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The Importance of Discomfort – Identifying & Owning My White Privilege

Photo by  Allie Smith  on  Unsplash

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to attend the Racial Equity Institute’s (REI) Phase 1 Racial Equity Workshop. The Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCF) invited REI to Cincinnati offer several (free!) sessions of this Phase 1 workshop as a part of their Racial Equity Matters series, “illustrating their commitment to conversations about racial equity that build connections and move us forward with enhanced insights and shared purpose.” The two-day session, facilitated by REI trainers Suzanne Plihcik, Matt Bell, and George Clopton, delivered on that commitment and so much more.

Since attending the training, I have struggled with how I can put into words all that I got out of it. There is no way that I can adequately express to you here all that you can learn, and more importantly, feel, throughout the two-day session. So, before I begin sharing my biggest takeaways with you, I will encourage you to attend a session yourself. If you are in the Cincinnati area, join a a waitlist for one of the remaining 2019 sessions – more are coming in 2020. If you are outside of Cincinnati, learn if/when REI is coming to your city. Be proactive. You will not regret it.

(The Lack of) A Common Understanding of Race and Racism

The Phase 1 Workshop is rooted in the notion that we as a society do not have a collective understanding of what race is, or what racism is, or how we can define them. Ask any two people on the street and they will most likely define these terms in different ways based on their own identities and world views. It was with this initial realization – that I, a white woman, had never taken the time to search for that understanding, or to define those terms – that my discomfort began to set in. We were minutes into the two-day session and I felt my first of many pangs of what can only be described as “white guilt” when I realized:

I had never needed to truly understand the terms race or racism in my life. As a white person, I am a benefactor of what these terms represent, no matter the definition. As a white person, I rarely have to give the concept of race a second thought. That is my white privilege.

The terms race and racism would not be spelled out and defined for me until the end of day one, but I knew with that first gut-wrenching realization what I was in for for the next two days: pure discomfort as I came face to face with all that white privilege has given to some, and all that it has taken from others. The presenters proceeded to teach me more than I have ever learned in my elementary, high school, undergraduate, or masters programs combined about the history of race and oppression in this country – starting with the invention of race in the 1600’s. As each layer that my previous education had neglected was peeled back, two key takeaways emerged from the training:

Keeping whiteness invisible keeps it powerful.

As each piece of history was presented throughout the two-day session, it felt as though I was seeing race for the first time. Not the race of others, but the race I belong to: whiteness. After all, races other than “white” are always identified in our society, whereas whiteness is never marked or labeled. Think about this: we certify minority-owned businesses, we are easily able to identify when a school is a "HBCU” (Historically Black College or University), we celebrate Black History Month (the shortest, coldest month of the year, by the way). But we do not, typically, say why these things exist in the first place: systemic racism. By not identifying all other businesses as WHITE-owned businesses, all other colleges as Historically WHITE Colleges and Universities, and all other months of the year as WHITE History Month, we assume whiteness as the norm, and we forget how other races are/were systemically blocked and oppressed within those systems.

Not discussing these things, not marking and identifying white culture for what it is, is what keeps whiteness “the norm” and everything else “outside of the norm.” If you are white and reading this, do a short exercise. Ask yourself: “What is my favorite part about white culture? What do I like most about being white?” Warning: you will feel extremely uncomfortable. You will not enjoy marking all that white culture entails, and all that you benefit from it. That is because when we discuss whiteness, and we identify the culture, and we mark all of the “whiteness in our society, we are able to see just how powerful it is, and how much the normalization of whiteness has oppressed other races.

History has labeled other races for centuries, while whiteness has been the status quo. This has defined all of the basic systems in this country, from childbirth through death, and everything in between– education, employment, transportation, housing… the list goes on. As we continue to mark “otherness” and accept whiteness as the “norm”, this divide continues to grow.

Sitting with discomfort is a mandatory step

There is no way, as a white person (who believes that racism is unjust), to discuss or think about white privilege without being uncomfortable. There is no magic solution that will take my power away and give it to someone else, and there is no way to wipe away my white guilt. The fact is, I experience endless privileges because of the color of my skin. I was able to wait until age 32 to have my worldview completely exploded with the arguably simple task of defining my race’s culture. That alone, that ability to not think about it at all, might be at the core of what white privilege really is. And with this realization comes incredible discomfort.

White people, I urge you to be uncomfortable. Educate yourself, and push yourself to think through these things until it hurts. And it will. But as I learned from the amazing REI trainers, sitting with this discomfort is a mandatory step in what comes next. So often we want to move from discomfort to immediate action, and as white people, we have been conditioned to think that our actions should inevitably garner results. But without sitting with the discomfort, and taking many purposeful steps between awareness and action, nothing will ever change.

As for me, I am still sitting in my discomfort. I am continuing to expand my worldview through reading, watching, and listening to new information as often as I can. I do not know exactly what my next steps will be, but I am sure that as the co-founder of a company whose mission is to break down gender barriers that I must learn what I don’t yet know about gender barriers specific to women of color, both today, and those they have been traumatized by throughout history. I must do this in order to truly fulfill our company’s and my personal mission. And I’m writing this so that I am held accountable.