How To Talk To White Family Members and Friends Who Just Don’t Understand Their Privilege

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In 2017, Lori Lakin Hutcherson—founder and editor of Good Black News—wrote an editorial in response to a white friend of hers who had asked, "what does white privilege look like?" Using personal anecdotes, Hutcherson outlined some of the many shapes white privilege can take in American society. "If you’ve never had a defining moment in your childhood or your life," Hutcherson writes, "where you realize your skin color alone makes other people hate you, you have white privilege." Which is to say, if you are white—period—you have white privilege.

Now, as chaos unfolds in Washington, D.C., people have been quick to call out the stark differences between a mild police response to pro-Trump rioters storming the United States Capitol and the violence imposed upon Black Lives Matter protesters this summer. "Many of those pro-Trump rioters probably dispute the idea of white privilege," writes Nicholas Kristof for the New York Times. "But the fact that they were allowed to overrun the police and invade the Senate and House chambers was evidence of that privilege."

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In June, nationwide protests in the wake of of George Floyd's murder brought to public attention the systemic racism that has endured in this country for more than 400 years. White people nationwide were forced to confront their privilege—educational books about the very topic suddenly topped best-seller charts—and found themselves in the long-overdue position of explaining the reality of the concept to friends and family who still don't understand. And, to be sure, these difficult conversations need to start happening immediately and need to continue happening forever, because to let privilege go unexamined is to support white supremacy.

Below, Michelle Saahene, activist, coach, and co-founder of From Privilege to Progress—an organization dedicated to desegregating the public conversation about race—offers guidance on how to respond to three of the most damaging instances of privilege circulating on social media, from news outlets, and in person-to-person discussions. Because while white privilege takes so many forms, and identifying and confronting it requires daily work, using examples like these can help spark the a-ha moment in people who don't yet understand that reality.

How to talk about white privilege with your friends, family, or anyone who doesn't understand, using 3 issues as learning prompts

1. "I get that black people are angry, but why do the protests have to resort to property destruction?"

Saahene's response: "Why are you more concerned about the violence that's happening at these protests than you are about Black people losing their lives—fathers, sons, daughters, mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers, nieces, and nephews? If you're more concerned about public property than human life, you are coming at it from a place of privilege."

Saahene adds, "People need to remember that this is over 400 years of oppression; this isn't coming out of nowhere. All we are asking is for police to stop killing us innocently, and this is what happens. They would rather meet us with violence than just agree to stop killing us."

"If you're more concerned about public property than human life, you are coming at it from a place of privilege." —Michelle Saahene, co-founder of From Privilege to Progress

What's more, Saahene points out, just weeks ago, armed white protestors entered private property across the country in response to quarantine measures that kept them out of work. At the time, no one threatened to deploy the military on their protests (as President Trump did amid the Black Lives Matter protests). No one used rubber bullets or tear gas on them. No one openly questioned why they weren't protesting peacefully.

One way to talk about white privilege in your answer: If you were in the position of being oppressed for over 400 years, would you opt for peaceful protests when an entire race of people has made you fear for your life—and the life of your loved ones—every single day? Or would you fight?

2. "Police who shoot black people are just bad apples—We can't blame the entire police force."

Saahene's response: "If you are a cop who sees police brutality and does not do anything about it, and doesn't speak out about it, then you're not that good. If we have so many good cops, why aren't these cops stopping the bad ones? Why aren't we seeing more stories and more examples of these cops who are out there in the community doing good work, trying to rebuild trust, and trying to live up to the code that they're supposed to live up to—'protect and serve?'"

On June 4, the Michigan state Senate passed a unanimous bill requiring police officers to undergo implicit bias training, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced plans to introduce a police reform bill the same day. But right now, there's a question of how effective these programs are. In 2019, CBS News asked 155 police departments nationwide about their bias-training procedures. Of those who answered the reporters, 59 percent of the departments reported that they had no way to measure how successful these training procedures are in fighting implicit bias. That oversight, in and of itself, speaks to a system built on white privilege. Trainings that may or may not work aren't a solution—they're a smokescreen.

One way to talk about white privilege in your answer: It's true that not all cops are "bad," per se. But the second part of this adage is being ignored. The full saying goes: "One bad apple spoils the whole bunch." Anyone who does not join anti-racist efforts and work to abolish the oppression of Black people is—actively or passively—contributing to racial injustice.

3. "I believe that black lives matter, but I don't want to actively speak out about it."

Saahene's response: "Well, then you don't believe in the cause. You should just be honest and say, 'It doesn't matter that much to me.' If you say that you believe in the cause by posting a black square on Instagram, but you don't want to do anything, that's very performative. You have to back it up with action."

To be sure, being an ally to the Black community can take many shapes and forms—like by making donations, educating yourself through reading Black voices, accepting criticism about your efforts to be anti-racist, and making a point to vote in November (and always). But if you don't back up your well-intentioned "belief" with action—and furthermore acknowledge that the very choice you have of whether or not to act is itself is your white privilege—you are complicit in ongoing pattern of systemic racism in the United States.

One way to talk about white privilege in your answer: How do you act on other things you "believe in," though? If you're not donating, protesting, or making room for Black voices, then what does "believing" in something mean to you?

Originally published June 8, 2020; updated January 6, 2021.

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