Tuesday, January 27, 2015

White Privilege and The Limits of Denial

This is a serious post about a serious issue. It's also a personal story that could be categorized as a study in humiliation. But I choose to view it instead as a study in humility and perspective. 

There's been a lot of discussion in the news and on social media lately about white privilege and what it means. It has been food for thought for me, as someone who is white in America with subconscious prejudices I did not know I had, as illustrated by the following story.

Several years ago, I attended a work conference at a large hotel in a major city. We were between sessions, and everyone was getting snacks and preparing to sit down for a presentation from several distinguished and accomplished trial lawyers. I spilled a soda, and a black man in his early 40's maybe, and wearing a nondescript suit, rushed over to help me clean it up. I apologized for my clumsiness and smiled and thanked him profusely and sat down. A few minutes went by, and the presentation began. The same man who had kindly helped me with my soda began presenting to the room of assembled attorneys. I was mortified with myself. 

Why? Because I had simply assumed this man was working for the hotel. Actually, it wasn't even something I consciously assumed. In fact, I didn't even realize I had assumed it at all, until he started presenting. Is there anything wrong with being a custodian at a hotel? Of course not. Did anything in the soda interaction constitute a faux pas that could have given away my subtle prejudice? Fortunately, I don't think so. And yet, would I have made the same immediate, subconscious assumption about a similarly-dressed white man? Probably not. I probably would just have assumed he was another lawyer attending the conference or presenting at the conference and being nice to me.

See, that's the problem with white privilege and the limits of its denial. It's a lot more subtle and complicated than, "But I'm not a racist!" and "But I have black friends!" Those things are both "true" for me. And yet. That's the key phrase--and yet.

You can grow up in a diverse city like New York and call all the people of color in the world your friend, as I did and do. But if you're white, you will never know what it's like to have these sorts of assumptions made about you on a daily basis, and worse. And if someone "like me" is sub-consciously and accidentally--but automatically--assuming you are a janitor instead of a trial lawyer, that's a pretty scary thought.

I berated myself for a long time for having made this subconscious assumption. I have thought about that incident many times since. It made me feel very unenlightened and ashamed and like not the person I thought I was. But as I told a few friends recently, it is the very difficulty and discomfort of these conversations that make them worth having. Not just worth having, but essential to have.

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