How can we white people be “woke” to our privilege?

It starts with realizing everything you have been taught was skewed from the perspective of white males – the educators, the faith leaders, the doctors, the historians and the politicians. Everything I had been taught was controlled by a white patriarchal society.

My journey began a few years ago when I met DeRay McKesson, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter civil rights movement. He explained the concept of white privilege to me. This is the concept that just because my skin is white, life has been immeasurably easier for me than for people of color.

This fluke of nature automatically raised my social status above those born to parents with different skin pigment. It has nothing to do with how hard I may have worked. It has to do with understanding that my accomplishments were easier to achieve because I’m white. On the flip side, my failures were not as significant because as a white person, my safety net was bigger and stronger.

My first reaction to DeRay was defensive. I remember thinking that it’s not my fault that I’m white and he’s black and that I’ve had an easier road to travel – so I asked him what, if anything, I could do as a white person about this skin color injustice. His reply really resonated. He said, “Use your white privilege to disrupt it”.

Meeting with DeRay reminded me of the first time I had a flicker of racial understanding. I was 16 and working at a summer job as a switchboard operator with the telephone company. I had just finished reading “Gone With The Wind” and told my work friends how much I liked it. One of my fellow operators told me she viewed the book differently than I did. I was taken a back that someone wasn’t as excited about the book as I.

When we returned to the switchboard after our break, we happened to sit next to each other. As our arms reached for the cords to answer calls, the contrast in their color was stunning. As I looked at her dark arm next to my light arm, I started to think about how this color difference caused her life to vary from mine. I begin to imagine all the ways her color made her life harder than mine – such as sitting on the back of the bus, standing at the back of the lines, being turned away from restaurants and shops, being ridiculed and scorned in public places by white people. I imagined her life so different from mine even though we lived in the same town – she on one side and I on the other. It was my first flicker of insight into social injustice.

Now I am facing 70 and since retiring a few years ago, I’ve had the time and opportunity to learn new theories of history and society. I’ve been learning history from new perspectives – those of Native Americans, women and people of color. I’m discovering how the history of these disenfranchised groups is much different than I had learned growing up reading textbooks and being taught by teachers parroting the perspective of the white males who wrote the books.

The truth is, US history has been very unjust and violent. The real story is unconscionable greed, inhumanity and empire building by white people from Western Europe. Our country, which is the most powerful nation in the world, achieved its status on the backs of non-white people.

First we killed the native people and banned their culture under the guise of christianity. Then we built our economy on the backs of black people whom we enslaved for hundreds of years. Then we organized society into classes elevating white male landowners and disenfranchising all others.

Slavery didn’t end after the Civil War and it didn’t end after Jim Crow (the racial caste system post reconstruction to the mid 60’s) and it hasn’t ended yet – it’s merely taken on different attributes. Understanding this is necessary to begin one’s “awakening”. I found the documentary, “13th” (about how the 13th amendment may have ended legal slavery but it didn’t end repression), to be very enlightening about life in the US from a black perspective.

Black people have been kept down in many ways including substandard public education, housing, healthcare and an incredibly unfair treatment by the criminal “justice” system.

The US has more people in prison that anywhere else in the world and the percentage of blacks in relationship to the black population is astounding.

Between 1980 and 2015 the number of people incarcerated went from 500,00 to 2.2 million! The US population accounts for 5% of the world’s population but it has 21% of the world’s prison population. In 2015, blacks made up 34% of the prison population but only 14% of the country’s entire population. According to the NAACP Criminal Fact Sheet, if blacks and Latinos were incarcerated at the same rate as whites, the prison population would decline by 40%!

Why do more people of color end up in prison – because police often engage in racial profiling – either intentionally or due to implicit bias. Once a person of color is detained, he/she is more likely than not to be arrested and jailed for what are often minor offenses such as a burned out tail light or exceeding the speed limit. Once stopped, the cops often find a pretext for arrest. Once jailed, the money bond system kicks in.

Large insurance companies (often parading as mom and pop businesses) essentially control the money bond system with powerful lobbyists. This system has devolved into a practice that unfairly discriminates against poor people who can’t come up with the cash to get out of jail. People jailed like this often remain in custody for weeks, months and even years! They lose their jobs, their apartments and at times, even their lives. It begins a devastating downward spiral impacting those jailed, their families, and society as a whole.

The way blacks and other people of color are treated by the criminal “justice” system – be it racial profiling, the money bond system, the “war on drugs”, (meaning the war on the kind of drugs found primarily in poor neighborhoods such as crack and heroin) and the proliferation of for-profit prisons with government contracts that are paid on a per diem basis increasing their profits the more people who are incarcerated, represents the continuation of slavery and Jim Crow in our era.

As part of my awakening, I have learned that different races do not really exist. “Race” is something made up to classify humans by their appearance – known as a social construct. All people, regardless of their color, share 99.9% of the same genes. The differences in appearance known as racial differences are actually evolutionary adaptations. Once we accept this fact, we may begin to see ourselves more closely aligned with those we have heretofore considered biologically different. I learned this at the Race exhibit at San Diego’s Museum of Man and find it to be quite revolutionary in understanding society.

As another part of my awakening, I have learned that the Black Lives Matter movement is a continuation of the civil rights struggle of the 60’s by a new name with new leadership arising out of the death of young black men killed by the police without justification. When people say that ALL lives matter, I have learned to reply that of course all lives matter – but that misses the point. The point can be analogized to a house on fire in a neighborhood – of course all houses in that neighborhood matter but for the people that live there and the firefighters who are called, it is the house on fire that matters. Black lives have been on fire in all aspects of our society – most notably with respect to young black men caught in the crosshairs of police gunfire.

Back to my initial query – can we white people be “woke”? If so, how and why should we? We can probably never know the extent of the injustice experienced by people of color and trying to be “woke” is more of a journey than a destination.

People evolve in different ways. My journey involves reading contemporary books and essays written by black authors and organizations, watching documentaries (such as “13th”) and taking classes and meeting new people outside my regular circle with different experiences and perspectives.

If we ever hope to have a fair and just society in the US, I think it is important for us white people to try to understand what white privilege means and, as DeRay advised, use our white privilege to disrupt it!


Written by Anne M. Haule / Copyright 2018