The Long and Winding Road…Acknowledging White Privilege

As a history teacher, I consider one of the most crucial parts of my job to be presenting history from multiple perspectives. I want my students to get a true picture of their country’s history by developing a sense of empathy for the groups of people who haven’t always enjoyed the blessings of liberty. The “winners”, they say, get to write history. But the “losers” also have an important story to tell. Without their story, none of the problems we face as a nation have any real context.

In the Spring of 2015, I was teaching a lesson on the New York City Draft  Riots of 1863. This bloody and destructive four day event was the result of poor whites in New York protesting against the newly instituted military draft. They felt singled out unfairly because free blacks were not required to sign up for the draft and rich whites could buy their way out. They lashed out in anger, burning down buildings and killing any free blacks or rich whites they could manage to get their hands on. This lesson took place not long after the riots in Baltimore over the death Freddie Gray while in police custody. I decided it would be a great opportunity to examine the reasons why people riot by comparing these two events. The point I wanted to drive home is that people resort to rioting when they feel disenfranchised, singled out, and hopeless. I showed a clip from the movie “Gangs of New York” (you can watch the clip here) that shows graphic reainacted depictions of the poor whites terrorizing the city. The students then read an article about the event. Then we read about the Baltimore riots, which were still fresh in the headlines, and I showed some raw footage of the looting and rioting in that city. In the class discussion that followed that clip, a student made an observation that had a profound impact on me. It brought home white privilege like a heavyweight punch between my eyes. I will come back to this moment a little later.

Today, during lunch, I was sitting at my desk and had a visit from another teacher down the hall. She happens to be the only African-American teacher in our hall and one of only a handful in our building. It’s not unusual for her drop in and touch base about one of her students or some assignment or idea we have talked about, but today was different. She came in, sat down, and said, “I’m having a rough day.” I stopped what I was doing and just listened. She started to tell me how she was having a really hard time dealing with her emotions over the Tulsa police shooting of unarmed Terence Crutcher. She asked if I had seen the helicopter footage. I told her I had.

She asked, “how did they think he was a ‘bad dude’? He had his hands up.”

I said, “I know,” I really didn’t know what to say…”I guess because he was big and black.”

She then began to tell me how these events were weighing so heavily upon her that, some days, she just can’t take it. Then she buried her head in her hands and began to sob. I felt so bad for her and so utterly unequipped to help her. All I could offer at that moment were tissues.

We talked some more. I mostly listened. What could I say, really?

She told me that she came to me because she felt like I “got it.” I told her that I’m trying to get it and I try to write about it in hopes of getting anyone willing to set aside their preconceived world view and, at the very least, start listening to the message of those who are hurting and crying out in anguish all over this nation.

Then she cried out in anguish so eloquently about a condition I never have to even consider. She told me how she is terrified for her brother, a college graduate with a professional job who also happens to have dreadlocks down his back. She lives in constant fear that he could end up like Terence Crutcher after a routine traffic stop because of the growing fears of young men who look like he does. And then she said, “I’m tired of dealing with the constant news of another injustice in our society. I really don’t know if people understand what it is like to get on the internet daily and see such hate-filled comments against their culture for things that are completely out of their control. I can never change my skin color. The saddest part is explaining to my daughter that people may hate you for no reason other than the way you look. African-Americans are always expected to quietly endure, be strong, and not make excuses. It can become so heavy after a while. Like a boulder on your shoulder that no one can see, but you can feel the weight pulling you down.”

I wanted to say something that would make her feel better, but the words wouldn’t come. I think all I said was, “I know.”

But that’s just it. I don’t know. I can never really know. That is my white privilege. White privilege is not some specific advantage I get that assures me of having a better job or higher pay. It doesn’t get me into some sort of secret club. It means I don’t have to carry the weight on my shoulders that my friend carries every day. Most days, I am not even remotely aware of that burden.

I don’t know if I helped my friend by being there to listen. I hope, in some small way, it helped her to vent a little. I do know this, I am incredibly honored that she chose my room in which to unload her burden, and I told her that she is welcome to do so any time.

Now back to my story about the riots lesson. During the class discussion that followed the Baltimore riots video clip, I asked the students what kinds of things they noticed. One student, a white boy who had a bit of class clown in him, raised his hand and said, “all the rioters were black.” I think he was trying to be a wise guy with that comment, but I took his bait.

“True,” I said, “but you didn’t say anything about the rioters in the New York Draft riots all being white, did you?”

