How to talk to your white friends and family about privilege

Experts weigh in on how to have difficult conversations about race effectively, without alienating your loved ones.

by Beatrice Hazlehurst
12 June 2020, 4:00pm

Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

In the days after George Floyd’s murder, more information emerged about the alleged crime that lead to his arrest. He paid for a pack of cigarettes, reports claimed, with a counterfeit $20 dollar bill. I didn’t watch the full video of Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis law enforcement, and neither did Mark McCoy.

What he did do, days later, is tweet. McCoy, a white professor at Southern Methodist University, explained that he was once also caught spending a counterfeit $20 dollar bill. For him, the arrest had meant a night in jail, and a dinner party anecdote for the next several decades. It didn’t take a demonstrative video of people stepping back or forward in accordance with their social circumstances, or a timeline full of Black people explaining how they’d repeatedly been mistreated, overlooked and undervalued compared to their white counterparts, but 245 characters for a white man to succinctly articulate the scope of which this country favors the color beige. In under 50 words, Mark McCoy unraveled white privilege.

What I did, days later, was find myself at a dinner table with a conservative. Always gravitating to the coasts, it’s easy to nestle snugly into a near bullet-proof liberal bubble — an ideological echo-chamber of sensitivity and awareness. But now, two feet of wood away during what is potentially the largest civil rights movement in history, sat another white person popping it. He didn’t see racism as a tangible issue, because he couldn’t visibly see it. Obvious acts of discrimination or disrespect weren’t in his workplace, he explained, his neighborhood or among his friends, and it’s just too depressing to engage with hard news. One by one, everyone moved away from our conversation, until it was just the two of us.

His problem with acknowledging the existence of white privilege was he didn’t really feel like he had it. He may not have been academically-inclined enough for tertiary education or been able to afford one; he may have worked hard at underpaid jobs with long hours and no insurance; a parent may have abandoned him; he may have been physically assaulted; emotionally abused; overweight — and nothing had been handed to him. There may be many, many circumstances in which the system hasn’t benefited him, but whiteness, well that’s just something he’s never had to worry, or even think about.

For anti-racism activist and racial justice consultant, Maggie Potapchuck, this dinner table discussion is all too familiar. During the 1986 World Series, Potapchuk was studying at the University of Massachusetts. She watched as, after the game, white footballers beat up one of the Black residents in her dorm, before threatening other students of color with baseball bats. In that moment Potapchuk, a white woman, experienced a “point of no return.”

“When white people hear the term ‘white privilege,’ they sometimes hear it as disrespect of an individual’s hard work and success,” explains Potapchuk, who has written several well-referenced resources on the subject. “White people still experience poverty, but their white privilege means [they’re sheltered from] the depths of poverty Black people might experience in the same conditions as them. There will still be different access to opportunity than there would be for a person of color.”

Scholar, scientist, activist and author of White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh blames this mentality on the individualism fostered by a hyper-capitalist culture. “Some think that the subject of privilege brings them blame, shame, and guilt,” she adds. “This is because they have been taught in the US to think only in terms of individuals, not systems. So, they take personally all references to their privilege.”

In Invisible Knapsack, McIntosh addresses all the ways in which she enjoys positive prejudice, and therefore privilege, as a white person. Many are distressingly basic, such as, “I can be pretty sure that my neighbors will be neutral or pleasant to me,” or, “I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.” They encompass financial reliability, media representation and career advancement.

The reason these privileges are so entrenched in our social architecture is because they were first written into founding US law, says Jacqueline Battalora, attorney and professor, who penned Birth of a White Nation: The Invention of White People and Its Relevance Today. “You will find no reference to people called ‘white’ people before 1681 in law within the English colonies of North America,” reveals the former Chicago Police Officer.

Battalora specifically references the 1790 law of US naturalization, which was originally only accessible to white people. For 150 years, immigrants who were seen as white were able to access US citizenship “simply because they were seen as white — they did not have to ask for it, they may not even have wanted it.”

There is so little understanding of US history and law that provided structural advantage after structural advantage to white people,” she continues. “Even though the laws have changed, the consequences of those laws continue to create wider inequality along racial lines.”

