Racism and Privilege – My Naivety is Astounding!

Racism and Privilege - My Naivety is Astounding!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

Everything.

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…

No. Filipino
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…

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…

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:

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!!

— Jim

29 thoughts on “Racism and Privilege – My Naivety is Astounding!”

  1. Thank you for speaking up about your experiences as a white person trying to become more informed about the experiences of people of color in the U.S. I am trying to do the same, and am finding that there is sooo much that has simply not ever been on my radar as a white person. After some research, reading and conversations, I’ve become aware of my privilege not just in the workplace, but at the most basic levels: As a white person, I have never had to worry about being chased down by a car and shot while out for a jog; I have never had women clutch their purses to their sides when I walk by for fear of being robbed; I have never had a store clerk follow me around to make sure I wasn’t shoplifting; I have never been afraid of being unjustly treated by the police. These are all examples of white privilege. Being a white person and being a person of color are two completely different experiences in this country. I appreciate your efforts to improve yourself, and for being open and honest about your ignorance on race and racism.

  2. Thank you for this post!

    I’m a POC woman and what I’ve been through is tiny compared to what blacks have gone through generations of oppression and are still going through. Thank you for your honest post and for sharing Emmanuel’s video. I learnt something new and someone new to follow.. Both Emmanuel and his video are brilliant in explaining the systemic racism.

    I think of racism as systemic community bullying on steroids… if the bystanders do nothing when they see or hear or know about a bully overpowering a bullied, then they are very much a part of the problem why bullying increases. They can’t say ‘I didn’t bully’ and go in with their lives.

    Every one of us have the power to change this systemic racism! It is for us to realize and commit to that change and do something about it.

    1. Thanks, Kay – I’ve never been in a position as a bystander to someone being bullied (or discriminated against). I’d hope that if that ever happened, I’d jump in and say or do something, but that’s also easy to say.

      I really liked Emmanuel’s video – it helped put things into a different perspective that I had never thought of before.

  3. You are in a position of influence because of your blog. Thank you for using it. I’m white and always considered my self totally not prejudiced. But I am also learning more every day about how much racism is still out there, and in fact, how I have contributed to it in certain ways.
    One thing I have thought a lot about is the idea that wealth in white families has allowed whites a “head start” on life in so many ways. That wealth and privilege are passed along, but many black families just have never had that. When I divorced years ago with small children, my generous white parents were a financial safety net for me in the absence of child support from the ex. In general, whites do have far more safety nets than people of color.
    In Trevor Noah’s book he mentioned that saying about teaching a man to fish, rather than just giving him a fish (I’m paraphrasing). Then he said (again paraphrasing) that sometimes we need to give the man a fishing pole! Because of where blacks started (slavery) they have never been on equal footing. We need to get them there.
    Anyway, thank you again for spotlighting this issue, and kudos for being willing to learn and change. I enjoy your blog but this I think may be your most significant post.

    1. I’ve actually been learning more about the wealth being passed from generation to generation as well that helps give white families a leg up. I like the way you put that about safety nets – when you look at things superficially, you don’t recognize things like that (at least I didn’t). This period of time has been a real eye-opener for me and hopefully many others as well. The key will be making change happen.

      1. I give you mad credit for that, man. I’m realizing more and more just how much I don’t know – but WANT to know! – myself over here too… Spending a little time on it every day and these links you’ve mentioned will only help with that – so thx man 🙂

    1. Great post, thanks for sharing. We all need to listen & speak up & stand up for each other. I think you are very right to use your position & podium to speak up & help other white privileged people like me understand.

  4. Thanks for speaking out. I think it’s important that everyone learn about the challenges black people had to face. The system was against them after they were freed. Everything is harder for them – buying a house, getting a raise, interacting with the police, etc…
    We should try to level the playing field. Everyone will be better off if everyone can be more productive.

    1. Thanks, Joe – the more I keep reading and watching lately, the more I’m realizing just how much harder it is for black people to get ahead in life or even have a “normal” life… it’s actually kind of sad that I never recognized this more until now.

      You’re right though that if the playing field gets leveled, it can only be better for society as a whole.

  5. Thank you Jim for being courageous enough to publish your thoughts!

    You’re absolutely correct that its not enough to stand by and ignore the issues. As a white male, I’ve also been largely ignorant and unaware of how systemic racism has been.

    Change is coming, something we all need to embrace.

