Being White and a Minority

...is not possible in the US. Statistically, it is impossible, as the majority of the US is white (over 60%.) What this means, statistically speaking, is that white people hold "the center" of most social, political, educational, and physical spaces in the US, according to sheer numbers alone.

So, let me just say right up front: if you are white in the US, no matter how poor you are, no matter if you have been prejudiced against in social or professional situations, no matter if you have had people call you names, no matter if you have ever claimed it or sought it or not, you are still technically and practically part of the privileged group for whom this country's laws, political structures, social spaces, and governing bodies were built. And, if you have lived here all your life, you have never known otherwise. In fact, your own privilege may not be visible to you. Here is a brief article that features some questions that white folks in the US rarely, if ever, need to ask ourselves about our lives.

As members of CAYA (Come As You Are) Coven many of us are participating in Blog Action Day, writing on the topic of inequality, each with our own perspectives, experiences, & approaches, much as we approach our various spiritual practices. We hold each of our members' divinity as inherent and non-negotiable. Despite our varied paths, we are unified in our commitment to equality for all living beings. While we write in solidarity for anyone suffering #inequality today, we are more interested in what ways we can achieve more equality for tomorrow.

One of the most valuable experiences an American or European who looks, lives, or identifies primarily as white can possibly have is to visit a place where you are the minority. Go to a place where your skin color will get you no special favors, will make you no friends, will garner you no boons. See how it feels, and you will only begin to have tasted a subtle variation of the experience that people of color in the US experience every day.

Except, that's not really an adequate comparison. This is because in the US and in most of Europe, even when a white person is the only one of their race in the room, there is still a knowledge, conscious or unconscious, that the largest portion of the population in the country is white. Further, we live in a place where the majority of the government system is white, the majority of judges on the bench are white, and the majority of corporate CEOs in the country are white. We are always subtly aware that whiteness is readily and widely institutionalized and visible in spaces of authority nearly everywhere we go, anywhere in the nation. So even though we might understand being a situational minority, we still really don't have access to understanding what it is like to be the statistical minority. 

Situational minority status can be instructive, to be sure, but it is not the same as statistical minority status. The presumption of unaware privilege, lack of compassion, and self-centeredness that statistical majority status can create can be astounding. When one belongs to the statistical majority, it can embolden a continued assumption and consumption of aware or unaware privilege even in times of situational minority status, such as a white person automatically taking on the conversational facilitator role in a group that is comprised of mostly people of color. While some might say, "Oh, well I just always do that, I'm just that kind of person," it is actually a privilege to presume that one's unchecked or insensitive way of being will be welcome in situations where there is an invisible undercurrent of power differential. 

As a statistical minority, people of color are pretty much unable to assume privilege in most spaces, except for those carefully constructed with that intent, like social clubs & groups, selective professional networks, some spiritual gatherings or churches, and other privately held spaces where they have deliberately arranged to hold the center. Most public spaces default to the statistical majority. The police brutality and protest events in Ferguson, MO are only the most recent in a long, long line of cases that point directly to this inequality of privilege and its real, and horrifying, impact on people of color in the US.

Thus far, I have been talking about the terms majority/minority in light of population numbers. Is majority/minority only ever about sheer numbers? No. Sometimes it is. But in fact, usually the term "majority" refers to the larger percentage of power and authority that might be wielded by a group of people who have, by design or force, presumed themselves and upheld themselves to be the center of a society, regardless of representative numbers. "Majority/minority" are political designations, not primarily or merely numerical. For example, in contrast to the numerical stats of the US, although there are still more Tibetans in Tibet than Chinese nationals, the Chinese are considered the majority population because their government is the one in power, and the Tibetan government is in exile, with the Tibetan people living under Chinese law.

I bring these thoughts to you because whites are both the statistical AND political majority in the US. I belong to that majority. I have rarely lived or worked anywhere in this country where I have not experienced an omnipresent empowerment of whiteness, particularly in spaces of governmental and legal authority. Even when I have been a situational minority due to my race, I have never been a part of the statistical minority due to my race, though I have witnessed how the statistical, political, and situational minority status of my friends of color has negatively impacted their lives. A recent poll shows that most white people do not actually have very many friends of color in whose lives they might observe the realities of living as a minority, despite how many whites will earnestly tell you of how they "have a black friend, so they can't be racist." 

When I was in college, like many aspiring Women's Studies department types, I read an article by Peggy McIntosh called "White Privilege and Male Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." That link takes you to an online version of the article that starts with this unforgettable quote:

"I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group."

This.right.here. is central to understanding how privilege works. Privilege isn't so much an object or THING as it is a movement of energy inspired by power, assumption, and dominance dynamics. You sometimes don't know it until you have seen its wake, the real effects that demonstrate political and practical inequality. Often, it is silent and undetectable to those who have it, so much so that it inspires behaviors that suggest a profound lack of awareness of any experience outside that of their dominant or majority group.

McIntosh's article inspired me to learn more, when I read it. Much of it is still highly relevant and as true today as it was when it was written in 1988. Other scholars now lend their voices to this study of privilege: Allan G. Johnson, Dr. Joy DeGruy. The discussion is still needed. Whatever ground may have been gained since 1988, or since the Civil Rights Movement, it is still not enough to destabilize the ways in which the statistical and political white majority visibly and invisibly oppresses, or enjoys the fruits of the oppression, of the statistical and political minority status of people of color. It means we have more work to do, and that the work requires sophistication, skill, self-reflection, and rigorous questioning, along with very real action.

