Archives For white privilege

A scene from late summer 2016:

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

I enter a Metro train at the rear and take a seat. I can see the entire car. It’s partially full, populated with the typical diversity of people that ride that line in the middle of the day–a mix of ages and races, suits and casual wear, obvious tourists and those who seem more like locals.

There are two female teenagers talking and laughing in the bank of seats directly in front of me. For two station stops they remain in their own world, focused on cracking each other up. But then their attention turns to a couple, an early-20s woman and man, sitting in the bank of seats immediately to their left.

“Hey. Hey!  HEY!”

One of the teens repeatedly tries to get the young woman’s attention.

After numerous “heys,” she switches to: “Is that your boyfriend? Hey! Is that your boyfriend? Hey, HEY! Are you two together? Are you dating? Is that your boyfriend?”

The male in the couple appears to realize the teen is addressing them. He nudges his female companion, they confer, and she looks at the teen. “Is that your boyfriend?” The woman shakes her head and he says “No.”

“Oh, you’re just friends,” says the teen.

“Yes. Just friends.”

The teens burst into laughter.

They start again: “Hey. Hey. Hey, do you speak English?” The young woman and man attempt to ignore, but it’s difficult. Impossible. The teens’ volume increases and they were already loud enough to draw all of us in at the start. Most everyone on the train was listening, watching. After repeating “do you speak English” five or so more times, the woman responds “no.”

The teens crack up again.

Then they start in a new direction: postulating how the couple must talk.  It’s basically unintelligible except for phrases like “ching-chong-china.” A middle-aged woman a few rows away whips her head around and stares coldly at the backs of two teens’ heads; she rises and moves further away on the train.

Finally, a woman in her mid-50s who had been sitting to my immediate right the entire time approaches the teens and says something in a low voice just before exiting the train. The two are quiet for a moment, but then laugh and continue with their mockery of the way people of Asian heritage speak.

I exit the train two stops later having said nothing.

The teens were African American. The young couple was of Asian heritage; possibly Southeast Asia. The older woman, who spoke to the teens, was African American. I am White.

While I want to analyze the other racial dynamics at play, the only one that matters is the big one, the one I recognized immediately and then ignored: White Fragility.

I witnessed this entire scene play out some four months ago and did nothing. I recognized immediately my inaction was the result of White Fragility and I tampered the urge to overcome it. In the moment, I actually assumed that no one on the train was expecting me to do anything because I am White and everyone else involved were People of Color. I feared becoming the object of the teens’ focus; I didn’t want to be teased and harassed. I just wanted it all to go away or for my stop to arrive as soon as possible so I could get off the train. So I burrowed into myself and took no action.

This was a Huge Fail.

Let me say that again.

A. Huge. Fail.

But what it doesn’t mean is I am a Failure or a Bad Person.

I learned a lesson that day about how vigilant I needed to be, to hold myself accountable in the moment. I cannot allow me to talk myself out of taking a just course of action. Interrupting behavior(s) can be done gently, with strangers. If I end up in an uncomfortable/undesirable position as a result, I will survive it. It will be nothing compared to what People of Color encounter and endure on a daily basis. But I know if the White person on the train doesn’t say something next time, she won’t the next time, or the next time, or the next time, or ever.

And I also know if I didn’t share this story, it would allow me to hide it instead of learn from it.

Which version have you seen more often?

My first encounter with Peggy McIntosh‘s concept of “the invisible knapsack” was in 1999. I was 23 years old. I had just moved to Washington, DC a few months prior to work at Arena Stage in the education department (a two person plus an intern office at that time). We were to work closely with Living Stage Theatre Company, seek alignment between the “two organizations” (not really separate since Living Stage was a part of Arena but that’s another story). The entire staff at Living Stage and the education department went through an intensive, multi-day anti-racism/anti-oppression training with the great Rebecca Rice and Erika Thorne. I contextualize because it was a gift I thank the universe for every day.

It was the first time I became aware of the reality of systemic racism, White supremacy, and the backpack of privilege I carry with me everywhere.

walking-backpacks-canvas-rucksack-backpack-for-school.jpgW.E.B. Du Bois described the concept of “psychological wage”in his 1935 essay Black Reconstruction in America. It was a mindset, a status boost, that allowed White laborers to feel superior, to feel better-than Black ones in the workplace despite being on the same employment level. Du Bois would go on to identify the colonial activity of Europeans and subsequent “White supremacy” across the world. While the term “white-skin privilege” was used during the Civil Rights era by activities, it wasn’t until Peggy McIntosh, a Women’s Studies scholar at Wellesley, wrote her essay “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” in 1988 that the term gained traction.

McIntosh, a White woman like me, was “taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.” But in methodically going through and identifying the daily, seemingly mundane effects of her White Privilege–her mind was blown.

My mind was also blown when my knapsack was pointed out in 1999… and I journeyed through a series of extremely typical responses people of privilege do when confronted for the first time (in this case White people confronted with White privilege and systemic racism):

  • What?!? No!
  • Sure, but not me? I’m not like that.
  • All White people!?!?
  • But I’ve had friends who are not White. I’ve dated non-Whites. I’ve….
  • Does this mean [enter Black friend’s name] won’t be my friend anymore?
  • Not me.
  • Oh my, me? Me? 

And this was not a five-minute journey. And there was crying. Because of course there was. There was a lot of guilt. There were long periods of knapsack removal and ignoring attempts. There was a long stretch of extreme over-compensation in which I was the most obnoxious “righteous not-listening person because ‘I am a person in-the-know’.”

At this point, I think I’m in a phase of perpetual “working on it.” But that’s a wobbly phase. The knapsack, it is invisible and therefore so easy to forget. There’s no ridding myself of it. There’s no emptying it. Somedays I am back in my “not-listening person” state and bless the patience of everyone around me as I swing my knapsack around and point screaming at all the knapsacks on everyone around me. [shudders at self with embarrassment, then gets over it]

The point: privilege is a knapsack society packed for us and slapped on our backs. The first step on the journey is acknowledging it’s there.

Is that your bag? Yup.


Not familiar with McIntosh’s article? Follow this link for a commonly excerpted version.