Systemic Racism

No. Seriously. Let’s Empty Out That Knapsack. It’s Been Sitting On The Floor Of Our Bedroom For Far Too Long.

(Can I start with a sidenote just to point out that my rage towards clickbait is so strong that I think I’m choosing titles for posts now that might be the OPPOSITE of clickbait? I mean…look at that title! Who in the hell will ever click that title? WHAT DOES IT EVEN MEAN? This is just one of the many ways that my self-righteousness will be my own downfall. Just like how I’m pretty sure I’m destined to get run over by a recycling truck with how militant I’ve become about waste management.


As I slowly began to wake systemic racism, I stumbled upon White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack – by Peggy McIntosh. I love this paper so much that I uploaded it to my server just in case any of my bookmarked links fail in the future. I want to ALWAYS be able to reference that document. I also printed a copy to put in my bullet journal. I reference it often and read it regularly.

Basically, it breaks down systemic racism into small, relatable moments.

12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.

This is one of the many things I had never thought about. NEVER. Where to get my haircut? I always go to the place close to Target. You know the place. Because there’s one close to EVERY Target. And it doesn’t matter who works there because the majority of the people who walk through the doors are white women so the people cutting hair there know how to cut white lady hair. It’s not something I’ve ever stressed about. I do, however, breathe easier if the person has curly hair. “They know what’s up.” But really – my hair is not that special. If you set up a camera in that shop I’m certain there’s a decent percentage of white curly-haired ladies that walk in every day so the odds are still good that they’ll know how to cut my hair.

Do you watch This is Us? I don’t love it. I don’t hate it, but I don’t love it. It feels manipulative at times. BUT WHATEVER. There was a GREAT scene where Mandy Moore (who has adopted a black son in the 70s) gets approached by a black mother who says something like, “You need to take your son to a black barber who knows how to cut black hair. That’s why he has a rash on his neck.” Obviously something Mandy Moore had NEVER thought about. It was a great moment like I had when I first considered how lucky I was to just walk into the place next to where I buy my groceries and get a trim…NO TROUBLE.

Let’s move to a deeper level, and why I woke up at 3:30am, desperate to write this morning as my brain tried to sort out some pushback I have seen lately to the concept of institutional racism. Here’s two that fit the mold of the type of statements that I see getting that pushback.

27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.

50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

I’ve been seeing a lot of comments lately from my Cisgender Straight Trump-voting Conservative Christian White friends/family about how they don’t feel welcome in our society anymore. They feel like their religion is being persecuted because everyone is forcing the checkout people to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” They feel like they’re being looked at as racist because they admit to voting for Trump. They feel like they’re being judged for being successful because everyone thinks they’re only successful because they’re white. Every news source and news channel is bashing the man they elected so they feel very outnumbered.

And I get it. I have seen some online communities gang up on these people in a way that becomes very ugly, very quickly. The internet tends to rally in force, and not always in good ways.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I have to do that sometimes, spend time ruminating on something before I can write about it.

First of all – this really could be an enlightening moment if you are someone who pushes back with your own stories of isolation in any of those ways. Because if you look at it in it’s purest form, you might be getting a taste of what it feels like to be a person of color in our country. That isolation, that desperate desire to find someone around you who is like you, that loneliness when you feel like the world is against you? If you can put aside the “Why?” for a moment and just look at that feeling of solitude even though you’re surrounded by bodies and voices? That loneliness in a crowd? That feeling is the same that your neighbors of color feel every single day. Every time they walk into Zoe’s Kitchen (which I love and eat there once a week, but I jokingly call it the Rich White People Sandwich Shop). If you would really just sit with that feeling of desolation amidst the masses, being the lone conservative in a liberal conversation maybe, you could truly be awakened to that glimpse of life as a minority.

But here’s the difference: You can fake it.

I once found myself in a conversation about church and religion with a bunch of people I really like. I felt kinda left out so I just started talking about my aunt the Nun. She’s my Go To religious person of reference because I adore her (she’s in the hospital currently, if you’d like to offer her prayers she’d appreciate it) and because everyone always feels impressed that I’m related to a Nun. She gives me credibility to talk about religion even as an atheist.

Or if I’m in a new group, people won’t just assume I’m an atheist if they start talking about religion. I might feel a little awkward and out of place, but they don’t know that I’m an atheist as I don’t wear a sign on my head saying such things. I can choose to reveal the thing that makes me different, or I can choose not to. Either way, it is MY choice. I do not fit in, in that moment, but I can hide that if I feel like it will work out better for me in that situation.

Imagine if I couldn’t hide the thing that made me different.

What if you had to wear a tattoo on your head that said, “Voted for Trump.” Or maybe, “Atheist.” Or maybe, “Hates Hamilton.” Think of that one thing that often makes you feel isolated in a crowd. What is that one characteristic, that one belief, that sometimes makes you feel judged? What if you had NO WAY of hiding that? What if everywhere you went, everyone knew that one thing?

That’s having brown skin.

Or wearing a hijab.

Or speaking English as a second language.

Or being disabled.

Or…sometimes to a lesser extent…being part of the LGBTQ community. Depending on how your live your life, your ability to “pass” could be somewhere on a spectrum. Some can’t pass at all, some shock the crap out of people when their truth is revealed.

Imagine if that one thing that the MAJORITY of people around you didn’t match up with – what if that ONE THING was obvious from every angle? There was no hiding it.

