Article Series: Traitor to My Race: The Abolition of White Privilege
PART III OF III: PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION
I was first confronted about my white skin privilege when I was twenty-four years old. (Yes, full disclosure: I'm white, from Brooklyn, and 72.) I had just returned from three years in the Peace Corps in Colombia and was newly enrolled in UCLA's "grass-roots" community organizing sequence, the first and last time the school offered that course of study. Our C.O group -- nine of us plus a faculty advisor -- were on a field trip to South Central L.A. and were meeting with Maulana Karenga, a Black nationalist and advocate, who would eventually become Director of Africana Studies at Cal State Long Beach. Years later, Dr. Karenga would also originate and promote the pan-African holiday of Kwanzaa.
Since several of us would be doing field work in L.A.'s Black neighborhoods, the meeting was designed at giving us an overview of issues pertinent to the Black community. Holding no punches, Karenga told eight of the nine of us -- one member of our group was a Black male student -- that we had benefitted from having white skin. I remember looking at him incredulously and telling him he was totally mistaken: I had been raised on public assistance, gotten all my education via scholarships, and had worked for everything I had. The meeting ended shorty thereafter and I left unconvinced and uncomprehending. However, I never forgot what I had been told and have spent the rest of my life trying to figure out the practical, day-to-day application of that phrase.
My reaction is, I believe, a typical white American reaction. I have also come to appreciate that it is implicity a white supremacist response since, by implication, it means I worked for what I have and you didn't, which is why you have nothing. It is also a self-deluding and isolative way of understanding material success and failure in this society: white supremacism obliges you to see both as individualized phenomena and to ignore them as systems phenomena dependent on your status in a presumably open and democratic society. In actuality, the higher your and your family's status in this society -- i.e., the greater your and their wealth and access to political and economic power -- the greater the likelihood of your material success. Interestingly, the factor of social status has begun to be regarded as a key causative and iterative or self-repeating variable in understanding income equality, but is rarely labeled by economists as systems-determined. Accordingly, while income inequality is regarded as a threat to democracy, its systems-determined etiology is itself rarely considered anti-democratic.
Ultimately, failure to understand material success or failure as systems-determined stands as a huge barrier to addressing the systems at the heart of the problem. Consequently, it prevents political and economic collaboration within and across class and ethnic lines. How often did white Southern workers refuse to unionize because unionization would bring into the workplace on equal footing their black worker counterparts? Unfortunately, they accepted the admonitions of their bosses and anti-unionists that Blacks were inferior workers and would jeopardize rather than help safeguard their jobs.
Back again to the ultimate question of this discussion -- how do white Americans discard culturally inbred notions of white supremacy and begin to change their self-identity?
To offer, again, some aspects of my own evolution. Even before I met Dr. Karenga, I had spent my childhood with Black kids. I was raised in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section, in the late 1940's and early '50's a neighborhood in transition, with real estate speculators block-busting, frightened Italian families moving out to Bensonhurst, Black families beginning to buy the over-priced housing. It was a tough neighborhood, with lots of Black-white conflict, particularly between us kids. I had my share of fights but I also had friends. I was in similar situations later in life, first in East Los Angeles, where I lived and worked after I got my MSW from UCLA and later, when I moved back to New York City and lived and worked in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Both were Latino neighborhoods, East L.A. Mexican-American, Sunset Park Puerto Rican and Dominican. Only small enclaves of whites lived there. I was fresh from Colombia, my Spanish was sharp, my love and comfort with people and things Latino high, so my family and I moved in.
I felt very welcome in Sunset Park and made many friends. East LA was different. I found myself in the middle of a political conflict between older Latino leftists and younger, nationalist proponents of La Raza, i.e., political and community organizations devoid of gringos. I had arrived in the barrio when the older guys were the activists. So long as I worked hard and deferred to them, they accepted me and mentored me, introducing me to East L.A., its several neighborhoods and its leaders. I had had a similar experience when I first got to Colombia, when the father of the family I lived with for a year mentored, I might even say adopted, me, as his well-meaning but naÃ¯ve and ignorant gringo son. I thrived in both situations because the men who helped me, Latino men, wanted my respect and deference not my subservience. They wanted to see me grow and took pride in that. Back in East LA, even though I was good at what I did, the La Raza advocates wanted me out, so I left.
