How to Confront Your White Privilege

An Instagram post on white privilege by Munroe Bergdorf

White people: we need to talk. 

*Updated on June 4, 2020

Short version: Being silent is not an option. Educate yourself. Learn more about what you don’t know. Engage other white people in conversations about race. Do the lifelong antiracist work to be a part of the solution, not perpetuate the problem that has killed Black Americans for centuries.

To learn how to and how not to do antiracist work, read on.

As America takes time to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in January and Black History Month arriving soon in February, this is a time of year when white people think about race.

Typically I hear two types of questions from white people:

“What can I do to be more aware of racial inequity?”

or

“Why are we still talking about race?”

The first question is productive and can lead to awareness-building while the second question is at best surface-level curiosity and at worst a defensive and loaded non-question. If you’re white and asking the first question, you’re probably willing to learn about white fragility. If you’re white and asking the second question, chances are you have a lot to learn about white fragility and racial inequity. Either way, welcome. Let’s get started. We have a lot to talk about on how to confront white privilege.

If you are a white person in the United States who has ever asked: “Why is race still an issue?” or wished that black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC for short) “could just focus on something else” your lack of willingness to address your white privilege is why racism exists and persists.

Your refusal to stop and look at the social and economic benefits awarded to you is damaging. When you refuse to accept this, BIPOC are discriminated against and killed. As with most things, this is not a problem for others to deal with.

If you truly want to do the work of moving forward, keep reading to learn more about white privilege. If you’re feeling the defensiveness rise up within you as it does for so many white people when confronted with this truth, I invite you to keep reading to learn more about your white fragility. 

To move forward together, we’ll need some definitions of the phrases white privilege and white fragility so we can all be on the same page. 

What is White Privilege? 

So what does the phrase white privilege mean? Layla Saad, globally respected writer, speaker, and podcast host on the topics of race, identity, leadership, personal transformation, and social change defines white privilege in her book Me and White Supremacy: “Though white privilege as a legislative, systemic and cultural norm has existed for a very long time, it was women’s studies scholar Peggy McIntosh who first coined the term ‘White Privilege’ in her 1988 paper “White Privilege And Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies”. A year later, a substantial portion of that paper was excerpted and was published as a paper titled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”. The paper contains 50 examples of white privilege. McIntosh writes:

‘I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank checks.’ -Peggy McIntosh

White privilege is unearned advantages that are granted because of one’s whiteness or ability to ‘pass’ as white. White privilege is separate from, but can intersect with, class, privilege, gender privilege, sexuality privilege, age privilege, able-bodied privilege, or any other types of privileges.”

I’ve also heard white privilege be explained as a metaphor of fish in water. The fish represents white people and the water represents white privilege. So immersed and dependent are white people on the social and economic benefits of white privilege that we aren’t aware of the extent that it’s around us until we’re told that what it is and that we’re swimming, living, and breathing in it. 

What is White Fragility? 

So what is white fragility? Racial and social justice educator Robin DiAnglelo defines white fragility in her book White Fragility as: “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” 

Layla Saad gives a list of common examples of white fragility in action in her book Me and White Supremacy

  • “White fragility shows up as white people getting angry, defensive, afraid, arguing, claiming they’re being shamed, crying or simply falling silent and choosing to check out of the conversation.”
  • It looks like calling the authorities (the manager, the police, the social media censors) on BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) when you are uncomfortable with what they are sharing about race. (I have had my social media posts reported and censored more than a dozen times because of white fragility).
  • On social media platforms it also includes deleting what you wrote (another form of running away and pretending it never happened) when you can’t handle where the conversation is going.
  • White fragility includes crying during racial interactions.
  • In essence, white fragility looks like a white person taking the position of victim, when it is in fact that white person who has committed or participated in acts of racial harm.”

If white privilege is the social and economic benefits afforded to white people, white fragility is the defensive response that occurs when white people are confronted with their white privilege. It is important to note that white fragility is often where conversations about race become stuck or die on the scene. When the conversation around race becomes stuck, racism persists. 

The work to end racism requires the full participation of white people. When, and only when white people can address their implicit role in racial inequity we can begin to unravel hundreds of years of racism. Racism is not going away without white people first coming to terms with how we benefit from white privilege in subtle ways. If we let white fragility sabotage, redirect, or derail conversations about race, people will continue to be systematically discriminated against.

