White Privilege by Heather Smith

White Privilege by Heather Smith I am a white cisgender woman from an upper-middle class family. I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio with a working dad, stay-at-home mom, sister, […]

White Privilege by Heather Smith

I am a white cisgender woman from an upper-middle class family. I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio with a working dad, stay-at-home mom, sister, and a dog. I have never experienced homelessness and I have never experienced hunger. My family never struggled to make any bills or payments and we lived in the same home my whole life. I was always taught that the police are here to help and that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to. I went to a prestigious liberal arts institution for my undergraduate degree and I don’t have a large amount of student loan debt. When I graduated I was not discriminated against in hiring practices because of my name or race. I was able to ask my parents to loan me money to pay for my graduate school classes, so I wouldn’t have to take out a governmental loan.

I grew up privileged and I live privileged. I am privileged. 

When I joined Empowering Youth, Exploring Justice as the Discussion Series Manager I doubted whether or not I was the right person for the job. I felt I had no tangible understanding of what the children in the schools we service experience. I questioned my ability to properly serve these kids as a white woman and if it’s my battle to fight. In fact, I’ve struggled with this dilemma for a while now, going back and forth on what is my place and what isn’t—and I feel that many other white people also experience this dilemma. However, this dilemma is not important. My white guilt, other white people’s white guilt, is unimportant. The social justice movement has no space for white people to complain about our insecurities and how bad we feel about it all. In my opinion, white people who take up space in the social justice movement complaining about their guilt are taking up space where progress can be made. Its drawing the attention away from the movement and back to themselves. Its ineffective, its inefficient, and its selfish.

What needs to be understood by white people is that the onus is on us to right the wrongs we and our ancestors have committed. Whether we like it or not we are all responsible for perpetuating systematic oppression and committing microaggressions towards people of color and marginalized groups. The least we can do is try to make up for it. Because when it comes down to it, it is not the responsibility of the oppressed group to undo their oppression. We created this mess—we need to clean it up.

It’s important to note that this does not mean going into impoverished neighborhoods and “helping those poor kids” because it makes *you* feel good inside (white savior). It means taking responsibility for white people’s collective actions and using our privilege to actually benefit marginalized groups. It means creating space for marginalized groups to speak their truth and decentering ourselves. It means doing what we can do ensure all peoples get the same experiences and privileges we have, even if that means surrendering some of our own.

What’s more, it means having empathy. Righting our wrongs is not about redemption. It’s having the empathy to recognize oppression and want to take action. After all, we are all human. Just as we donate to the Red Cross or the Greater Cleveland Foodbank, we should dedicate time to help in the aid of alleviating social injustices. What is a better way to do this than discussing achieving social justice with the future of our world?

One of the beauties of EYEJ is the environment for dialogue it fosters. This dialogue allows people of all backgrounds and walks of life to share their experiences and privileges with youth, while encouraging youth to share theirs. EYEJ creates a space for people like me to share our knowledge and experiences with the youth to use and interpret however they see fit. It’s not about going into the classroom and telling youth all they’re doing is wrong and what we’ve done is right. It’s about sharing our resources and our experiences with youth and opening nonjudgmental dialogue to share their own experiences. By creating space for them to feel their voice is heard and providing tools that work for us, they are given a space, time, and opportunity to discover their own power and control over their life. EYEJ isn’t about talking over the youth or telling them what to do; EYEJ is about is about amplifying youth’s voices and empowering them. I mean, we are Empowering Youth, Exploring Justice!

If you are reading this and you don’t think it applies to you, I challenge you to spend some time reflecting on how your privilege has aided you in getting to where you are (Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack is an amazing read). If you are reading this and you understand that it does apply to you, as it does to most of us, I challenge you to volunteer for EYEJ. Come to a Discussion Series event and share your resources and experiences with youth who don’t have the same opportunities you did because at the end of the day we are all human. I guarantee you’ll learn something along the way too.

If you’re interested in volunteering, you can email me at heather@eyej.org to get started.

Heather Smith

EYEJ Discussion Series Manager