I work at an organization called The Last Mile, where we focus on in-prison software engineering education as well as reentry services for formerly incarcerated people. One of the many things I have learned during my career with TLM is the power of perspective and privilege, and their relationship not only to one another, but also to our decisions.
I am a half white, half Latino, white-passing male who has experienced privilege due to my skin color in countless ways throughout my life. There are various ways to perpetuate the system of racism, oppression, and inequality in our society. I have always tried to make a conscious effort to treat people fairly and equally. However, I understand now, that my responsibility as a person of privilege must not only be about what I do, but also what I do not do. I would like to hold myself accountable for times when I have stayed quiet, rather than speaking out, and thus forfeited an opportunity to advocate for equality.
We live in a country where, based on the way you look, you are treated differently. I believe this disparity has created multiple Americas: one which receives privilege, and one which receives discrimination and inequality. A sentiment that I believe exists amongst many people in the Privileged America is the belief that we are not responsible for creating change. It can be because of a fear to challenge the status quo, a fear of losing our privilege, the idea that because we are not the targets of discrimination, we are not supposed to stand in the face of it, or not recognizing the privilege at all. Regardless of the reason, it is of the utmost importance that we all understand: we live in a society where police brutality and inequitable treatment based on race is far too widespread to be characterized as “a few bad apples.” In fact, a horrific history, spanning hundreds of years, has systematically ingrained oppression and racism into our justice system.
During a time when movements such as Black Lives Matter are advocating to put an end to a legacy of bigotry and persecution of people of color and building a better, equal, and just future, some people in the Privileged America may be wondering what our role is, what our responsibility is. Whether you are a school teacher, politician, judge, cashier, CEO, actor, or stay-home-parent; with our privilege comes responsibility. It is imperative that we look to ourselves to stop the oppression and not divert the responsibility onto those who are being oppressed.
How do we do that? Each one of us has to find the answer to that question within ourselves. At a former job, I remember noticing a distinct difference in how my manager spoke with employees of different races. While I was treated as an equal, my coworker, a person of color, was treated as if they were inferior. There was no difference in our quality of work, skill levels, or job titles. I would come home and complain to my wife about the blatant injustice — it made me feel better to get it off my chest. I recognize now that this wasn’t enough, and my response shouldn’t be about making myself feel better. It’s about using my voice to help create change. If I experienced this situation today, I would speak up on behalf of my coworker to combat the blatant injustice I witnessed. At another job, in retail, large groups of school children would come into the store on field trips. The employees would exclusively watch children of color browsing merchandise, while essentially ignoring the white children. It was clear that they did not expect the white children to shoplift. This felt wrong, but it was not my department, nor was I their supervisor, so I did nothing. Today, I would use my position and my voice to confront my coworkers about their behavior. Additionally, I would have a conversation with my supervisor and HR department to address our company culture.
I could never possibly understand what it is like to be a person of color in the United States, nor the feeling of being discriminated against based on the color of my skin.
What I can understand is who I am, my perspective, and the power of my position. When a discriminatory or bigoted act takes place, the expectation simply cannot be on the person being discriminated against to call out the inequality or injustice. That is our responsibility. Our privilege must be used to advocate for change in our broken system.
I challenge all of us with privilege, no matter how big or small, to evaluate our daily choices and take it upon ourselves to address the racism and inequality that plague our country. We have had the privilege of ignoring these injustices for far too long. It is time to change.