In the classroom, when we talk about who benefits from systems of power & privilege, the answer is usually White, straight, cis males. As I continue to have conversations about race with my White friends (males especially), this response is usually one not received well. I’m often met with anger and frustration – an emotional response to what has been described to me as feeling ‘attacked.’ As one male friend put it, “blaming everything on White guys makes us all out to be the Boogie Man – and not all of us are.”
I think this sort of response is one that is the result of living in a position of power. If your abilities, social positioning, and intentions have never been questioned before because of your status, then someone pointing out how your identity is part of a larger system of oppression can certainly feel like an attack. This is the situation many White people are in today – facing the historical context of their identity and their present role in society is jarring, especially when they’ve never had to consider it before.
It’s interesting to note how pointing out these systems feels like an attack to a person in power (evidence of how privileged some members of our society really are). For many, I think this feeling is interpreted as discrimination. I saw a research presentation once on Protestant’s perception of discrimination compared to that of Jews and Muslims in the United States. As a baseline, Protestants do not feel as though they experience discrimination, whereas Jews and Muslims do. When primed with current events however, Protestant experience of discrimination skyrockets past the levels of Muslims. In reality, no power is being taken away from Protestants, a religious majority. But when made aware about how their influence is slowly fading, perception of discrimination is strong.
I think this study can relate in many ways to Whites in the United States. Many react with animosity towards Black people in higher education or in certain jobs, believing that these were “stolen” from them. Many are angered by the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” thinking that attention is being taken away by them. Stories of a White male being murdered by a gang simply because he was White emerge, and a narrative of “reverse racism” emerges.
I understand the sentiment expressed by good-intentioned White males. They feel, personally, that they have not done anything wrong. They have never colonized a nation or owned a slave. They have never (explicitly) been discriminatory. They actively try to be racially aware and discuss it when necessary. But I see the issue not as a personal problem, but a systemic one. White identity, even if it is your identity, does not exist in a vacuum. It is entrenched in a host of historical and current events, and influences every aspect of your life and experiences. Whites, men in particular, have significantly more privilege then any other group in our society. No one is personally to blame for racism – but that does not mean that we are all innocent bystanders in this system. We all (whites) benefit from the system in some way, and acknowledging that does not make one a “boogie man.” What it does mean is that Whites need to work towards achieving a level of activism in order to begin to work against this system.
How do we compromise for good-intentioned White men who acknowledge structural inequalities, but feel attacked for their identity regardless?