We were sitting at the frozen yogurt shop when my husband interrupted my yogurt induced heaven with a passionate “Did you see that?!”
“What?” I looked around but didn’t see anything unusual. I’d been a little spaced out in a blissful yogurt coma and was, as usual, less than aware of my surroundings.
“That Asian lady in the yogurt store! She and her daughter were just standing there, waiting in line for the restroom, and this White guy came in and walked right in front of her.”
He paused, shaking his head in angry disbelief, “And she just let him go. She put her head down and let him push his way past her.”
He paused, processing the interaction, “That’s just so privileged, and he probably doesn’t even recognize it! The problem with us is that we get all submissive and let people walk all over us.”
Confession Time: In my head, I started listing all the reasons why what he just said happened couldn’t have actually happened. Maybe he saw things wrong. Maybe the guy had to puke. Maybe he left his cell phone in the bathroom. Surely what my husband saw wasn’t what actually happened.
But then I remembered what I’ve learned about race and privilege: dismissing perceptions is one of the most unhelpful responses in race conversations.
I should already know this, right?
(Except that I don’t always remember it at the right times.)
Privilege runs deep, and, as I continue to ponder the ideas of humility, I keep running smack into its gritty realities. They’re not pretty, but ignoring them won’t make them go away either. Here are a few truths I’ve learned along the way:
Privilege is hard to see if you have it, but easy to see if you don’t.
I often don’t see the privilege my husband or my friends of color see, but not because it doesn’t exist. I don’t see it because I don’t have to see it. I live in a world where people who look like me carry the heaviest influence, so the world-at-large adjusts to me, not the other way around. I can walk into a restaurant without heads turning in curiosity. I can shop in a thrift store and people may well assume I’m cool, not poor. People on the street will never assume I look ‘suspicious’. I’ve never encountered a situation where people define my personal qualifications by my physical appearance. People rarely make comments—ignorant or informed—about my race or ethnic background.
It reminds me of the emperor who wasn’t wearing any clothes—everyone but the stubborn king sees the truth. I can almost hear that classic fairytale character, walking naked down the street, thinking to himself as the little boy called his bluff, “That crazy boy! Who does he think he is? He doesn’t know anything. I’m the Emperor, after all. What I say goes!”
It’s not so different from the knee-jerk reaction that many White people have when confronted with the concept of White privilege:
“Who do they think they are?” We think about the people of color who suggest perspectives that overturn our understanding of the world.
“What do they know?” We tell ourselves as a means of dismissing the realities they share. When those of us in power write history without considering other sides of the story, we can find it impossible to understand why some might question our interpretation of it.
If I’m brutally honest with myself, I’ve done the same thing as the privileged White guy at the yogurt shop and never even noticed. Privilege just doesn’t feel the same to those who benefit from it like it does to those who get run over by it.
Privilege feels great and horrible at the same time.
I’ll be the first to say that being the one with the power feels great. Power is fun, but an equal reality of power is that it corrupts and blinds. The power that privilege carries does this as well. That’s why the headlines erupt over public justifications of privilege[i] and racial debates rage between opposing factions. It’s an intensely divisive topic, creating fierce discussion regarding its actual existence.
When I travel, I am nearly always treated better than my non-White family. I get higher quality service, more attention and courtesy. I get less attention at airport security lines and from policemen. Even if I personally benefit from this treatment, the fact that my family faces its fallout sours any positives it holds for me. If people knew how much more humble, sacrificial, and generous my non-white family is than me, they would be the ones given elevated status, not me.
Privilege creates guilt, which creates shame, which creates denial.
Author and researcher, Brené Brown, has shed an immense amount of light on how shame impacts our ability to be vulnerable; and it’s easily applicable when considering privilege. She writes:
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.[ii]
When I don’t initially understand a situation like the yogurt shop, I can take weeks to admit it. My guilt kicks in…how many years have I been married interracially? How many conversations have I had and books have I read about exploring the darkness of my own history and privilege?
Will I ever learn?
The shame lingers so subtly that I don’t even notice it until my denial eventually slips out, and I’m forced to face my privilege once again.
This is an excerpt of Jody Fernando’s new book: Pondering Privilege: Toward a deeper understanding of whiteness, race, and faith
[i] Fortgang, T. (2014, April 30). Checking my privilege: Character as the basis of privilege. Retrieved fromhttp://www.realclearpolitics.
[ii] Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden.