for me to hear the way that this topic is discussed. There isn't much love or empathy expressed. Instead sides are taken and swords drawn.

Consider what it would be like when every time an unarmed black man/woman/child is slain by a police officer who was acting out of line we have to hear people say things like, "well, if he hadn't broken the law then..." or "if only his parents would have taught him to respect law enforcement." It is easy to say such things when your community has never faced systemic oppression from law enforcement.

I know the familiar response to a statement like this. "But Harold, that was so long ago! When are they going to stop blaming white people for things that happened so long ago and take ownership for their own mistakes?"

Listen, the civil rights act was passed just over 50 years ago. That was NOT a long time ago. Also, do you realize that passing the act didn't fix everything, right? Racism was still rampant. White folks didn't run out into the streets to invite their black neighbors, who they had previously hated, into their homes for pie and coffee to bury the hatchet. The law didn't change people's hearts.

Where is the compassion over a life lost? Where is justice when a police officer acts out of line?

As for black people taking ownership of the problems in their own community, how about everyone takes a hard look at what led to some of the problems in the first place? Where is the ownership for the outrageous actions taken by politicians, law enforcement, business owners, and every day people that created an environment for many of the problems? Think I'm talking crazy?

Check out an example of this very thing that happened here locally. There was a story published last year in The Atlantic about a neighborhood here in Cincinnati called Lincoln Heights. It details all the ways in which land was stolen and business owners conspired against the people of Lincoln Heights. And this isn't something that happened long ago that they should've recovered from. I talked to a woman just this past summer who told me even more of the history of this struggling neighborhood that she loves. Read the article and tell me that the current state of Lincoln Heights has nothing to do with systemic racism.

Move to Action

I know of another reaction that some may have to this, "listen, I don't see color, I just see people, can't we get past talking about race all the time?" I get it, it sounds loving and progressive, to say "I don't see color, I see people." We have the privilege to not have to think about skin color. It isn't something that has been used as a reason to steal/kill/destroy our people or neighborhoods.

But isn't it a little too convenient that after years of oppression and destruction that we can now sit back as a people and claim our hands are clean from all of the ramifications of history? Look, I get it, you don't own slaves {at least I really hope not}, you haven't hosed down a group of black folks who were just trying to do something as ludicrous as eat a slice of pie in the same restaurant as you, but that doesn't erase the damage that has been done.

So, what do we do? How do we respond?

Admitting that systemic racism has and is a part of our culture should move us to work against racial inequality. Fellow white people, considering white privilege isn't something we need to do so that we can feel better about ourselves. It is something we must do in order to see past our own experiences and biases. Then we need to listen.

We need to listen to the black community when they scream out for justice. We need to keep away from finger pointing or offering advice on what they need to do to fix their communities. Instead, what if we asked how we can come alongside them and fight for justice? What if we mourned with them when they mourned? What if we admitted that there is a lot of work to be done to bring about true racial equality given all that has happened?

Maybe then we could stop drawing sides, reshape our swords into shovels and start rebuilding that which has been broken.