This post is truly a break from the norm for me. My knowledge of racism and privilege is both limited and skewed. I’ve never thought of myself as a racist or even privileged before.
However, my eyes have been opening slowly to a world I wasn’t seeing – one that’s slanted in favor of white people like myself.
I’ll be honest – this is a subject that I don’t feel comfortable addressing. As a white male, I’m hesitant that I’ll say something that will be taken the wrong way or misconstrued.
It really is easier to just shut-up and coast than it is to open your mouth and utter something that has the potential to offend others. And selfishly, I guess I have a concern about getting beat-up on the Internet because of something I didn’t understand.
But I also think this post is significant. With the small amount I’ve learned so far, I’m starting to realize that it’s important for white people to step up and get the discussion going as well. Using my platform to address racism and privilege might just be a minor action, but hopefully, it becomes a small part of the catalyst of change needed.
My upbringing and career
Yeah, I know, why are we talking about me? But I think it’s important to define my life first in order to understand my thoughts on racism and privilege later. So here we go…
I grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood about a 20-minute drive south of Cleveland, Ohio. The city I lived in was diverse in and of itself. However, it wasn’t very integrated. There were two main bridges going from one part of the city to the other. I didn’t realize this until high school, but the part of the city on one side of the bridges was mostly white while the other side was mostly black.
I lived on the “mostly white” side. I went to a private Catholic school from first through eighth grade. It was a small school with around 30-35 students in each grade and they became your classmates for 8 years. A few kids came and went throughout that time, but not very many. Your classmates were the main friends you grew up with for almost a decade… and not one of the kids in my class throughout all that time was black.
When we would go out to play with kids in the neighborhood, I can’t remember any non-white kids being there.
Then came high school. The school was on the other side of the bridges and suddenly diversity became the norm for me. I’d guess that the high school was about 60-70% white during my freshman year and probably 60-70% black by the time I graduated.
In my four years of high school, there would be a couple of fights that seemed to happen in the school hallways every year. Strangely, I don’t remember one of them being interracial – funny, right? Whites fighting with whites, blacks with blacks, but never a mix that I recall.
Even though I obviously recognized the difference in skin color with others, I was friends with a lot of black people at school. We talked, we laughed, we had fun.
But in reality, I didn’t hang around with any black friends outside of school. It wasn’t because I had any problems with doing so, but rather that I had two core groups of close-knit friends I hung out, none of who were black. On the other hand, one of very my close friends in one of these groups was part Vietnamese, which I’m just now learning means he’s a person of color (more on that shortly).
Fast forward to my two decades in IT before I retired. While I was a Systems Engineer, we had a team of probably around 8 of us. Of those 8, only 1 was black. He was the funniest guy and I loved it when we got put on jobs together because we’d laugh so much that it really made working fun.
The whole team would all go out for beers periodically and I even went to a party at the black engineer’s house one time. He was older than me so he wasn’t in my core group of regular friends, but we did have fun in the years we worked together.
We also had two desktop technicians (one black and one other person of color) who have been there now for well over 20 years. The black technician was promoted to be an engineer who I later managed when I became the Systems Engineers Manager.
I never really considered that racism or privilege could have existed in my workplace. But it’s very possible it could have been there and I just was blind to it. Out of maybe 40 employees, only a few were black. That never seemed abnormal to me though… if someone turned in their resume, I reviewed, interviewed, and hired based on their skills and not the color of their skin. The same would go for promotions and pay.
Overall, I’ve always treated everyone like people – I really don’t care what color your skin is. That seemed to be good enough in my mind. It wasn’t until recently though that I’m learning that that isn’t enough.
What I don’t know about racism and privilege
Ha! That’s probably about 85% true, unfortunately.
And that’s likely the case because I had privilege growing up and didn’t even realize it.
But seriously, I don’t even know the basics. First off, I’m not a politically correct guy – I hate the whole politically correct stuff.
That said, I don’t even know if I should say blacks, African Americans, people of color, etc. So I do hope don’t offend anyone by saying “black people” or “white people” throughout this post.
When I mentioned earlier that none of the kids were blacks in my elementary school, I actually had to ask a friend if one of my dark-skinned classmates was black for this post. You have to understand this was a friend of mine growing up for a decade, but I still wasn’t positive. He texted back…
She’s a woman of color
Believe it or not, that alone opened a small door for me. I’m so naive that I thought “black” and “person of color” were synonymous. Yeah, I know – it’s that bad. Don’t worry, now I get that blacks are people of color but not all people of color are blacks. In other words, a person of color (POC) is anyone who’s not white.
I’m pathetic, right?
So no I didn’t have any black classmates, but we did have three people of color in my class for those eight years of school. Man, oh man, I know I’m going to get crushed in the comments for my ignorance!
