A Tale of Two Travellers
Imagine for a moment that you are preparing for a long, multi-day trek. The trail will wind its way through jungle, rainforest, mountains, and deserts. It can be dangerous, so you are assigned a guide. He recognizes you and smiles, handing you some tools: a compass, a map, a flashlight, and some extra food and water.
“I helped your mom and dad on the same journey,” he says. As you continue on your trek, you are so glad to have the guide with you. He warns you about the Valley of Snakes and points you in the right direction when the trail splits.
It’s hard. You get up early in the morning, you hike through your blisters and aching shoulders, and you collapse every night under the starry night sky. It’s rewarding, though, and by the middle of the journey you think to yourself, if I could do such a difficult trek, anyone could! All they would need to do is to wake up early, follow in the steps you took, and be able to hike through their pain.
Now imagine being back at the trailhead, but this time your experience is different. You meet your new guide, but for some reason he seems hostile. He doesn’t give you any tools. He “forgets” to tell you about the Valley of Snakes, so you lose several days cautiously navigating through hordes of hissing serpents. The guide is far ahead out of sight when you reach the fork in the road, so you gamble and go left. When you’re lost, he doesn’t heed your call for help.
It’s really hard. You get up early and hike many miles each day, but there are a ton of obstacles. Sometimes the guide helps you out, but for the most part it seems like he is either out to get you or simply indifferent.
By the middle of the hike, you are bruised and weary.
The Travellers Compare Journeys
The two travellers meet at a lodge. At first, as they talk about their treks, it sounds like they had two completely different experiences.
“Why didn’t you use your compass if you were so lost?” The first traveller asks.
“I don’t have a compass. How did you get to the lodge so quickly?” says the second traveller.
“I got up early every day, worked hard, and walked 24 miles even if I wanted to drop,” the first traveller pauses, thinking about his late-night jaunts with his flashlight swinging in the darkness. “You could have cut down your time if you had walked a few extra hours each night.”
“I also walked 24 miles each day, but I had to make a bunch of detours to avoid the snakes,” the second traveller replies.
“Why didn’t you take the shortcut above the valley?”
It shouldn’t take long for the travellers to realize that there was one critical difference between their journeys: the guide. The first trekker hiked hard, but he was oblivious to how much the guide’s assistance affected his experience. He assumed everyone would be provided the same tools.
A Prejudiced Guide
Our society is the guide, and its prejudice is rooted in racism— our educational systems, legal systems, and workplaces are all built on top of racist policies that affect everyone who tries to navigate them.
White privilege allows many of us to believe that we live in a meritocracy where talent, skills, and ability are judged alone and consequences are the same for the same choices. We labor under the illusion that if others simply followed our footsteps, they would get to the same place. It’s not true.
Your privileges are your tools. Your whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, physical and mental ableness help you excel in a society that values those traits. Yes, you can work hard, put in the time and effort, and make it far in life, but if people aren’t provided the same tools and fair treatment, they will struggle to make it as far.
The Financial Advantages of Being White
The uncomfortable truth is that if you are white in this country, you benefit from white supremacist culture. The compass, map, and flashlight given to the first traveller were unearned advantages, just like whiteness is an unearned advantage in America.
We tend to focus on the disadvantaged, saying things like, “Women earn less than men.” This hides the reality, which is that companies pay men more than women. It may seem like those are two equal things, but in the first, we are tempted to fix the woman. We’ll tell her how to negotiate for herself, work harder, deliver more, then she will earn as much as a man. However, the problem is with the companies that are perpetuating inequality!
The same idea extends beyond gender and into race for nearly every facet of American life. Inspired by this post on the financial advantages of being white, I wanted to take a moment to tally up just some of the ways I’ve benefited unfairly by being white and living in a white supremacist culture.
Getting a job
I workshopped my resume and got feedback from several hiring managers. I worked hard on it, and I’m proud of it! However, simply by signing it with my white-sounding name, I am 50% more likely to get a callback than someone with the exact same resume with a Black-sounding name.
Getting an apartment
I searched high and low for a reasonably priced apartment, but just because of my name, I am 26% more likely to get a positive response from a landlord over someone with a traditionally Black or Hispanic sounding name.