White Fragility is a White People Problem

One more thing that’s tricky but important: it is not the job of BIPOC to do this work for white people. White privilege and white fragility are white people’s problems. They are not the responsibility of BIPOC to solve for white people. This is perhaps the trickiest nuance of all and when I learned this, I struggled to understand how to do the work of racial privilege effectively with other white people without “white-centering” the conversation. In all honesty, I still struggle with it. 

The take-away for me has been to learn as much as I can from BIPOC authors, speakers, leaders, influencers, friends, colleagues, and others and then discuss what I learn with other white people. If my behavior or language gets corrected or called out along the way by BIPOC, I do my best to listen, process, and accept what I’ve been told as a new and generous teaching.

White people need to start having real and difficult conversations about their white privilege. Until white people address their white fragility, the defensiveness that occurs when the issues of white privilege and inequity come up, racism will persist. Racism will remain inconvenient for some, unfair for all, and deadly for people of color. 

Are you with me so far? In short:

  • White privilege: white people’s social and economic benefits they receive by virtue of the color of their skin
  • White fragility: white people’s defensive or denial response when confronted with white privilege 
  • BIPOC are not responsible for teaching white people about racial inequity; if and when BIPOC take the risk and volunteer to teach white people, it’s best to listen and be appreciative for the teachable moment
  • Racial justice work requires everyone to have uncomfortable and brave conversations about race

Race Is Not a Good/Bad Binary Issue

As with most things, the details of race are in the nuance. Most people I know agree that racism is bad, but in fact the oversimplification of race as an either/or, good/bad binary issue has led to insidious racism. This type of racism is typically unintended, but still harmful. An example of insidious racism is using the word “ghetto” to describe a neighborhood, an outfit, or a hairstyle. And while insidious racism can be unknowingly subtle and harmful compared to overt racism, which is knowingly hateful and harmful, racism is still racism. In other words, describing your untidy house as “ghetto” (insidious racism) and using a racial slur towards BIPOC (overt racism) are not the same, but be sure that both are racist things to say. 

A lot of white fragility comes from the reactive response to having racist language, behaviors, or actions being called out.

“BUT I’M NOT A RACIST!” or “I HAVE BLACK/HISPANIC/ASIAN/MIDDLE EASTERN/NATIVE AMERICAN FRIENDS!” white people often exclaim in defense of their own character.

It’s important to remember that behavior is not the same as identity. I hear parents tell their children all the time: “I love you, but I don’t like your behavior right now. Your behavior affects us all and is not acceptable. Here’s what you can stay instead.” Saying a racist thing doesn’t necessarily make you racist, but the fact remains that your racist behavior is being called out and you’re being unequivocally told that it’s not acceptable. It requires you as a listener to hear the feedback that’s being given to you and make a decision about your words and actions from that moment forward. 

I’ve heard BIPOC say that confronting defensive white fragility is actually harder than dealing without outright overt racism. A coworker of mine and I were talking about race one afternoon. He’s a twenty-something young black man who had grown up in Memphis and remarked:

“I can handle ignorant white people who say overtly racist things; it’s the people who say racist things, don’t realize it, and overreact when I try to talk to them about what they’ve said that are the worst to talk to.”

Don’t be this white person. If you’re words or behavior are called out by a person of color, listen. Process. Give an authentic apology. Vow to learn from this interaction and do better next time. 

And make no mistake: insidious and overt racism will continue to harm, kill, and disproportionately affect BIPOC in the United States until white people become aware of how they knowingly and unknowingly participate in white privilege and don’t react defensively to it with white fragility.

Another short summary:

  • Racism is not a good/bad binary issue. In other words, there is no “them and us” meaning racism cannot be defined on a spectrum of “good, well-intended people and bad, ill-intended racist people”. 
  • Insidious racism is more nuanced, but can be equally or more harmful than overt racism. 

What Does a White Woman From Oregon Know About Race? 

I know what you’re thinking. What does a white woman who was born and raised in Oregon know about race? The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the population of the state of Oregon to be is 86.8 percent white.

