Using Your White Privilege to Do Good
So, what can I do once I recognize my white privilege?
Beyond recognition, white people can use their white privilege in a way that is beneficial to all people. Here’s how.*
Don’t take it personally or use discomfort as an excuse to disengage.
Feelings of guilt or defensiveness are common responses, but ultimately, they’re counterproductive. Rather than centering your own feelings of discomfort, center the feelings of people of color in evaluating what to do with this information. If your instinct is telling you it’s more comfortable to retreat or reassure yourself that you are not racist, think instead, What actions can I take to help?
Learn when to listen, when to amplify and when to speak up.
When people of color speak to their experiences of oppression, it’s important for white people not to dominate the conversation or question those experiences. You can use your privilege to amplify those voices. Share the work and perspectives of people of color on social media. Credit colleagues of color for ideas. This not only helps marginalized people reach that audience but also helps spread their message from the source, rather than through the lens of a white person.
That said, there are also times when white people should speak up. It’s not fair to burden people of color by making them always take the lead on anti-bias work or intervening when something offensive is said or done. If you hear racist remarks, speak up. If you see opportunities to educate fellow white people about race, do so. As an ally, your privilege can be a tool to reach people who may be more likely to listen to you or relate to your journey in understanding your own relationship to race and white privilege.
Just as you should not always expect people of color to take the lead on speaking out against racism, you also shouldn’t expect them to educate you on racism. While it’s OK to ask questions of those who have expressed a willingness to answer them, you have the power to educate yourself. Seek out books and articles on the topic written by people of color. Critically evaluate documentaries that surround topics like slavery, race, the U.S. prison system and more. We have more access to information created by people of color than ever before. Take advantage of it, and avoid burdening friends or coworkers of color with constant questions about their experiences.
Educate fellow white people.
Share what you’ve learned. Push through discomfort and demand courageous conversations in your circles. Do not let peers get away with problematic remarks without making a serious effort to engage them.
Risk your unearned benefits to benefit others.
You have most likely seen a viral video featuring renowned educator Dr. Joy DeGruy talking about her biracial sister-in-law using her white skin privilege to question why Joy was receiving undue scrutiny from a cashier. She risks her comfort and easy transactions with the store to point out this unfairness and ultimately receives support from witnesses and management.
There are other ways to do this in our daily lives. It can be as simple as intervening if you see a boss or fellow educator treating someone differently because of their racial identity. It can mean advocating for a coworker to receive equal pay or opportunities. It can mean being an active witness when you see people of color confronted by law enforcement or harassed by bigots and letting them know you are there to support them and record the interaction if necessary. And it most certainly can mean engaging directly in anti-bias work, such as instilling more inclusive practices at your school or business or working with people committed to allyship and anti-racist activism, such as SURJ.
*Some of these steps were adapted from suggestions in Emily Chiariello’s “Why Talk About Whiteness?”
Whiteness Project activity
In this activity, educators will watch young, white people talk about how their race affects the way they move through the world. The questions that follow will help fortify their understanding of white privilege and inform ways they can talk about whiteness with colleagues and students.
Participants will watch videos from the Whiteness Project’s Intersection of I.
1. Begin with Connor’s video. After you watch, answer the following questions or discuss in a group setting.
- What privileges does Connor talk about having because of his whiteness?
- If Connor was a person of color, how might his life be different? How might people perceive him?
- Why is Connor just now realizing how lucky he is to have a relatively spotless record? What does this tell us about the importance of talking about whiteness among ourselves and with students? What might happen as a result?
2. Next, watch the videos featuring Sarah, Leilani and Makenna. After you watch, answer the following questions or discuss in a group setting.
- What themes of “colorblindness” come up in each of the videos?
- Do you or colleagues you know espouse this view that colorblindness contributes to racial harmony in the classroom?
- How might this colorblindness isolate or hurt students of color? If you’re having trouble thinking of reasons, browse these articles: Colorblindness: the New Racism? and Waiting for Tiana: Prioritizing Cultural Diversity in Literature.
- How is colorblindness a form of white privilege? How does it further instill the “power of normal”?
3. Finally, discuss this overarching question: How can talking about whiteness help deconstruct “the power of normal” discussed in “What is White Privilege, Really?” If the people in these videos had discussed their whiteness from a young age, consider how their responses might have changed.
4. Take a moment to reflect. Free write for a few minutes about your own experience with whiteness and white privilege, and how that can inform the ways you handle topics of race in the classroom.
Many affluent students are oblivious to issues of race and class. Here are two teaching strategies designed to open their eyes.
This webinar offers tips and use-tomorrow strategies for facilitating conversations.
What good is a privilege walk activity if participants aren’t engaging in perspective shifting?
This article stresses the importance of white educators talking about whiteness, because we can’t talk about racism without it.
This toolkit offers nine steps to engage high school students in a guided viewing of The Whiteness Project.
In this interactive webinar, we discuss whiteness as a racial identity with the understanding that acknowledging whiteness and the privilege and power attached to it is a necessary step in working toward racial justice.
When the word “racist” brought out some strong feelings in a first-grade classroom, this teacher helped the students examine the word’s complexity. This article offers a consideration of white fragility.
This article—written by a white person who has experienced poverty—helps break down the defensiveness a word like “privilege” can create for white people who have experienced poverty.