Accessing a loan or credit
Your credit history can make or break landing a new job opportunity, apartment, affordable insurance and mortgages. I’m white, so banks and other loan providers are more likely to offer me prime mortgages while targeting communities of color with predatory high-cost loans. If my loan is more affordable, I’m more likely to be able to pay it off and therefore have a higher credit score. Can you see where this is going? Research has shown that credit scores are more indicative to whether someone has medical debt than how well they will perform at work. However, society still uses it as a barrier to find a place to work and live.
Getting a mortgage and a home
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Black Americans are more than twice as likely to receive a high-cost mortgage as compared to white people, even if they have the same credit score and debt-to-income ratio! This means it is more difficult to put a down payment on a house to build generational wealth.
When I was a kid, I thought racism was a thing of the past. I knew that Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech at my church while being oblivious to the lingering effects of redlining in the surrounding blocks. The practice of redlining involved marking neighborhoods of predominately people of color as “high-risk” so mortgage lenders could deny loans. Out of curiosity, I read up on the economic and racial segregation in the history of the neighborhood I grew up in:
“If a black family wanted to buy or rent a home in Park Hill, they would be politely steered to homes west of Colorado Blvd. and north of Colfax. If the black family insisted, the real estate man, if he were honest, would simply tell them, ‘I can’t get you a loan there; the banks aren’t lending to black folks in Park Hill.'” – Denver Public Library
When I think about my neighbors growing up, I think of Sammy— a Black man who traded tools with my dad, always called me “Sugar”, and lived across the street. Yet when I think of the broader neighborhood, I recall many, many more white people hanging out on their porches. Sammy is an anecdotal exception to the larger rule. Racism is far from over as the consequences from government-sanctioned policies like redlining extend into our present.
When I go to the hospital, my doctor is more likely to believe me when I talk about my pain compared to a Black patient. The National Academy of Medicine (NAM) documented that Black patients receive suboptimal care when compared to their white counterparts, even after adjusting for age, sex, insurance, education, and the severity of their disease.
If I ever decide to have a baby, I am 2 to 6 times less likely to die from childbirth than if I were a Black woman. SIX TIMES LESS LIKELY! My baby would have a better chance at life as well. This is the uncomfortable truth: I am more likely to live because of my race, and being the ‘wrong’ race in this country can be a death sentence.
Receiving generational wealth
As I came from a white family, I’m five times more likely to receive a large gift or inheritance, which can be used to pay for college or another big investment. In fact, I finished school debt-free thanks to my parents, who also completed their school debt-free thanks to their parents (or in my mother’s case, thanks to Britain’s subsidized tuition for university students).
Generational wealth is a big factor of the racial wealth gap (which is not so much a “gap” as it is a chasm). The median white family’s net worth in 2016 totalled $171,000, a staggering ten times greater than the average net worth of a Black family at $17,409.
One major contributor to this gap is the difference in generational wealth. 26% of white families receive inheritances, compared to 8% of Black and 5% of Latinx families. Without generational wealth, it is more difficult to own a house, get out of debt, and start a business.
Receiving entrepreneurial support
The typical founding team of a new entrepreneurial venture is all-white and all-male. We’ve seen from the numbers already that generational wealth can make a big difference. Amazon is a famous example, a company that was built on an almost $250,000 investment from Bezos’ parents. Meanwhile, many Black founders struggle to get past the “Friends & Family” round of investing without the help from the bank of Mom and Dad.
It takes money to make money as they say, and the difference in access to start-up funds is one of the largest factors behind entrepreneurial success. In 2016, the Center for Global Policy Solutions showed bias towards companies started by white men and demonstrated that current financing practices are still discriminatory. Closing this funding gap would mean creating the opportunity for 9 million jobs and $300 billion for the economy.
Excused at school
I was a well-behaved kid in school, but there were definitely times I acted up. According to several studies, as a white kid, I was more likely to be let off the hook for my behaviors than if I were Black and acted up in the same way. In 2018, one study found that a first offense by Black students was on average rated 20% more severely than that by white students, and a second offense 29% more severely. Principals endorse more suspension and expulsions for Black students, which means Black students are more likely to be labeled a troublemaker.
The effects compound into a troubling school-to-prison pipeline. Zero-tolerance policies crack down on minor infractions, cops in schools criminalize behavior, and students of color suffer from greater disciplinary action. Suspension or expulsion greatly increases a student’s risk of being held back academically, dropping out or landing in the juvenile justice system.
Getting out of tickets
I’ve never been pulled over, and although I’d like to think it’s because I’m a great driver, it’s even more likely that the color of my skin shielded me from being stopped. One study used 60 million traffic stops across 20 states, and found that black drivers are stopped more often than white drivers relative to their share of the driving population.
