Road Map to Combatting Injustice
5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented...
18. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race...
50. I will feel welcomed and "normal" in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.
While I’d heard the term “white privilege” thrown around, I never grasped its meaning before reading a list of statements. But as I read through the article containing this list, the fog in my mind surrounding the term slowly cleared. Peggy McIntosh's words helped me form a new understanding of the term “privilege” that added depth and a personal connection to the dictionary definition I had ingrained in my mind.
I am a beneficiary of privilege. I come from a well-off, white family living in an affluent town. I am rarely in a room where my white skin tone stands out. I have never been told I’m attractive “for my race.” The classes I take in school are most often focused on the accomplishments of white people. But since the day that my middle school teacher handed me, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” I haven’t stopped wrestling with where to go from here.
“You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” These forceful words from Leviticus often fill Jewish spaces. But they do not provide a road map on how to actually combat the injustice suffusing our world. For most of my life, I subconsciously adopted a code of silence surrounding the privilege I carry. As I sat in that class, I began my search for this missing road map.
One feature of this long journey has been learning to stop and seek awareness. As I’ve started to see the ways my skin color has often granted me advantages in life, I’ve strived to look beyond the narrow spaces through which I walk. Learning about the inequalities experienced by people with different skin tones or poorer zip codes has helped open my eyes to the world beyond my own and guides me on steps I can take.
Not too long ago, I was fortunate to tag along with a former teacher to a gala for the Southern Center for Human Rights (SCHR). (An opportunity that directly stemmed from the privilege of going to a private high school.) I sat that evening flabbergasted, as waiters brought new plates and swapped out knives; I was struck by the demographics of the room. The formerly incarcerated people who spoke were all people of color. The waiters had a gradient of skin tones. The majority of people with “Sponsor” pins clipped to their tuxedos were white.
SCHR is a prime example of an organization whose mission is focused on destroying the disparities that a system of privilege has so firmly established. Through their work, SCHR seeks to abolish the death penalty and to close the gaps that prevail so strongly in our criminal justice system. It won't be enough until the people buying out tables and sitting on the board come from every background. And even then, we must dig deeper into the roots of these disparities; people need to listen to one another and together craft a world where privilege does not hand out advantages to a select few. Together, we need to craft a world where SCHR's work is no longer needed.
At the end of her piece, McIntosh asks, “What will we do with such knowledge?” I have not found the perfect answer to this question. If I did, the end of privilege and the systems of oppression that it reflects would be in sight: a future so idealistic, it’s nearly impossible to conceptualize. But that does not mean we can give up. While I don’t claim to have found a way to counter the negative effects of privilege, I know it’s important to share what I’ve learned and to hold myself accountable to taking more substantial steps.
As I try to fulfill the teachings of Leviticus, I must recognize the power my privilege endows me with and understand my place as a white person seeking to establish equity in the world. The second pin on this road map is moving beyond books and news to action. Having a clear responsibility to “not stand idly by” means I should use my voice to speak up; but I’m not in this fight alone and cannot and should not speak for everyone in our world. And so, I am obliged to take the power prescribed to me and share it.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.