I’m White. I’m Privileged. And I’m Not Ashamed, but I am Accountable
By: Lisa M. Hayes
When I was twenty-one I had a human resources job where I was responsible for hiring and firing people for jobs I didn’t even understand. I was a country girl from Oregon with a job over my pay grade in Philadelphia. I knew when I took that job I wasn’t qualified. I knew someone in the department had applied for it and was passed over. I knew that, but I had no way of understanding it.
Our department’s director was a black woman. I got hired as the assistant human resources director with no experience. The internal applicant who didn’t get the job was also a black woman who’d been working there for three years. The director didn’t hire me. She wanted the other woman. However, there was a panel interview. I needed the job. I was thankful I got it. I never once asked myself why the woman from the department who was more qualified didn’t get the job. I told myself I nailed the interview. In hindsight, that’s laughable because I didn’t.
I just didn’t think about it. I didn’t have a way of recognizing my privilege. I couldn’t see what seems blindingly obvious now. I couldn’t know what I didn’t know.
So, there I was, a very white, very young woman sandwiched in seniority between two black women, one of whom should have had my job and I didn’t understand why they didn’t like me. I tried everything. I wanted them to like me. I felt like an outsider because I was. I worked way too hard to make conversation. They were polite, but they were not warm. In fact, it was icy up in there. And the colder it got the more I talked, trying to fill in the empty awkwardness of working with two people who didn’t want me there.
It was inevitable. Eventually, it was just going to happen. I was bound to screw it up. One day I was yammering away, trying to make myself seem nice and I said something-something I’d never say now because I can see it was hurtful, but I said it then.
I said, and I quote, “My parents are coming to visit next week and I’m going to take them to see the Liberty Bell, the ghetto, and we’ll do a day drive out to the shore.” That was thirty years ago and I still remember what I said verbatim.
Two days later a woman walked in from the EEO office and handed me a formal complaint saying there was going to be an investigation to determine whether or not I was racist. When I read my own words on the complaint my stomach turned. My fellow employee suggested she felt like I was planning to take my parents to look at black people as if the ghetto was a zoo.
That is not what I meant. However, it was insensitive at best. What was even more insensitive was I didn’t recognize that I’d taken a job that didn’t belong to me and I’d gotten it because I was white.
My hiring numbers saved me. Upon review, it was determined that I’d signed off on hiring more minority applicants than everyone else in the department put together – by a lot, too much actually. I might have been overcompensating for something I couldn’t recognize in myself from day one. The day after I was cleared in the investigation I gave my two weeks notice to quit. When I left Dedra, the woman who should have had my job all along took it without an interview process.
I know a lot more about privilege than I did then. I know I’ve got it and I’m not ashamed. I can’t be ashamed of something I have no control over. However, I can control what I do with it. I am accountable for my privilege and part of that means accepting and understanding that I have it. The next part of it means standing strong and using my voice and privilege to fight for equality – not as a hobby but as a way of life.
And here’s the thing – I still can’t know what I don’t know. I am much more aware of my privilege than I was when I was twenty-one-years-old. I’ve got some experiences under my belt that have taught me a lot about what people who don’t look like me experience on the regular. However, I still have blind spots. I don’t think any person of color out there expects me not too. What they expect of me is not to pretend like I know stuff I don’t.
I know it might not be politically popular to say I don’t believe in generational guilt. I know almost nothing about my ancestors beyond my grandparents. Maybe some of them were slave owners. However, the one thing I do know is not all of them were white. And none of that matters. I can’t atone for four hundred years of slavery and I don’t feel compelled to own that burden. Racism is not just a historical issue – it’s a daily issue for a lot of people. It’s happening now.
Shawn King said, “If you EVER wondered who you would be or what you would do if you lived during the Civil Rights Movement, stop. You are living in that time, RIGHT NOW.”
No truer words were ever spoken.
There is enough going on right now without digging through that smoking pile of shit from the past. The good news for me is because of my privilege I don’t have to deal with the reality of that past the way people of color do. So, considering I don’t have to live with the present day reality of that burden, it’s incumbent on me to do my damn best to get it right now. I’ve got more room to move and more free mistakes to make because of my whiteness.
I have very little advice to offer white people on allyship and frankly, you shouldn’t listen to me anyway. You should be getting your marching orders on allyship from someone who’s not white. But here’s what I do know:
- Be prepared to follow and forget about leading. You’re not a liberator. You are at best, a ground troop.
- Be willing to take risks with your reputation and maybe even your body that a person of color shouldn’t. Trust me, taking a stand can be scary, but your privilege shields you with protections people of color don’t have.
- The most valuable thing you can offer a person of color is a seat at the table next to you when that seat might offer influence. You probably have more seats at more tables than you are aware. In fact, prepare to give up your seat at the table all together for someone who can benefit from being there.
- Create a seat at your table, in your community, in your home for people who are very different than you. Share food. Share stories. In fact, make it a potluck. You might like their food better.
- Accept the fact that you’re going to get it wrong, maybe more often than you get it right. Again, you can’t know what you don’t know. However, if you’re willing to learn from your mistakes you’ll find yourself surrounded by a very forgiving community.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I still say dumb shit. I still get it wrong. I could provide you with a very long list of people who can confirm that for you. But I’m still learning and you know what? I get it right sometimes too. I can’t let my mistakes be an excuse to stand down.
If you think allyship is a popularity contest, let me assure you if you’re white, it’s not a popularity contest you will win.
You won’t be popular. You may even be disliked, by black people and by white people. But this isn’t a contest. It’s not a game.
This is a moment in history that is demanding more from us than any of us expected, maybe even more so if you’re white. There is a fight going on for equality right now, in the streets and in the soul of this nation. Not choosing a side is in fact, choosing a side by default.
So, white friend, no one is asking you to be ashamed of your privilege. You can quit pretending you don’t have it. You can stop feeling attacked when someone points out the obvious. However, history is requiring that you’re accountable for that privilege you can’t hide. It’s ok. I can’t hide mine either.
In conclusion, which is where I probably should have started, my sincere hope is that Dedra, wherever she is might read this. Because I owe her an apology. I’m sorry I was insensitive. I’m sorry I hurt her. I’m sorry that I didn’t question what didn’t make sense upon my hire. I am sorry I took something from her that wasn’t mine to take. Acknowledging privilege isn’t enough when privilege has been abused. I am sorry.
If I could talk to her today, I’d tell her how much I appreciate the lessons I learned in that process. I wish I’d spent less time trying to be liked and more time learning from two women who ultimately taught me a lot but could have taught me so much more if I’d been willing.
Lisa Hayes, The Love Whisperer, is an LOA Relationship Coach. She helps clients leverage Law of Attraction to get the relationships they dream about and build the lives they want. Lisa is the author of the newly released hit book, Score Your Soulmate and How to Escape from Relationship Hell and The Passion Plan.