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Incidence of White Privilege: Part 1

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Something that Real Progressives stands for is the eradication of racism and any other kind of inequity in our society. Part of the process of doing that will be getting white people like me (and anyone else for that matter) to recognize the privileges we get from just being born to the right color parents, and talking about them openly to try and reach as many other people as we possibly can. My hope is that this will be just the first of many pieces written by various people both within the RP organization and anyone else who wants to talk about it. Perhaps we can create an anthology of real discussions of white privilege by both those who benefit from it and those who have been harmed by it.

As I write this I keep thinking about if it’ll come across as tone-deaf. Stressing out over whether or not my intention will be seen for what it is or perceived to be something else. In that vein, I’m asking, please, if I am missing something or I am misconstruing something, tell me. I do not pretend to know everything; all I want is to learn and to make sure that this conversation is happening. My thought process is that for those who refuse to accept the existence of white privilege, then perhaps having white people point shit out will get through to them. I know it is a long shot, but I always say that educating the masses means finding 100 different ways to say the same thing, so maybe this will be one of those ways that’ll reach someone.

By the way, I chose the wording of the title purposefully. Incidence, as one definition puts it, is “the occurrence, rate, or frequency of a disease, crime, or something else undesirable.” As such, I’m not just talking incidents of white privilege but making the statement that it is wholly a negative; a diseased symptom of the systemic racism that still holds strong, that must be dealt with. Because there are so many different ways that I am privileged in “Western” society by being white my intention is to speak to just one such conscious recognition and then if others will take the leap they can expand upon the subject. I am only expressing my voice in support and not to try and control the narrative in any way at all.

This particular realization of mine is not the only instance in which I have recognized my privilege, but it is one of the most recent and is related to implicit dress codes. I had a meeting at my day job where I was going to be in the same room as the top two people in my agency and as such, I decided that I should really dress nicely. Anyone who knows me personally knows that I hate tucking my shirt in, I hate wearing ties, and I hate not having my sleeves rolled up when I’m wearing a long-sleeved shirt. So in the spirit of doing the opposite I went into that meeting wearing my nicest dress pants with one of my best shirts tucked in, a tie on, and my sleeves unrolled and buttoned.

I’ve always chafed at the idea of dressing up for work. I’m in an office but have no contact with the outside world. Why do I need to dress up? If I had this mentality that I have now, but lived fifty years ago, it would have figuratively killed me to have to wear a suit and tie to work every single day of the week. Not my bag. However, I’ve remarked to myself on multiple occasions that the black men in my building are almost always virtually flawless in the way they dress. Even if they’re not wearing suits, they look incredibly well put together.

Previously I had never made the connection to privilege but suddenly I was struck with the realization that they are essentially forced by our system to do what I consider to be “overdressing.” I mean, here I am, showing off the tattoo on my forearm daily and doing the bare minimum of dressing up and yet no one even remotely questions me or how I look. It just is. It has no bearing on what I do. I could probably go into those high powered meetings looking the same and not cause the slightest bit of a stir.

This made me think back to the past and how fifty years ago even though everyone was wearing suits, it was tenfold important for the black men to “fit in” and dress nicely. In certain towns, they could potentially be killed for not looking the way they were “supposed” to look so to me it seems, in addition to the ubiquitousness of the dominant white culture, that it became a part of black culture to dress extra nice. It makes further sense in how the empowerment movement of the 60’s and 70’s involved the black community rejecting the dress codes set by whites and embraced their African roots.

It is also connected to the ways in which the clothing of blacks are policed even to this day, where something that is associated with the black community is immediately considered “less than” by the larger, white dominated, society. There are obvious ways in which white people dress that are looked down upon, but that is based squarely in class and does not have anything to do with the person’s skin color. Yet other kinds of dress are clearly associated with black culture and treated differently by white culture.

It has completely changed my perspective on it. I’m still me. I will always push back against norms, but now when I see black men dressed to the nines I’m not wondering why they feel the need to go to work looking their absolute best at all times. Instead, I’m thinking about how fucked up it is that my white privilege allows me to basically dress however I want (the white IT guys wear jeans and t-shirts without issue), but for the black community, it’s like there are only two options. Either they’re dressed meticulously, or they must be, per the vernacular, “from the ghetto.”

Another meeting I attended after this realization hit this home even further. A large room with about thirty to forty people in it with a dozen or so men. There were three people in there with a suit on. One is the commissioner of a state agency, another is a lawyer working for the agency that I work for, and the last one was the only black man who was in the room. The commissioner and the lawyer were presenting information, so it made sense for them to be dressed up, but the black man was just there to listen. There was an old white guy wearing cargo shorts and an aloha shirt, but the black man was fully dressed up. Part of me wonders how much of it is conscious and how much is subconscious. The fact that someone would have to think about such a thing at all illustrates the privilege I live in as a white man. Yes, I have to consider what I’m wearing when I’m going to certain places or events, like a wedding, but it is never a matter of worrying about what kind of assumptions will be made about me. Personally, I don’t give a shit what people think of me if I’m not prescribing to a particular dress code, but again that is what white privilege is. I don’t have to worry about it. Meanwhile, a black man dresses a certain way and everyone assumes the worst of him. Well, not everyone, but that is how the media portrays it and we all know people who comment on how people are dressed.

It always amazes me when I start analyzing the actions that I take in the context of my race, or gender, socioeconomic upbringing, etc. Even when I actively try to question things regularly, there is always something more to discover. I encourage all people, especially white people, to question their assumptions. I’ve recently come to understand the truth that all white people are racist from a place of logic. We are all subjected to years and years of negative stereotypes and generalities from the media we consume and for many our families as well. This is just how it is. Unless you were born on an intersectional commune with no influence from the outside world, you have racist stereotypes stirring around in your brain and even the best of us have to fight to eliminate them.

This is why fighting racism and acknowledging our white privilege is so incredibly important. If we can’t even understand the ways that we are brainwashed from birth, then how are we going to eradicate systemic racism? Our history classes barely teach anything but white European history. Our news is full of assuming the guilt of black men. Our entertainment is ripe with negative stereotypes. You’re a fool if you think you haven’t been affected by this. So let’s take the time to take a stand now. I acknowledge that despite my best efforts even I have thoughts originated in racism, I am privileged in this society because of my whiteness, and I stand for the eradication of systemic racism.

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