White privilege isn’t about saying all white people are the same and we never feel isolated or alone or judged. I sometimes decide to wear long sleeves to cover my tattoos so I won’t be judged. I talk about my aunt the Nun so I won’t be judged. I reference my college degrees so I won’t be judged. We all get judged for things and we avoid that when we can. White privilege is the fact that – as a governing majority – we enjoy some privileges that people of color do not. The moments we might get judged by our skin color are few and far between.

Part of the pushback I see sometimes is the declaration that white skin color is a disadvantage because of Affirmative Action. (To which I direct them to this older article about the myths of Affirmative Action or this more recent one about how it seems to help white women most of all.) This is always a strange conversation to me. I would ask you to sit in your own discomfort and really really sit with that belief that maybe you missed out on a job because of the color of your skin. (Often times there’s debate if that’s true, but let’s just allow you to really believe it.) If you sit with that for a moment you could SO EASILY follow the train of thought…Hmmm…Imagine if I felt like this at every job. At every academic and professional opportunity. At every social event. That must be what it feels like to be a person of color in this country.

I mean, you might still hate Affirmative Action, but in that moment? You might could at least recognize the problem it’s trying to solve as you feel the sting of being judged, not by your qualifications, but by your skin color.

The truth is – to the person who refuses to acknowledge their own privilege – it’s always easy to find examples counter to the one in this knapsack Peggy McIntosh writes about. Hell, I still catch myself doing it every time. The resistant white privilege still runs very deep into my blood.

14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

My children have parents that are open atheists, and therefore so are they. Their parents are also open liberals, so any parents-of-friends who know us through social media know that about us. They have had many negative encounters at school because of their denial of God and of their support of the LGBTQ community. So I read #14 and my privileged brain thinks, I can’t! We’re liberal atheists in the heart of conservative bible country!

But I remind myself…AGAIN…we can fake it. My kids can choose to make their beliefs an issue. They kinda like to make it an issue because they like the attention it gives them, honestly. But if they’re really trying to get a teacher to like them or really want to be accepted into a key peer group, they can refrain from discussing anything controversial.

I am constantly having to check my own privilege.
I can hold hands with my husband in public and not worry someone is going to attack us.
I can walk into a restaurant and not wonder if I’m going to be the only white person in there.
I can submit a resume to a job and not worry my ethnic-sounding name could cause it to be put in the “no” pile.

I think Peggy McIntosh’s paper is simply a must-read for every white person. But not just to read, but to really sit and think about it. And every time you think of a defensive response/example, I think you should ask yourself the following questions:

How rare was your incident of judgement or isolation? If you can concretely point out ALL of the examples in which YOU also experience this judgement or isolation mentioned? Then you are privileged. Ask any person of color to list the times they’ve experienced the judgement or isolation and they’d laugh at you. Too many to even bother remembering.

Did you choose to make your unique characteristic that called for judgement or isolation known? Could you have hidden the fact that you were the Trump Supporter in the crowd of Liberals? Could you have hidden the fact that you’re an Auburn fan when your friends were talking football? Maybe not in that one moment, but at other times? Is that thing that made you feel judged or left out something that you could hide if needed? Ask a disabled person or a person of color or a Muslim woman in a hijab if they wish they could – in a moment’s notice – hide the thing that people judge them for.

Is this thing you were judged for…is it deeply rooted in a tragic history of violence and hatred? This is often where the crux of the difference lies. Being judged for being an atheist sucks. Especially when the person seems to think I lack a moral compass because of it. But my family does not have a dark history of abuse for being atheist. The history books I learned from in class didn’t contain stories of lynching atheists. Those history books also did not gloss over some of the darkest parts of how atheists were treated. My family doesn’t have stories of being enslaved because they didn’t believe in God. So, even if I’m judged in a moment for something I don’t really have control over, that thing is not rooted in a history of injustice and violence.

In my opinion..that’s really…deep down…what people who fight over the concept of privilege have not yet been able to come to terms with yet. If you think you didn’t get that job because of Affirmative Action…if you feel like you’re a minority in this country because you’re a Trump-supporting Christian and the media makes you feel like you’re an anomaly…none of these feelings of persecution or judgement or isolation are even remotely backed in a history of violence passed down through your blood.

Every time a person of color feels that their skin is the cause for a negative experience, that moment is backed with images of slavery and abuse and lynchings and segregation and violence. If you are white and feel judged or ridiculed or isolated because of your political beliefs, or religious beliefs, or economic status, or even your skin color…none of that is backed by a traumatic history that haunted generations before you.

The debate stops there, in my opinion. The familial history and the cultural history that backs every racist experience that a person of color has in our country…that is the line where a white person’s experience can not cross. We have no idea what that burden is like. And that, in itself, is the root of our privilege.

6 thoughts on “No. Seriously. Let’s Empty Out That Knapsack. It’s Been Sitting On The Floor Of Our Bedroom For Far Too Long.”

  1. Wow. So much to read and think about. Thank you for writing this post. These are things nobody talks about in my small circle and I appreciate how you back up your thoughts with examples.

  2. I have been thinking about white privilege a lot lately and have been working to be aware of and change my own biases. I find that rather than minimize others experiences, my own experiences of sexism tend to help me empathize with others experiencing racism. For instance yesterday my credibily was questioned. Our proposal manager stated to upper management that we lacked gamma-ray experience on our proposal! I spoke up and said I’d been doing this for 25+ years! He still argued with me. I am making an effort to also watch when such things happen to others because of race, to speak up in support of them. There is still a lot more to do, but I’m trying to be an active ally.

  3. Just want to say that I love this post. I wish everyone thought so deeply about this issue.

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