He was taken aback. “No…um, I guess I didn’t notice.”

It became crystal clear to me at that moment. I usually don’t notice either. I spend most days never giving any conscious thought to my skin color. I spend most of my days as a member of a clear majority. A large percentage of the people I am normally around look a lot like me. But, just occasionally, I find myself in a situation where I am in the minority. In those situations I become hyper-aware that I am white and most of the people around me are not. In those situations, I am stripped of my white privilege and I immediately lose the comfort that comes with it.

My friend down the hall, and millions of other African-Americans or other people of color in America rarely, if ever, get to feel that comfort level.

The concept of white privilege is a touchy subject with some white folks. Frankly, some are completely fed up with hearing it. Many of them, even if reluctantly, find themselves drawn into the camp of Donald Trump supporters because he seems to be the only one who understands their frustrations. I know this because many of them are my friends.

They feel like they are out there digging in the trenches just as hard as anyone. They see plenty of examples of black folks who are doing as well, or far better than themselves. They point to things like affirmative action or the fact that we have black president as proof that white privilege is a myth. But, in reality, they simply don’t understand what white privilege is. I didn’t understand it very well myself until a little 8th grade class clown unwittingly helped reveal it to me. Not being cognizant of white privilege IS part of white privilege.

We have a long and winding road ahead of us if we ever want to even start to get past this. I don’t know the solution, but I know the first step is to be honest with one another that the problem exists.


17 thoughts on “The Long and Winding Road…Acknowledging White Privilege

  1. In the latest event, police shooting, you and your fellow teacher both commented on how that guy (black man) could have been shot. He had his hands up after all. This goes to preconceived notions again. Do you really know that man had his hands up? The view from the helicopter obscured the view of the man who was then shot. All anybody can see is the man next to his vehicle and I can not tell if his arms are still raised, as can anybody else. What do we have here then? We have a certain segment of the population making up their minds without having all the information necessary to make an informed decision about this case. Did the police shot this man without provocation, maybe, but we don’t know for sure. The same thing happened in Ferguson Missouri, with Michael Brown. Everybody kept yelling “hands up don’t shot”, because it was believed Michael Brown had actually done that. The evidence however showed that Mr. Brown did not do that and in fact charged the police officer. We later found out that Mr. Brown had robbed a convenience store,but the press never really talked about that. The narrative became, “white cop shots an unarmed black man” and many from our nation are taking every situation and plugging it into that narrative immediately. Many police shooting have occurred since the Michael Brown situation and everyone of the situations have been shoehorned into that narrative. In most of the cases when the truth shows something else the press then moves on without saying much about it, only to leave the idea that the police got away with the murder of another black man. The truth is usually a situation where an individual resisted the police, or in the case of Sylville Smith he didn’t drop his gun when ordered to do so. The fact Sylville had a gun didn’t matter to the race baiters though, it was another black man gunned down by prejudged police. We also have the belief that if all these cases involved a white guy then he would still be alive today to tell the story. I have seen footage of a white man driving in his jacked up pickup (classic redneck, definitely white) and he got pulled over. The man got out of the pickup put was ordered to remain in the pickup. He had a hand in his pocket and was ordered to raise both hands. The guy didn’t listen to the police and instead started to walk around then toward the police officer (the officer was yelling out commands the entire time), then the officer dropped that white guy. He wasn’t sure he had a gun. His hand was in his pocket and did have something in his hand. The officer shot the man a couple more times because he continued to reach for something. Was this racism? This is an example of a police officer wanted to return home to his family alive. I will argue that many of the police shooting are the same. By and large there is no racism or white privilege, just a desire from the police officer to live yet another day. Granted a minority of police shootings are wrong and criminal, but stats show it is a very small minority and is largely prosecuted. Is it white privilege because you feel black people are being targeted by the police. I would argue this is an example of a history teacher who is getting his recent history from limited news sources and is not evaluating the situations behind the history very well.


    1. In fact, I intentionally did not speak directly to the controversial police shootings because, frankly, I’ve been on the fence about a lot of them. I do find the Tulsa one particularly troublesome though, for multiple reasons.


  2. From your article ” I stopped what I was doing and just listened. She started to tell me how she was having a really hard time dealing with her emotions over the Tulsa police shooting of unarmed Terence Crutcher. She asked if I had seen the helicopter footage. I told her I had.” Then “She asked, “how did they think he was a ‘bad dude’? He had his hands up.”

