ARTICLE

Bursting the White Privilege Bubble

When this TT staffer first realized his white privilege, he began a journey to understand how it worked in his life. Then he decided to do something about it.

 

An African-American high school student had just shared a story about how she didn’t get a job at the mall because she was “too dark.” Uncomfortable silence followed. I was frozen. As the only adult in a small discussion group of students assembled for a leadership camp, I felt utterly unprepared to guide the conversation forward. White privilege had just hit me in the face. I started to get mad because of how clueless I had been to this reality for so long. I was also concerned about what I could do about it.

After that experience, I knew I needed to better understand how white privilege worked in my life. So I just looked around. I first noticed that the news I read on my phone featured thumbnail photos featuring mostly white people. And most of the headlines associated with those white people spoke to power, position and money—in positive terms. I had to really dig to find people of color highlighted in positive ways, and I wasn’t really able to find such articles until I read my international news feed.

Another disturbing experience I had was when I realized that my Netflix account was recommending shows with almost exclusively white casts. When I looked at what I had been watching, all those shows were astoundingly white as well. Without even consciously trying, I had created a whitewashed world of entertainment in my own home.

Once I opened my eyes, I started seeing my whiteness reflected back at me everywhere. I’d watch movies and see mostly white people. Sure, Frozen took place in a Scandinavian-like kingdom, but it’s a fantasy with a talking snowman. Did the artists really have to draw all white people? Someone had to consciously make that decision.

The books and magazines staring at me from the shelves of my favorite bookstore were awash with white people on the covers or bylines or curated by a white staff. The same was true for the books on my own shelves. I was a teacher at a school surrounded by almost all white colleagues, trained by white experts who would teach me how to be a better teacher during professional development seminars.

All of this drilled home for me how my whiteness is constantly being validated without me having to do anything. Of all the media that I consume on a daily basis, all of it validates me as a white person—especially as a white man. While talking about mass media depictions might seem trivial in terms of white privilege, I would argue that it’s one of the most powerful and communal tools that shapes our reality and how we view ourselves and our place in the world.

I know, from being a teacher, that children’s perspectives are altered based on what they watch, read and listen to. I know that this white-affirming world I experience is shaping how I think about my life and myself. Probably even more important, this world is shaping how others view and treat me. And, honestly, it feels great. Who doesn’t want to be validated constantly? I’m not ashamed of it, but I also have no illusions that I have earned it or that I deserve it. I’m just mad that it’s not the reality for others who don’t look like me. That is what has to change. My privilege can’t come at the expense of others.

So I have to stay vigilant in constantly bursting the all-too-common white privilege bubble. I have to seek out and surround myself with diverse perspectives. I would challenge other white folks to do the same. Notice how much your whiteness is validated over the course of a couple of days. Then seek out diverse forms of media that not only feature voices of color but also are created and produced by people of color. Notice how easy or difficult this is. Once you’ve undertaken these steps, then decide how you’re going to be a change agent.

I’m still evolving in my change-making efforts, but it’s grounded in my vocation. I now work for an organization that pushes me to grow in this area and allows me to support others who are committed to this work. I make it a point to engage in a diverse social network. I don’t want to be surrounded only by people who look and think like me.

I also support others who are committed to dismantling privilege. For me, this means being politically literate and voting for candidates committed to this work. It means supporting, with my time and money, organizations that are working for change. Finally, I push myself to openly discuss with friends and family how privilege affects others and me. These are my first steps. I challenge other white folks to take their own first steps because moving toward a more inclusive and equitable world can’t happen without all of us doing our part.

Phillips is the manager for teaching and learning at Teaching Tolerance.

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