Although Oregon is replete with well-intending liberally-minded people who claim to be open-minded, The Atlantic published an article summarizing historical and modern-day racism in an area of the country where people tend to wear their progressiveness as a proud badge of honor. The majority of Oregonians consider themselves to be well-educated, open-minded, and liberal-learning and most would not consider themselves racists.

I too carried this identity with me when I moved from Oregon to Memphis, Tennessee, a city which the U.S. Census Bureau estimates to be 29.1 percent white. Having visited Memphis a few times, I was looking forward to living in a more racially diverse place, but truth be told, I really had no idea what it would be like to live in a racially diverse place until I got here.

I went home to Oregon for the holidays, my first time back to my homeland in 18 months. When the conversation meandered towards race, I heard the sound bites of my childhood contrasted against what I know now to be white privilege and white fragility:

  • “I don’t see color.” 
  • “I never saw my friend as Japanese; I didn’t realize it until he told me about his Japanese-American heritage.” 
  • “I wish we could focus more on what unites us rather than what divides us.” 

I believe the people who said these words really didn’t mean to do any harm. But as we’ve already discussed, racism is equally harmful whether it’s overt or insidious. Despite claims from white people that they don’t see racial differences and wish they would just go away already, numerous studies show that racial awareness is in fact real.

To reiterate: racism is not going away until white people decide to confront it.  

How Can I Confront My White Fragility? 

Confront your White Fragility

If you truly want the world to move forward from the race conversation, here are two things to remember about white fragility:

Number one: Racism isn’t going away until all white people can confront their white fragility. 

In his cover story for the Atlantic titled The Case for Reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates says it best: 

Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”

Until the United States can address its institutional violence and inequities against people of color, race is not going away. This starts with white people since they have historically benefited socially and economically from white privilege and upholding it with white fragility.   

Number two: White people wishing that racism would go away is an insidious form of white supremacy.

Wishing for us “all to be one” is a wonderfully lofty goal. Trust me, I also want to live in a world where racism does not divide us. But wishing away hundreds of years of abuses of power, violence, and oppression to be neatly swept under the proverbial rug without being properly dealt with is not working. This method is akin to telling a grieving person: “get over your dead loved one and move on already” (which my mother, who was widowed when I was three years old, can attest that people do in fact say things like this). Grief takes the time that it takes. 

It is the job of white people to take the lead from BIPOC in dealing with racism. 

Do the Work

Confront your white supremacy. Notice it. Journal about it. Grapple with it. Take it to your therapist or coach, so long as your therapist or coach is not BIPOC. As we’ve already discussed, expecting people of color to support white people in realizing the full scope of their white privilege is emotional labor. White fragility is the responsibility of white people to solve. 

Include People of Color 

Representation matters. Inclusion matters. This is a large category that covers all manner of workplace, social, and institutional representation. Advocate for diversity of representation of race in your circles of business, worship, leadership, yoga studios, monthly potlucks, neighborhood meetings, and so on. 

Shut Up and Listen

This means listening to BIPOC when they choose to share their perspective or feedback with you and not countering with any defensive remarks. Appropriate verbal responses to practice good listening that indicate respect and gratitude for the person you’re listening to include: 

  • “Thank you for sharing your perspective with me.”
  • “I hear you.”
  • “Is there anything else you’d like to add?”
  • “How can I best support you?”
  • “What would you like me to do?” (and then actually follow up in action if you’re asked to do something)

Read Books 

Books about Race Written by Authors of Color 

Books about Race Written by White Authors

  • White Fragility by Robin Di Angelo
  • Waking Up White by Debby Irving
  • Rising Out of Hatred: the Awakening of a Former White Nationalist by Pulitzer Prize winner Eli Saslow – A look under the hood at the alt-right white nationalist movement. I am loathed to recommend this book since the person it’s about has already done so much damage. Giving him more attention seems counter-intuitive. Alarming and compelling perspectives for those “who just can’t understand white supremacists”. This book will help you understand. 

Speak Up

If you’re a white person and you witness a POC being discriminated against, overtly or insidiously with microaggressions, say something. Alternatively, don’t pretend to know what you don’t know. 