    1. I never realized just how tough it can be for black people to thrive in this world. It sounds like you’re in a similar boat as well with not fully understanding how much of a stronghold systemic racism has. Maybe this time around will be the catalyst to change that.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations – that was a good clip, particularly the economic comparison with Monopoly. I’ve been watching some clips from Trevor Noah – he’s really got a lot of sound things to say. I’ll lookup Nanette too to see what that’s about (though we don’t have Netflix).

  6. Oh I’m a fan of Acho now! Didn’t know who he was before but that was great.
    As a middle aged white guy myself, I had a thought about that analogy of running the race and being held back at the start. I used to think that it wasn’t fair as generational wealth is by no means an automatic thing for white people; it certainly isn’t for me.

    However… when money, education, white networks, living in fear of weaponized white people, etc all piles up, it just isn’t fair for black people. It was a new appreciation for me on that topic. So I was thankful to see that video from Acho.

  7. I’m glad that you’ve decided to use your platform. It’s very important to hear this from people who have both privilege and platforms, it helps sway minds that refuse to hear it from PoC themselves.

    Honest mistakes are to be expected when you’re learning about something this big and complicated. What matters is how you respond: Defensively, or with an open mind to learning.

    Some people aren’t going to be gentle and nice about your mistakes because they’ve encountered that mistake 1000 times, THIS WEEK. That’s understandable too. There are a whole lot of people who can help you get there, and they’re not always going to be “nice” about it but that shouldn’t be a criteria that we use in whether we learn from someone. And there are a whole lot of other people who have the mental and emotional bandwidth to assist you along the way, they’re invaluable too. I’ve learned from listening to the former group and not speaking. I’ve learned by discussing my failures with the latter group and exploring how to do better.

    Heck, even PoC, myself definitely included, have to do the work of being anti-racist. Many of us grew up with some form of racism in our communities, I was shocked when I started realizing about ten or so years ago that my family was anti-Black racist. It was awful to see and my generation is putting in the time and effort to undo those beliefs as well because it absolutely horrifically affects Black people when teachers, nurses, doctors, and police all believe that Black people are inferior and “angry” and that Black **children** are a danger and deserve to be murdered or hypersexualized.

    Though, I’d be furious as heck myself if I were treated with the same disrespect and dismissiveness that Black people face. (My suggestion, use “Black people” rather than “blacks”. It seems more respectful.) I also suggest that you look for Angela Davis and Jane Elliott to add to your reading / listening list. They do very important work in this area.

    We all have work to do.

    1. I can appreciate that many people might not be nice about my mistakes and that was part of my fear in publishing this post. I felt that it was important to do, nonetheless. Learning from your ignorance is the only way to grow… and maybe this post might help one or more people to understand systemic racism like I’m learning.

      Thanks for the suggestion on using “black people” – consider it done. I also jotted down Angela Davis and Jane Elliott for my reading queue. I appreciate the suggestions!

  8. I’m very appreciative that you wrote this post. I do want to offer a perspective on two lines you wrote.

    “When the blacks were freed, white people just assumed that they should now be treated as equals.”
    This is actually not true. Or maybe it was true for some, but in general, that was not the case. When slavery ended (and if you’ve heard of Juneteenth, you would know that word of emancipation didn’t reach Texas until two years later, on June 19, 1865), there was a systematic campaign against Reconstruction that led to the rise of Jim Crow. Need a resource? Check out “Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow ” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

    “What can I do? As a white male, I truly don’t have all the answers to this question.”
    As a white male, you can do a lot! Posts like this are a great start! White people speaking up about race is hugely important, precisely because of all the factors you present above.

    In America, there is a presumption that white is the “normal” baseline. (Think “girl next door.” That doesn’t bring up the image of a black person, does it?) Black people are presumed to “have race,” white people are the default. The fact is, the color of our skin impacts how we move through the world, and white people helping other white people understand that is hugely powerful!

    1. Thanks, MW – this is really helpful. I’ve never seen as many white people getting involved in understanding how much systemic racism plays a part in society. Like you mentioned, this is a good thing – we absolutely need a lot of change in how things work.

  9. I was at a women’s business owner event, and one of the speakers — who also was a person of color — said that while she appreciated the verbal support for what she was doing (i.e., being a woman and POC in small business), what she appreciated more was when people used her services. I’m encouraged by all of the calls to support black businesses and causes b/c that will have ripple effects that last long-term. One of my favorites — Reel bamboo toilet paper. Support a minority-owned business and sustainability in one fell swoop!

    1. That makes sense, Caroline – it can’t just be lip service or nothing will change. Giving your business to minority-owned companies is a great way to show support.

      And now you had me Google Reel bamboo toilet paper to read more about it! 🙂

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