My first Black American mentor was a woman, a professional social worker from Philadelphia, and a pioneer in developing curricula to teach mental health professionals the importance of their own and their clients' ethnic identities. I eventually led workshops for her on identifying key characteristics of Irish- and Italian-American families. She was also an expert and leading proponent of Intensive Case Management for persons who had been diagnosed as having severe mental illnesses, and was serving as lead consultant to the ICM program that the New York City Department of Health was developing. This was in 1988. I had just been hired by the Hunter College School of Social Work, which had the contract to train the new Intensive Case Managers, to write the training curricula and oversee its implementation. Anita took the job of showing me the ropes, teaching me the in's and out's of municipal and state government and how to argue a point without antagonizing the higher-ups in the room. I was a trained community organizer and provocateur and instinctively viewed those in authority as adversaries and barriers to change.
Anita recognized me as an ideal advocate and teacher, but also saw me as the proverbial bull in the china shop. While she was prone to patronizing me, Anita resisted any authoritarian impulses she might have had and patiently taught me -- we would de-brief after every meeting with city or state officials we attended; and, after, a time trusted me sufficiently to engage me in in-depth discussions-- I was a systems thinker and quick to analyze the power struggles and alliances constantly taking place before us. It took me several years -- my views invariably differed from those in positions of authority -- but I learned to effectively negotiate systems and situations akin to minefields, a skill which stood me in good stead when I founded and directed a new ICM program for a large New York City non-profit.
It was there that I took the next and perhaps most important step towards discarding my sense of white privilege, of white entitlement -- establishing and maintaining an egalitarian workplace with mental health workers, a majority of whom were women of color. My mentors were my staff members, including the supervisors, who taught me that my leadership and teaching skills were appreciated, but my often harsh criticisms of staff when clients were not served as I believed they should be were experienced as insensitive and disheartening. To many of my staff, I was another white man who thought little of them and was too ready to disrespect them.
In 1993, I had become director of the program, which was charged with working with parolees presumed to be seriously mentally ill and with individuals diagnosed with substance abuse disorders. We had a rough few years, but had established an effective program by 1997. Not too long thereafter, the several members of my staff who had been most disappointed by me, filed a complaint of racial insensitivity against me with our HR Department. An investigation essentially corroborated their complaint, and I was obliged to apologize to the entire staff, which I did willingly. I have never had great difficulty in taking responsibility for mistakes and anticipated that an honest apology would clean the slate and allow for a fresh start; which, fortunately, it did. By the time I retired in 2010, I can safely say I was a man who was regarded as pro-staff as well as pro-client; a director who treated everyone fairly, who had my staff members' backs; who encouraged and supported their efforts to pursue advanced degrees and further their careers. As a good director and mentor should. In short, my staff taught me how to be an effective and caring leader.
I've always been a systems outsider, always assessing when and how I should enter that system to effect change. My mother was also an outsider who taught me about equal treatment and social justice for all, who nurtured in my inclination towards empathy. I have never sought mentoring from white men in any system: in my youth, I had to associate with Irish-Catholic men, mostly priests and teachers, whom I found too impatient and too authoritarian. I suppose I was a skeptic from birth. I invariably found persons of color, Latinos and Blacks, more helpful to me and more validating of me. After all, they, too, were outsiders. I guess it takes one to know one. As I trust is apparent, Dr. Karenga's comment to me about white privilege has had a lasting impact on my life. I've sought to understand its meaning for me by examining the impact of white privilege, a polite term for white supremacism, on those most adversely affected by it, persons of color, and have turned to them for help. Their generosity towards me, when I examine it as I do here, is breathtaking, particularly when you consider, to extemporize on Dr. DuBois, that the problem of the color line is a white problem since it was we who drew it.