What I’m learning about racism and privilege
Ok, so by now, you realize that I’m about as close to hopeless as you get on this stuff… but I am learning!
All this time, I thought that because I treated people as equals that racism wasn’t something that was a part of my life. End of story.
What I’m starting to realize through various mediums lately though is that there’s so much more that I didn’t consider.
The biggest eye-opener for me was a video from Emmanuel Acho on Twitter. Acho is a former NFL linebacker who was drafted by the Cleveland Browns but ended up playing for the Eagles. He’s currently working as an analyst for ESPN. I can’t remember how I came across this video, but it helped change some of the ways I thought about racism and privilege…
Dear white people,
For days you’ve asked me what you can do to help. I’ve finally found an answer.
Let your guard down and listen. pic.twitter.com/74SVv8XOqp
— Emmanuel Acho (@thEMANacho) June 2, 2020
When the blacks were freed, white people just assumed that they should now be treated as equals. The problem is that white people had hundreds of years as a head start so we weren’t really on even ground.
On June 4, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson progressed these words as part of his commencement address at Howard University in Washington, D.C.:
You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.
— President Lyndon B. Johnson [Cited from The Washington Post]
I had never heard this before but it makes sense and still resonates today.
I never understood white privilege. In my mind, I saw both whites and people of color going to high school and college just like I did. If I didn’t care about skin-color when interviewing and hiring employees, why wouldn’t most others be in the same camp? We’re all on the same footing, right?
But now I’m starting to open up my mind a little more. Even just regarding my thoughts on hiring, privilege can easily ring true in the workplace. Think about this for a minute…
- White men account for 72% of corporate leadership at 16 of the Fortune 500 companies
- Numbers as high as 70% or even 85% of jobs are filled through networking (personal and professional connections)
- 75% of white Americans say that their social circle is entirely white
It’s then probably pretty logical to guess that most of the hiring of the valuable white-collar positions will go to other white people. And you could also see how that circle would just continue over and over again.
In a nutshell, just because the opportunities might appear the same on the surface, things aren’t always what they seem.
It’s things like this that are helping me to gain a better understanding of the plight of black people to find a stronger foothold in society.
What can I do?
As a white male, I truly don’t have all the answers to this question. However, I’m learning that just going about your business and ignoring what’s happening is part of the problem… and that’s the camp I would have fallen in for decades.
The first thing we can do is learn more about privilege and racism and their effects in the U.S. (or even the world). I still don’t know enough to feel like I should be directing you a certain way considering how little I know. But here are a few resources that I thought are worth passing along that I’ve come across lately:
- First off, the video on Twitter I mentioned from Emmanuel Acho is very good.
- Michelle Jackson from the site, Michelle Is Money Hungry put out a good podcast episode/post about what going on called “A Candid Conversation About Race in America.”
- I found this YouTube video from Trevor Noah to be worthwhile. I learned about it after reading Joe’s post, “Inequity and Financial Independence” from the Retire by 40 blog.
- This Netflix video I came across on YouTube was thought-provoking as well. For instance, changing your Instagram background to black for the day isn’t going to make a difference – you need to do more to stop racism.
- Systemic Racism Explained – This short but very good video on YouTube breaks gives you an idea of what systemic racism is and why it continues.
- Anti-racism resources – I’m not sure where I came across this Google Doc but it’s a list of links to so many books, podcasts, articles, and other resources to check out.
I asked a friend of mine (who’s black) to read through this post to give his thoughts on it before I published it. My thinking was that it was important to get an opinion from a black man or woman. I anticipated a lot of negative feedback, but he gave me the thumbs up.
The reason that I’m bringing this up is that he also suggested that I watch the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro.” I don’t know much about it but I plan to watch that this week and thought I’d relay that as something you may want to add to your list as well.
The second thing I’m learning is that it’s important to realize that not being a racist isn’t good enough. Folks like me to learn to be anti-racist and that means taking a more aggressive stance on racism.
That means calling out racism when you see it, acting on it, and possibly standing side-by-side with the peaceful protestors (that one’s much harder for me while here in Panama). It also means learning who’s in office (especially locally), finding out what they stand for, and voting out the garbage.
I like to keep an open mind about things and I’m always willing to change. Changing is how we grow. If you’re not willing to change, you’ll never become a better person.
My life-long friend (who’s white) is also much further ahead on understanding how ingrained racism and privilege are in our culture. As we were talking about how I was a little nervous writing this post because I was afraid of saying something wrong, he said:
We will always make mistakes, but working toward a more diverse and inclusive community and workplace is worth the pain of a few mistakes.
I thought that was insightful and worth sharing.
Hopefully, my naivety on both racism and privilege didn’t irk you too badly. All I know is that I’m willing to learn and want to better stand up against racism.
I don’t condone the riots and violence that were happening in the U.S., but I do support the protesting. It’s time for a change.
Thanks for reading!!