    I said, “I know,” I really didn’t know what to say…”I guess because he was big and black.”
    “She told me how she is terrified for her brother, a college graduate with a professional job who also happens to have dreadlocks down his back. She lives in constant fear that he could end up like Terence Crutcher after a routine traffic stop because of the growing fears of young men who look like he does.” All that dealt specially with the shooting in Tulsa and how your fellow teacher and apparently you feel that any black American man with dreadlocks can get shot down by the police in this nation. You didn’t know how to deal with the question because obviously you as a white man don’t have to worry about being shot by the police, because you are privileged enough to be white which means you won’t get shot. It is my argument that neither you nor any other man of any color should have to worry about being shot by the police. If you do what the police ask, keep your hands where they should be and don’t act like a complete moron. White idiots are shot at a much higher rate than black men. Why? Because most of them are idiots and give the police cause to shot them. Today we find that a black man shot in Charlotte NC was indeed armed, yet the race hustlers were out in force to stoke riots and bad feelings toward the police. We need to put all the racial blame away along with the “white privilege” and come together as one nation, not of African-Americans or white Americans, but as a nations of patriotic AMERICANS.


  3. Not being cognizant of white privilege IS part of white privilege, is the equivalent of saying, “black people can’t be racist, because they are a minority”. The very idea that white privilege is assigned to all white people is the interesting thing. There are no explanations for it, only that you have that privilege because of your skin color. Throughout life, being white has never been an advantage to me. I couldn’t qualify for college grants or scholarships because I am white. Being a white Catholic male, means I am among a group of people that can be trashed by the media and political pundits on a regular basis without worrying about repercussion. I understand that being white means that I more than likely did not grow up poor, which we where close to on multiple occasions. Being white also might mean I didn’t grow up in a dilapidated inner city with bad schools, which I did not grow up in. I was a lower middle class country kid who wasn’t suppose to grow up to be anybody. The real privilege goes to those of all colors who do not live in the inner cities. Poverty, drugs and single motherhood have destroyed futures of the children in those neighborhoods. As a teacher you are probably more than aware of the difficult situation that exists in inner city schools. It is impossible to teach kids, who have no reason to learn. Their mom is home, high on drugs and doesn’t care if their kids do well at all in school. The kids grow up knowing only the fact that they can rely on a government subsidy to help them get by, or if they really want to make money, join a gang and make bank. Why not! These kids have all these Rap stars and athletes to look up to who are acting like thugs. Thug life, why not! Rap stars showing off their guns and money on videos. It’s all very easy, except it isn’t reality. When reality hits we have uneducated boys growing up thinking they can disrespect the law and all authority, then we end up with black men getting gunned down because they never had to obey anybody. It’s not that some people or a certain color of people have privilege, it’s that a certain percentage of one color of people have been stripped of theirs by government dependency, drugs, single motherhood and generationally institutionalized low expectations from the poverty that results from the aforementioned reasons. By the way, this kid who was not suppose to grow up to be anything is called “Doctor” now and there are many examples of black Americans who rose above their situations that were much worse to be great people. They need to be celebrated and emulated. They don’t talk of white privilege, they speak of education, respect for themselves, the law, hard work and others. That is the ticket to the American dream.


  4. Anyone with decent reading comprehension can “grasp” what your saying..they are just making a point that maybe the womans feelings are mislead..and she feels that way when she shouldnt because shes basing them on instances that she was falsely informed of! And maybe being a woman of color..shes actually trained to think a certain way about things of this nature cuz of her own racial views..daaanngg


  5. Trust me my empathy runs deep..and i understand racism is REAL..but when the media or BLM is taking things out of context and running with it..making the world worse..and spreading hate thicker than my empathy runs deep! It begins to put a empathy block in my brain! This shit is happening states away from me..and i see or hear these fabricated stories from black peers everyday..and they really believe it! sorry but i treat others how i want to be treated.. and have no part of the situations..and all this shit is doing is making the black community want to treat or think about white people HERE (where i live) like we are literally in Ferguson or wherever else this stuff is happening.


  6. Can’t say I can trust that your empathy really runs that deep at all, Michael. You sound like a white guy who’s grown tired of hearing about something he doesn’t actually have to live. Ever. That’s convenient for you.


  7. Of course i sound “white” why cuz i dont buy into all the bullshit..and how BLM is making things worse?? Only a white person could think like that?? That itself is rasist.. i have black family and friends..they see this bullshit for what it is..simply media spreading hate..


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