May 16, 2016
By: Rianna Lee

Recently, as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across a video a friend had shared from a page called, Let’s Talk: Whiteness Project. The group describes their mission as “an interactive examination of how Americans who identify as white, or partially white, experience their race.” Immediately, I thought, “Oh boy, more white supremacists trying to hide their bigotry under the cloak of oppression.” I watched one video out of curiosity, and decided to scroll through several more.

What I found was interesting. One young man named Nathan said white people were misunderstood, and that being a white Christian was “the hardest thing.” Speaking about the black community, he said, “I don’t hate black people, but some things about them irritate me as a whole. Some black people at my school just go to school because they have to. Like, they don’t go to school to get an education. So they’ll disrupt people in class, and it kind of gets irritating when I’m trying to learn and get my education, and they’re just kind of ruining it for everyone else.” I think my eyes rolled so far into the back of my head that I could see my brain.

 But then I watched another video of a young woman named Sadie who discussed how she benefited from white privilege. She said that the advantages of being white outweigh the disadvantages, and used the example of grants and scholarship money as one of the only areas where she felt that white people have a slight disadvantage in comparison to minorities. She then acknowledged that, “[grants and scholarship money] are only one area of a person’s life, whereas, if you weren’t white, [your race] would affect everything else about you.”

These are both raw, uncensored, and equally valid accounts of how white people experience race and try to understand where they fit into the current conversation on oppression. But the difference between the two is that while Nathan does not acknowledge his status as a white person or the advantages that he has over members of the black community, Sadie recognizes her status as a white person, and is aware that being white has more pros than cons.

 There is a way to be against systemic oppression without falling into discriminatory ideas or practices, especially when you benefit from privilege. If you benefit from privilege, be it racial, gender, class, or something else, and want to be a better ally to communities outside of your own that face marginalization, here are five suggestions on how to improve your behavior:

1. Acknowledge past and current oppression.

The first step is recognizing that there is a problem. Learn about the history of slavery, civil rights, and religious persecution. Hold the people who came before you accountable. Recognize that, even today, some groups of people experience less opportunities and more hardships just because of their race or income level.

2. Vow to never participate in, or promote patterns of oppression.

Beginning to identify and unlearn patterns of oppression, especially in daily life, is a very difficult task to undertake. Social constructs like racism and sexism are deeply rooted into our language, mannerisms, and culture. For example, once you learn what racial and homophobic slurs (we all know the words) have been used historically (and are still being used today!) to degrade marginalized people, don’t ever say them again. Saying them simply perpetuates the oppression.

 3. Use your privilege to speak up in uncomfortable situations.

I remember a video I saw a few months back where a black woman tells the story of a time she was treated unfairly by a cashier. Her sister, who is white-passing, spoke up and asked why her sister had to show ID to use a check, and she did not. This is a perfect example of using your privilege to correct the harmful behavior used by other people. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

 4. Admit and apologize when you make a mistake.

When you’re unlearning biases that have been instilled in you since birth, you are bound to slip up every once in a while – or maybe even a lot. Becoming a better person and increasing your awareness of the problems faced by others is a work in progress. Own up to your mistakes, apologize if you offend anyone, and try to unlearn that kind of thought process and behavior.

5. Learn and grow with the marginalized group you are supporting.

Listen to their stories with open ears. Learn from their struggles. Put yourself in their shoes for a day. Celebrate their successes, but know that you are a guest at their party. Take the failures and make it your priority to turn them into successes, instead.

Rejecting old patterns of oppression and being supportive of social justice movements is tricky when you are coming from a position of privilege. When I tell people that I’m a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, most people respond positively. But sometimes, I get this look of bewilderment, almost as if to say, “But… you’re white?” Yes, I am white. But I can still support marginalized groups in their movements toward equality, as long as I continue to challenge and work to dismantle the system of oppression that my ancestors created.

Rianna is a summer intern for the Thomas Merton Center and a senior at Duquesne University, studying international relations and sociology. She is interested in law and public policy surrounding gender and women’s rights. In her spare time, you can catch her eating at Chipotle with her friends or playing with her two guinea pigs, Thor and Loki.