Liabilities of White Privilege

 White privilege was explained to me by Peggy McIntosh in her essay * “as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” Peggy writes, “I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” I was taught the same, but I question, is this the complete picture? Should my critical thinking stop at the understanding that my white privilege is an asset for me and the liabilities are someone else’s to bear?

I am a white woman who was raised in towns almost exclusively designed for white people and educated as a social worker in predominantly white institutions. Thankfully, when I was 20, I began to be challenged, by professors of color, to think about my whiteness and specifically race as a social construct. As I studied the history of white supremacy in this country, the political and economic structure that governs all laws and policies by white people and for white people, I began to question the advantage and status I had because of my whiteness. As I reflect on my grandparents decision to immigrate to this country from Italy and Portugal, on one hand, I understand that they essentially embraced whiteness as an asset-socially and economically. However on the other hand, their culture, language and history were stripped from their children and their grandchildren. I deeply experience that decision every day as a disadvantage, liability, culturally, linguistically and historically. I feel like part of my identity is missing. I truly don’t know who I really am.

I imagine this is how my husband feels sometimes, a Black man, who is only four generations removed from slavery and the horrific stripping of his family from their home, land, and way of life. “Where are you from?” people always ask him and I want to scream, “That knowledge was stripped away from him and his family!” and in a way, it was stripped away from me too.

As I began examining my liabilities of whiteness and wrote the essay, “The Liabilities of White Privilege: How White Privilege Hurts White People,” my new found consciousness made it clear that acknowledging the advantages/unearned assets was not the whole truth. The “bill of goods” that was sold to my white ancestors was a farce and a dubious heist- whether intentional or not.

I decide a long time ago, as I studied to become an L.I.C.S.W., that the responsibility of engaging in therapy with another human being was enormous. The ability to connect and empathize was vital and my understanding of my own humanity would be essential to my success. I wasn’t ready. I needed to do the work of understanding my own whiteness and how I walked through the world differently than people of color. I needed to be able to listen to experiences of people of color and contextualize that while I truly would never be able to completely understand their reality,-my responsibility as a white therapist is to understand the liability of whiteness and leverage the asset to create space for that person- space that as a white person, I experience as an inherited asset from my ancestors. In doing this, I could allow freedom- the goal of therapy for any person- freedom to be, vulnerable and not judged by my implicit bias, prejudice or ignorance. I wasn’t ready, but through understanding whiteness and all the complexities of oppression embedded in our culture, I have found more of my own humanity.

I believe, we must look deeper into the knapsack of white privilege past the assets and advantages that whiteness can “cash in” every day and look deeper to reflect on the liabilities and disadvantages that whiteness “withdraws” from our soul, our identities, our connections and our humanity. This is a personal journey and one that each and every white person must take the time to reflect and unpack continuously. Ask yourself, how has your whiteness and white privilege been a liability? Then, dig deeper. How has it been a liability in your self-identity, relationships with people of color and connections with your clients of color? This is the work you must do.

* Copyright 1989, Peggy McIntosh. Peace and Freedom magazine, July-August 1989, pp. 10-12. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Phila, PA.

* Copyright 2016, Michelle Chalmers. “The Liabilities of White Privilege: How White Privilege Hurts White People”