It is all too common for those in the statistical and political majority to wring our hands and say, "But I'M not racist! I can't stop all the racists! What else can I possibly do? I can't change the numbers of people here! I can't paint my face and pretend I'm not white! There is nothing I can do!"

This is simply not true.

There are plenty of things that white people can do to reject/dismantle/destabilize the privilege that breeds ongoing inequality and injustice. Here is a list of ways in which any white person can query, analyze, and resist centralizing their own privilege, and work in everyday ways to combat racial injustice. I am repeating some of what I said in Tim Titus' recent piece on creating magick for social change over at Intersections & Circles, and adding to it. You can also find some more great suggestions gathered here.

1) Recognize your privilege by learning what it really is. Read books on the subject of privilege, learn what the signs of unearned privilege are in terms of how people are viewed, treated, and reputed differently due to race. Then look to your own life. Really look at the ways in which you are, either knowingly or not, receiving special treatment due to being white. Pay attention especially to the differences between how you are treated in public spaces versus people of color: at shops, the Post Office, the bank, the DMV. Take the risk of looking closely at how people of color are treated by other white folks. Look piercingly into your own soul for the places where white privilege or racist ideologies have settled in and found a home. From learning to observe these things keenly, you can then go on to being a witness.

2) Watch closely. Privilege is invisible to most white people...until it's not, because we have chosen to look carefully and to overcome the tendencies we have to cognitive dissonance, a conflicted tendency toward writing off the truth because it hurts too much to see it. Once you start to see white privilege in action, it becomes very clear. Be a witness to white privilege and its manifestations around you. Deeply witness these instances, and serve as an ally by witnessing. Pull out your phone and record every instance you see of a police officer interacting with a person of color. Be visible as you stand there filming. Post the film or send it to the media to post if it shows the police officer being overly harsh, violating the person's body or rights, or being abusive. Take impeccable notes every time you hear an co-worker speaking in racist terms, and then either bring them to the attention of the co-worker, or your supervisor, or HR. Find your own ways of witnessing that are relevant to your local circumstances.

3) Speak up. Not just today, not just in blog posts, not just in places where it will make you look good or where you want to gain "ally points." Speak up when you see manifestations of racism, or the assumption of aware or unaware privilege. How about that thing your Dad/Uncle/Boss/Friend says? Don't laugh. Don't even do the nervous-but-uncomfortable demure casting away of eyes. Don't wryly shake your head.  Speak up. Be informed and patient. Be prepared to lose friends who react really strongly when you point out their and/or your own privilege. Be ok with standing by your politics. Be helpful and hopeful that what you say, kindly but firmly and backed up with real data and knowledge, will help open someone else's mind.

     3a) ESPECIALLY speak up in spaces where white people feel like they are "safe" to express their racist or privileged views. I wish I had a snapshot of the surprise on peoples' faces whenever I have said, "I know that you are saying this because you think that we are both white, so it's ok. But even though we are both white, I strongly disapprove of what you are saying and it is NOT ok." ALSO, know when to shut up (which will be addressed in the next point.)

3) GIVE IT AWAY. If your white privilege has benefitted you financially or socially or in terms of influence, which it has in most of our cases, find ways to give money, time, resources, and energy to organizations and causes that serve people of color. When you do this, do not presume to also "share" your "ideas" of how POC should utilize the resources you have given them, or otherwise offer "advice" on how they might "improve their situation." They can figure all of that out without you, and if you are quiet about it and just honestly generous with your resources, you will do more good than harm. If you go sticking your nose in their business and presuming the center of their needs, your resources come with so much wasted time they have to spend defending their own ideas and priorities that your contributions lessen in value.

4) Have REAL relationships with people of color. Don't do the thing of saying, "But I don't even see you as (race)..." Don't do the thing of saying, "I have a black friend, I'm totally not racist..." Don't do the thing of saying, "It doesn't matter what someone's race is." Instead, cultivate the kind of trusting relationships, by being humble and real, where your friends of color can call you on it when you indulge unaware privilege, can share their real experiences, can have their truth witnessed, can enjoy having you as a friend without being nervous about you becoming presumptuous. Use your unearned privilege to support someone's well-being, or find ways to offload your privilege in favor of creating more equal systems of power-sharing and decision-making in a group setting. Don't do the thing of making people of color teach you how to do this. Don't wring your hands and say, "I just really need you to help me understand this..." Figure it out for yourself by doing the work. Read, watch, listen, learn. Don't do the thing of making EVERYTHING about race, but don't act like it's not there, either. Put yourself at risk of making errors and receiving correction, then really receive it. Ask for feedback when you are truly uncertain about how to do right by someone, but don't look for validation just because you did that. Don't kiss ass, but be genuinely respectful. Let yourself feel nervous about getting it wrong. Let yourself feel nervous about possibly being judged. Let yourself feel uncomfortable in your privilege, rather than in your skin. You're not bad for being born white, but you are being unethical if you are using it to your advantage over someone who is not.

Lastly, know that you will get this wrong, and you will get it right, and that there is no ultimate "fix" and you are unlikely to ever be a full-on "good white person" or a full-on villain, exclusively. In fact, owing to both your unaware and your aware privilege, you have actually been a bit of both at various times, if you admit it to yourself truthfully. Let go of any illusions like, "I will fix this," or "I'll never get it right because I'm white." Those are just excuses the mind makes up to avoid the reality that this is a complex and longterm situation. Instead, work diligently and earnestly, every day, to do what is needed. Through this, we might hope to see a greater leveling of one of the worst inequalities of society.