The reason so many white academics have specialized in unpacking white privilege for white audiences is because white privilege isn’t a Black person’s issue. Although they do, again and again, it shouldn’t be another reality Black people are forced to break down for our benefit. Potapchuk’s 2005 paper, Doing the Work: Unearthing our Own White Privilege, is aptly titled. Acknowledgement does take work, research, discourse — and it’s on us to do it. But there’s a reason we don’t. Awareness of your power, and others’ vulnerabilities, is unpleasant. The same way a man may feel ill-at-ease walking behind a woman in a dark alley knowing she is wary of him, it’s not particularly comfortable to recognize you have been benefiting from — and maybe even watering — a society that holds others down so you can stand on their backs.

“We need to be vigilant in developing a lens for seeing our privilege and not rely solely on people of different races to directly teach us,” Potapchuk continues. “Guilt and shame cloud the explanation because it is difficult to accept that one’s attitudes and behavior caused another person’s disadvantage. It is even more shocking to think how one’s government and community institutions have created and reinforced these oppressive policies and laws.”

It is difficult. Guilt is uncomfortable, and when we’re not used to discomfort, defenses arise. We might even get angry, because hey, we didn’t create the system. It’s not our fault we were born looking like this. But we shouldn’t feel guilty for what’s outside our control — it’s not only unnecessary, it’s counterproductive. Racial justice educator Jamie Utt-Schumacher, who has focused on educating white people for the last decade, references Michael Kaufman’s The Construction of Masculinity to describe the futility of guilt when it comes to facilitating any kind of shift: “From a position of insecurity and guilt, people do not change or inspire others to change.”

“Too often we are treating privilege as something personal and interpersonal rather than systemic,” Utt-Schumaker advises. “This lends itself to an individualistic approach. But privilege is a manifestation of systems of oppression… Remind someone that they shouldn’t feel guilty for their privilege but encourage them to act to undermine the system by refusing to simply live in their unchecked privilege.”

“It is not unusual for white people to feel defensive,” Potapchuk echoes, continuing, “It is part of a mechanism that protects our image and self-esteem. Part of the process of individual change is being uncomfortable. It is challenging and sometimes overwhelming to take all of these messages in. Take time to reflect, discuss and struggle with the material and work to not avoid it or dismiss it.”

There are various interpersonal techniques you can use when trying to address privilege on a micro-level. McIntosh suggests appealing to people’s morality, and then asking for reflection. “If a person recognizes they are privileged, they may be willing to bring time, attention and money to bear on changing power relations in small or large ways.”

McIntosh has seen an uptick in requests for her resources on privilege, which include exercises for family, friends and colleagues. One encourages a conversation wherein both parties list ways in which they might experience unearned advantage, or unearned disadvantage.

“It is good to stay autobiographical and not judgmental. It's good to testify about what you were raised to believe and how you have changed and why. Then it is good to listen to other people doing the same kind of testimony. We all have our journeys. Preachiness is not effective for raising awareness. Self-righteousness is not a help.”

Utt-Schumaker agrees. He’s seen two strategies prove effective: the “meet people where they are,” which is checking in to broaden ideas within more intimate relationships, and then more generally, “pushing folks into a certain degree of discomfort by offering a racial justice perspective consistently.”

We have to question what our goal is,” he adds. “If it seems unlikely to change someone who is vocally racist, the goal for me is helping to reduce the harm that they are likely to enact against people of color with their views. With a person who is apathetic, appealing to their values is key: Helping them see it in alignment with their own values to begin to address racism in themselves and their lives.”

For her part, Battalora uses history to encourage empathy from the apathetic, recalling the words of activist Tim Wise: "whiteness has been done to all of us.”

“It is our ignorance of so much US history that allows so many to deny or reject the notion of white privilege,” she says. “A historical lens makes it absolutely clear that white privilege has been baked into the structure of the nation from its founding.”

Nonetheless, we cannot “assume we ‘get it,’” Potapchuk claims, adding that we can be blinded by our own self-perception as a ‘good white person.’ “Just because we meant no harm doesn't mean that there was none. We need to take responsibility, avoid going into immediate defensive mode and focus on listening to another person’s reality.”

The reality is, at any given moment we might make a mistake, enact a microaggression or even say something racist — but we can’t avoid the dialogue for fear of misspeaking. Instead, we can lean into the mistakes, the discomfort, the learning, to ultimately respond and adapt. Stay consistently curious about others’ stories, and empathize as to how that may have informed their beliefs. We might pride ourselves on our upstanding values, our liberalism, our commitment to equity or justice, but we should never stop working. Because even if privilege pulls the blinds, injustice doesn’t disappear.

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White Privilege