White Privilege: The Lion in the Room

I’m a few hours away from another phone interview. The hurdles we clear in the course of starting a new career are stressful and tiring, and we often just long for them to be behind us, with an offer waiting in our inbox.

But for me, there’s something more wrapped up in this particular interview.

When I made the decision to leave my papered academic past for nonprofit work, I knew it wasn’t going to be glamorous, the path wouldn’t be littered with hundred dollar bills. The adage “underpaid and overworked” became my mantra, whether or not I embraced and adopted it. And it was okay, because I felt like what I was doing was worth the exhaustion that nips at most nonprofit professionals’ heels.

Part and parcel to most nonprofit work is educating the public. Whether your organization increases awareness about racial inequality, STI transmission, human trafficking, environmental conservation, planned parenting, LGBTQIA advocacy, or animal welfare, the crux is always education. Because a more informed public is more likely to speak out, stand up, and effect meaningful change.

As a kid, I didn’t always grasp the importance of why I had to do certain things, and why my parents pushed me and my sister to branch out – always reinforcing how crucial it was to be able to relate to people from different backgrounds and respect differences. During those teachable moments, I – like most my age – would roll my eyes and complain about spending yet another valuable weekend of my youth planting trees, cleaning up roadside garbage, caring for injured wildlife, or taking food to people in need.

I’d often think Where’s my freedom? Why do we have to do this? Nintendo and Bonanza marathons were much more appealing.

Little did I know, I was learning exactly what it meant to be free – and, not until I was much older, the problematic, insulating effects of white privilege.

***

Growing up in the Deep South, racial lines were socially mapped and cultivated in our consciousness through school and print media – and unabashedly writ into the landscape of our small Alabama town. In ninth grade, we weren’t taught World History, but rather Alabama History. We came to recognize “the other side of the tracks” or a “rough area” was synonymous with a predominantly black neighborhood or an area of violence. In daily dialogue, describing people without a racial preface was unheard of – there was no “There was this guy” or “That lady at the grocery”; often whispered, black became the most important identifier in a descriptive parable relayed from the day’s happenings. Without fail, that hushed tone conveyed something else – something sinister pulsing through that word and, by association, the person to whom it was applied. Everyone was guilty of such profiling – even if we didn’t realize the implications of what we were doing, we became complicit in widening that divide, contributing to tacit racial tension. But this proclivity wasn’t reserved for towns in the South. Whenever Andy and I talk about growing up, we always touch on how racism was just as prevalent farther north – just cloaked in different veils. We both grew up very differently, but we shared a privilege we couldn’t exactly articulate until now, in retrospect.

Even still, we also shared a nagging feeling that we were somehow different. In high school, I had an odd fixation with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – the weight of the albatross a fitting analogy for the emotional baggage that’d been weighing me down, something that I was terrified was as obvious as a dead bird strung around my neck. But it wasn’t. And I could pass. Again, not until I was much older, I realized the color of my skin diluted my difference – made it more socially acceptable.

Not until I became more outspoken, and had the privilege of a collegiate education, did I start to comprehend the enormity of the problems humanity faces. We parse and segment as a means to better understand, but in so doing, we lose the connective thread that connects them all: education. And by education, I don’t mean post-secondary. I mean hands-on, face-to-face, person-to-person interaction; getting in the dirt together and finding common ground in meaningful, proactive ways. But many of us must first acknowledge our white privilege – that we have the luxury to obsess over the death of a Zimbabwe lion, while our black friends are under threat every single time they leave their home. Until we understand why black bodies are grossly policed, are subjected to structural violence, and take action to change it, we can’t really move forward to tackle everything that we face.

***

I’m inching closer to my interview, and I’m remembering why I was drawn to this particular organization: its emphasis on early, comprehensive education for every child, every family. And I can’t help but think about what I learned as a kid, and how much I want to teach my child so many of the same things – chief among them, respect.

I hope I’ll be open about difference, and be able to answer hard questions. I hope I’ll be able to appropriately frame how inequality hurts everyone, and how important it is to speak out and stand up for your friends, known and unknown – to speak and to act.

Because if we don’t first take care of our species – prioritize humanity – there’s no hope for those others with whom we share this planet.

4 thoughts on “White Privilege: The Lion in the Room

  1. It’s as clear as black and white. Isn’t it? We’ve been trained since birth to see that line and make choices in our life accordingly. And as much as it matters, I’m not sure how we unlearn such a lesson and change humanity. That it’s wrong is without question, and most of us realize that, but untangling the old ways of thinking requires a deliberate focus every day. I hope your new job offers you the chance to help children learn that every life matters and all of us are here on this planet to make a difference for everyone.

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