I am a white straight male. I can wear a hoodie when I walk down the street. I feel safe because I live in an upper-middle class neighborhood. I don’t get judged because of my skin color. I don’t have to give any of my three daughters “the talk”, that so many men and women of color have to give their sons and daughters, about how to interact with the police. I did nothing to earn these luxuries, they were given to me. I have been given every opportunity in this lifetime, opportunies that so many men and women in this country will never know.
When I was 18 I joined a fraternity. There were 13 white men that pledged the fraternity with me and there was one African-American man that wanted to do the same. He was friendly, smart, athletic, and respectful. He wanted to be a member of the fraternity, but he was not invited. To me this felt like racism, and I played a complicit role. I should have spoken up, I should have done something, but I didn’t. I was too worried about fitting in.
Once I was playing basketball with a group of men at an apartment complex. There were seven white men and one African-American man. The manager of the apartment complex came out, pointed at this African American man and said, “You can’t play here.” So he left. I felt bad for this young man, but I continued to play. I should have left.
I have participated in institutionalized racism, yet this does not define who I am. I have friends and family members who have tried to “teach” me about reverse discrimination – trying to convince me that it exists and how I need to protect my own. I have never agreed. I know I have been given more advantages than men and women of color. This quote defines what I know: Privilege is being born on 3rd base and thinking you hit a triple. Too many of us think we hit a triple.
I have co-facilitated a monthly men’s group called MenLiving for the last four years. Each month we discuss how men can further challenge themselves and wake up to what is really going on inside. Last week we decided to have an open discussion about white privilege and racism as a result of the incidents in Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas. We have no African-American men in this group. This is not by design, rather it is a result of proximity. The African-American men I know have been invited, but they have not joined us.
Our initial idea was to invite an African-American man to speak at the meeting so we could better understand and empathize. The invitation was extended to one man and he declined. He said, “It is not my job to teach you, do your own own work.” It was in this moment I had clarity. I had no idea, but even this invitation was a privileged thought. This is our work, and it’s not anybody else’s job to teach us. Minorities experience racism on a daily basis, and then we ask them to teach us what to do? In the end we had a two-hour long discussion where each man shared thoughts and perspectives when it came to race. We recognized our issues and challenged each other to transform the discussion into action. It was powerful.
The bottom line is that if I hope to make the world a better place, I need to do more. I need to stop believing this is someone else’s fight as I sit on the sidelines. I need to first admit my complicit participation of institutionalized racism. I need to not laugh at the racist joke that my friend says at the bar (or better yet tell him it’s not cool). I want my daughters to respect differences, but recognize we are all the same. I need to quit being silent so I can role model the behavior that I hope to see in others.
I have been put in a position of power because I am a white straight male. I hold myself accountable to use that power in a way that makes the world a better place.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ~Edmund Burke