Growing up in the mountains of West Virginia, I experienced no ethnic diversity throughout high school. Often diversity might have been observed by what color the pick-up truck your family drove was or the kind of gun you learned to shoot. So, from an early age, I knew it was not safe to be different even though deep inside I knew I was. For many, many years, I hid that I was a gay man.
Eventually in college, I began to come out to a few trusted people. It was a slow process; one that required careful consideration and articulation to ensure I was safe. Every time I had to come out there was a fear of being rejected and possibly hurt. By the time I reached age 39 (I am now 46), I had completed my formal coming out process when I finally told my family I was gay.
Today as a gay man, I experience the luxury of choice. When I meet someone new, I get to choose whether to include my full self in the conversation. I don’t have to tell them or share with them I am gay. I consider this a luxury because in some cases I choose not to reveal this for many reasons including not wanting to be discriminated against. However, my fiancé who is a black man cannot hide his skin color to avoid discrimination.
Over the last 14 months of our relationship, I have begun to better understand my white privilege. We were traveling in Amsterdam over the summer. One night we decided to walk around the corner from our hotel to have a night cap. As we were preparing to leave, he asked if we need to take our passports or license. I quickly replied neither. After all, neither of us looked young enough to be carded. He promptly responded with distress in his voice, “Honey, I am a black man. I always have to have an ID on me to prove who I am. It is not safe for me otherwise.”
So, what is white privilege? According to Gary Collins of Teaching Tolerance, “white privilege is a concept that has fallen victim to its own connotations. The two-word term packs a double whammy that inspires pushback. 1) The word white creates discomfort among those who are not used to being defined or described by their race. And 2) the word privilege, especially for poor and rural white people, sounds like a word that doesn’t belong to them—like a word that suggests they have never struggled.
This defensiveness derails the conversation, which means, unfortunately, that defining white privilege must often begin with defining what it’s not. Otherwise, only the choir listens; the people you actually want to reach check out. White privilege is not the suggestion that white people have never struggled. Many white people do not enjoy the privileges that come with relative affluence, such as food security. Many do not experience the privileges that come with access, such as nearby hospitals.
And white privilege is not the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is unearned; most white people who have reached a high level of success worked extremely hard to get there. Instead, white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort.”
Francis E. Kendall, author of Diversity in the Classroom and Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race, comes close to giving us an encompassing definition: “having greater access to power and resources than people of color [in the same situation] do.”
Growing up in the mountains of West Virginia with a single Mom who struggled to sometimes make ends meet, I would never have thought of myself as privileged. Today as I prepare to walk down the aisle and marry the most amazing man who happens to be black, I learn more every day of the privilege that my white skin gives me. As the world continues to change, I long for the day that we no longer have the need to see color, consider sexual orientation, or gender and instead open our hearts to love every human just as they are. Until then I am committed to helping make changes to make our world a more loving and inclusive place for everyone. What will you do to help make these changes?
President & Founder, Energetic Awakenings
Vice President, Plexus – LBGT and Allied Chamber of Commerce