Here’s something I’m not proud to admit. A dear friend of mine who is black explained the Trayvon Martin case to me. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the news in spring 2012. I still find it hard to sort through and find meaning in the massive media machine, but I need to be better at consuming some news rather than just shoving it away entirely. Anyway, my friend asked me what I thought about this case and I admitted that I wasn’t familiar with the details. He summarized the entire situation for me how Trayvon Martin was shot just for walking around in his neighborhood. I should have done better to learn about police violence against black people, or black children in this case. It would have helped me to speak up when earlier that year my white relative made a Trayvon Martin joke. I didn’t understand it fully, but I knew that a teenager had been killed, so how could that be funny in any context? I should have spoken up. 

Watch Movies & Series

Visit Museums

  • National Civil Rights Museum – Lorraine Motel, Memphis, TN. Located at the Lorraine Motel, the location where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. 
  • The National Memorial for Peace and Justice – Montgomery, AL. Also known as “The Lynching Museum”, this museum keeps the horrors of the past relevant to the future so that the narrative of institutional racism in the United States can be known from BIPOC’s perspective, not a white-washed historical one. 

Support Organizations 

Donate your time or money to these organizations or ones like them that represent the empowerment of BIPOC: 

  • 28 Organizations That Empower Black Communities – Huffington Post
  • Black Lives Matter – The Black Lives Matter Global Network is a chapter-based, member-led organization whose mission is to build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.
  • Life After Hate – Founded by former extremists, we are committed to helping people leave the violent far-right to connect with humanity and lead compassionate lives.
  • NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)

Amplify the Voices of People of Color 

Canvass for a local, state, or national political candidate of color whose political platform aligns with yours. 

One of my favorite Memphians is Gabby Salinas: healthcare advocate, three-time childhood cancer survivor, and scientist who’s on a lifelong mission to bring Tennesseans the healthcare, education, safety, and infrastructure they need to thrive. I knocked on over 2,000 doors for her in 2018 and I’m ready to do whatever she needs me to do to have the people elect her to the Tennessee State House in 2020. She is one of the fiercest, friendliest, and focused people I know and Memphians desperately need her to represent them in government.

Support Black-Owned Businesses

Do a Google search for “black businesses near me” and support those businesses.

Take in the Perspectives of People of Color

Follow artists, authors, leaders, and influencers of color on social media or subscribe to their email lists to gain access to their teachings and perspectives. Here’s a short list of some of my personal favorites in no particular order: 

Know Better & Do Better

A mantra that guides all the learning in my life comes from the brilliant, powerful, and gracious Dr. Maya Angelou

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Know better. Then do better. Inquire, then change. 

White privilege and white fragility is an inherited cultural problem. Knowing about it is the first step, and doing better is the next step. The last step cannot be ignored.

My own work around white fragility is not over and I doubt it ever will be. I am trying my best to learn, but I do not expect that my commitment to learning more will make up for the social and economic advantages offered to me throughout my life because I’m white. I remain committed to learning about and teaching white fragility. I don’t say this to earn credit for being a good white person (which Layla Saad calls out as ‘Optical Allyship’). I remain committed to having open conversations about race and holding white people accountable for their words and actions when it comes to white privilege and white fragility. I also remain open to being called out if I say anything inappropriate, including what I said here in this blog post. 

I am grateful for the perspectives I’ve gained from listening to people of color. I have much more to learn. I want to share those perspectives with my white and white-passing family members and friends. I want to celebrate our uniqueness. I want us all to be good ancestors as Layla Saad implores us to remember as the big picture perspective on why we should do the work around racial equity. 

If you are white and you take one thing away from this, I hope it is one or all of the following:

  1. The knowledge that white privilege and white fragility are real and you have benefited from both, knowingly or unknowingly, by virtue of your skin color. 
  2. That you will commit to taking action on doing your own work to learn more about white privilege and white fragility.
  3. That you’ll stop saying things like: “I just don’t see color” or “I never think of so-and-so as their race” or “I wish we could just focus on what unifies us rather than what divides us” and be a better ancestor doing the work and leaving a more effective and honest legacy.

What came up for your after reading this? What steps are you willing to take to do your own racial equity work? Will you commit to taking at least one step?

If this was informative or helpful for you in any way, please consider sharing it with someone. Start a conversation. Leave a comment. And subscribe to receive monthly updates. I’m actively soliciting stories of persistence from a diverse representation of forward-moving women, so if you’d like to be a featured writer here on Onward Woman, please share your story

Onward, people.