Using white privilege to combat racial injustice

Adam Frommer

As a white male, I have never really known my place in discussing race and identity. Not knowing my role has lead to my inaction against racial injustices. But, the Student Diversity Leadership Conference (SDLC), taught me that I have to speak up in the conversation about race.

At SDLC, we spent the majority of the day in discussions, sharing our experiences among a diverse group. Towards the end of the day, however, we moved into “Affinity Groups,” which brought together students with similar self-identifications to discuss issues that stemmed from their shared identity.

Upon entering the white affinity group everybody seemed out of place. Other affinity groups were supposed to have celebrations. The other rooms were places of expression and pride. Were we about to have a celebration of white people? It seemed wrong to celebrate the privilege that we have.

Rather then celebrating we stood awkwardly. One of the facilitators, John Gentile Co-Director of the office for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity, instructed us to play a game in which we fought against our intuition. When he said “go,” we would stop. When he said “stop,” we would go and so on. With so many instructions to think of and process, we all made mistakes. Beyond our inability to follow these directions, we were incredibly bewildered as to why we would play a seemingly trivial game.

Gentile explained that people of color understand the challenge of thinking twice before acting. But, we were confused by the very nature of playing the game because we, being white, had never experienced this sort of challenge before.

I soon realized that the next hour would not be a celebration of our identity, but rather a place to discuss what it means to be white. After the game, the facilitators continued to push us out of our comfort zone. We were randomly paired up and had to talk about a prompt: what we do think of when we hear the topic of race come up? I sensed apprehension from the group. Was there even a correct answer? “I feel guilty that I was born with white privilege that I don’t deserve,” my partner said.

The facilitators encouraged us to lean into the discomfort, and think of why it felt so weird being in this group talking about our whiteness.

At that moment, I understood that as a white male, I have the responsibility to talk openly about my privilege. To combat racism, the first step is to acknowledge it. That means being fully present in situations, and stepping into others’ shoes. It isn’t possible to further any change without recognizing societal imbalance. If we don’t pause to think about what aspects of our own identity give us our privilege, incidents of racism can pass us by. It’s easy to say that certain places, like the hallways of HM or tight-knit sports teams, have equal opportunity, but that mindset morphs into ignorance all too quickly. Change cannot be made without our constant attention to our own privilege even in situations where that privilege might not be so apparent.

After we distinguish and sympathise, we have to act. Having racial privilege in society means that I am responsible for changing that. My privilege allows our voices to be heard while others are silenced. Privilege, whether that is socioeconomic status, religion, race, sexual orientation, ability, family structure, geographic location, or gender, allows people to have a foot in the door somewhere that others don’t. It is imperative to take advantage of that privilege and use it to promote positive change.

But, I also have to know my place in fighting inequality. It is important that I be an ally in any way that I can, but that I don’t take control of the issue myself. While my white privilege allows me to help, it isn’t my place to take control. I should help as much as possible, but I don’t face the same problems that people of color do, so I can’t speak for them.

I have to acknowledge my place in racism. I have to show up. I have to be an ally. But it isn’t my movement.