Confronting White Privilege: A Work in Progress

By Brooke Adams Law

Brooke Adams Law is an experienced copywriter and consultant who works with online business owners to optimize their web and sales copy so they can attract and engage their tribe. Find her at www.brookeadamslaw.com.

I grew up in an affluent, mostly white suburb of Philadelphia and attended Catholic school from first through twelfth grades. I think there were about 20 students of color in my whole high school.

The first time I truly confronted race and privilege was in college. My college was mostly white as well, but the summer before my junior year I attended an eight-week summer volunteer program called the New York City Urban Project. I lived with twelve other college students of all different races and cultures in a fourth-floor walkup apartment in the South Bronx.

It was my first experience being in the racial minority every day, and it was eye-opening. One weekend, I had to travel home to Philadelphia for a family event. I took the NJ Transit train back to Manhattan early on a Monday morning, then took the subway uptown to the Bronx. I watched as all the white people, dressed in business attire, got off the train. When I transferred to the D train at 205th Street, I was the only white person left in the car. I got some sidelong glances. I wasn’t used to feeling uncomfortable or like I didn’t belong in a public space (which, as I would later learn, is a key component of white privilege).

When I got off the train, I felt a little intimidated walking the three blocks to our apartment, even though the day was bright and sunny. I had never walked that stretch alone. I felt like everyone was staring at me. 

I saw more and more that summer that even in a diverse city like New York, people were segregated according to race by certain spaces in the city. The youth center I worked in was in the projects on the Lower East Side. My two fellow program participants and I would take the subway all the way downtown to Astor Place, where there is literally a Starbucks on every corner. As we walked east towards the river, the landscape changed from Starbucks and trendy restaurants to check-cashing places, bodegas, and fast food. This shift in the actual structural makeup of the city corresponded exactly with demographics, with people in Astor Place being predominantly white and people in the projects being mostly Latino.

One afternoon, we took some of our students to Time Square. Many of them had never been there before, despite having lived on the Lower East Side their whole lives. I began to realize that while I moved across the city with ease (if a little discomfort), there was an invisible barrier that many people from the projects didn’t cross, and resources they didn’t have access to.

During that summer I helped coordinate local high school students to conduct a community assessment for a youth center. One task was to conduct phone interviews with local service providers and business owners. As we prepped the students to conduct the interviews, I realized how differently my private Catholic school education had prepared me for life. I had been taught how to speak a certain way, how to use certain vocabulary, and how to carry myself a certain way. Those ways of speaking and carrying myself are valued most by white professional culture. And since in our country, white professional culture runs a lot of things, my ease moving through white professional culture has made my life easier.

It was the first time I realized how deeply the system was rigged.                                                       --                                                                                                                                                          Last year I took an online course with activist Patti Digh and Victor Lee Lewis called Hard Conversations about Racism. Simultaneously, the nonprofit organization for which I worked began a series of internal staff capacity building activities around race and equity.

I listened hard as my online classmates and my colleagues of color shared their stories. I asked questions, and listened some more. I read widely, and I began to reflect deeply on the privilege that my skin color has afforded me. Years ago, Peggy McIntosh wrote the now-famous essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which resonated with me as I navigated that summer.

Like McIntosh, I have become very aware that when I walk into almost any space – an informal gathering, a church, a bank, an office building – no one will question my presence or be suspicious of the fact I’m there because I’m white.

When my husband and I moved into our house in suburban Connecticut three years ago, he arrived first. (He’d driven from Long Island, while I had taken our older car on the ferry.) He called me and said that his key wasn’t working and asked how far away I was. “I can’t just sit here,” he said. “Someone will call the cops.” My husband is Chinese, and a few years earlier, when interning as a pastor in rural North Carolina, someone had called the police after seeing him leave the church on a weeknight.

The fact that I have never had to worry about someone calling the cops on me for sitting in my car in the street is white privilege.

The fact that I have never had someone cross the street away from me, like one of my female colleagues told me happens to her when she’s running in her neighborhood, is white privilege.

The fact that I can go into any store and not be followed around by a salesperson or security guard is white privilege.

A few months into our race and equity work at my office, I was coordinating logistics for a live webinar. I had done webinars ten or so times, so I always micromanaged down to the last possible detail to avoid potential disaster.

But I knew that I could plan down to the last detail (as I always did), and something still could go wrong.

I sent an email to one of our IT team members and asked him to set up two polls in the virtual meeting room the day before the webinar. At the end of the email I wrote, “Please make sure you spellcheck everything.”

After I sent the email, I realized that I never would have added the last line if English was my colleague’s first language.

Sitting at my computer in my home office, my face flushed as beet red as it had when I messed up a presentation in seventh grade. I wanted to die of shame.

I wrote him a separate email and owned up to the fact that my assumption that he needed to spellcheck was a white microaggression* on my part, and I apologized profusely. He was extremely gracious with me, but the incident showed me how much I still needed to grow. 

I’d love to wrap up this post with clear next steps on my journey in becoming more racially aware and more aware and equitable in my interactions. The truth is that the journey is messy, and for me there’s lots of forward and backward moments. But I’m on the path, and I’m going to keep walking forward.

*The word microaggression was defined by Columbia professor Derald Sue to refer to "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color."

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