In fact, I know in 10 years of driving I have ‘changed lanes improperly’ but I never feared that a routine traffic stop could lead to my death, as it did for 28-year-old Sandra Bland, who was found hanged in her cell after a ‘routine’ traffic stop.
If I were to commit a crime, I would be 5-7 times more likely to be let off the hook than if I were Black. While prison should be a last resort for violent offenders, more people are sent to prison in the United States for nonviolent drug offenses than for violence. The “War on Drugs” looks a lot more like a war on people of color when white people end up in rehab and Black people end up behind bars.
After their sentence is over, it can be extremely difficult to reintegrate into society. White men with a criminal record are more likely to get an interview than Black men with no criminal record, so you can imagine how hard it is for a Black man with a criminal record. White people are given the benefit of the doubt while racism obstructs second chances for anyone else. Inequities multiply like the heads of Hydra: chop of one, two more will regrow.
Getting to live my life
Here are a couple things I have done without worrying about it turning into a deadly confrontation with the police:
I have walked down the stairs of my apartment building,
walked down the street in my neighborhood,
been to a party, and
I have never been accosted by a police force that routinely punishes Black civilians more harshly than white.
Even now, I am benefitting from white supremacy. As we speak, I am working from home, insured, located conveniently near a hospital, and drinking clean filtered water. Meanwhile, as Ibram X. Kendi, author of How To Be An Anti-Racist, writes in the Atlantic,
“black (and Latino) people during this pandemic less likely to be working from home; less likely to be insured; more likely to live in trauma-care deserts, lacking access to advanced emergency care; and more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods”
Why? Kendi answers:
Because of racism.
So what? I can’t control the color of my skin either. What am I supposed to do about it?
It’s clear there’s something wrong when two strong, capable travellers have such different experiences at the hands of a corrupt guide. It would be natural for the first traveller, upon hearing about the terrible experience the second had, to feel outrage, confusion, and even guilt. He might try to assuage these feelings by being nice— handing over some of his extra food, maybe, or telling the second traveller what he knows about the upcoming trail.
However, being nice won’t solve the ultimate problem: the unprincipled guide will affect the experience of every traveller he works with. Our guides—the school system, the legal system, and every other institutionalized process— are built with the already-powerful in mind. There are years of racist policies that specifically favor white people while denying BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) folks their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Past wrongs did not disappear when schools desegregated or when workplaces published platitudes that assure they hire people of all creeds and colors (spoiler alert: they still don’t).
We need a new guide. We need new laws, new policies, new educational resources, new systems in place for legal proceedings, hiring, and pay scales.
How do we oust the stereotypes that limit the potential of people, who simply by virtue of being black, brown, female, disabled, or otherwise ‘othered’ are subjected to presuppositions of inferiority?
What can you do?
1. Examine your privilege
Unexamined privilege is not justified in having. Everybody is born with some type of privilege, whether it’s class, gender, race, being able-bodied, of sound mind, or even having a family who supports them.
Just like so many controversial topics smattering our conversational landscape, privilege exists on a spectrum, it’s not black-and-white. Just like there are different shades of skin, sliding scales of gender, and altered sets of abilities, there are hundreds of privileges you may be privy to, and hundreds that you may not. It’s not productive to feel guilty about the privileges you have— but as Uncle Ben from Spider-Man would say, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
2. Educate yourself
Good job! You’re reading this article, which means something. There are a ton of links to studies embedded in this article, and there is study after study that investigates how we consistently fail to treat all people equally. Don’t ask someone to teach you (unless you want to pay them)— there are so many resources available online and elsewhere.
3. Get involved in local politics
Support organizations and politicians that are moving the needle towards justice and making the change that you want to see. Lobby lawmakers by writing letters, picking up the phone, and signing petitions. Go to town hall meetings. Attend protests. Volunteer to help campaign.
Identify issues you care about and pursue them. Read up on the pros and cons of raising minimum wage, investing in Baby Bonds, expanding the Fair Housing Act, student loan forgiveness, and other policies proposed to close the racial wealth gap.
4. Consume media from people who don’t look like you
In 2018, of 3,200 published children’s books, just 11% featured a Black protagonist, 1% featured a Native American protagonist, 8% were about Asian Pacific Americans, and 7% centered a Latinx character.
The more mainstream media you consume, the more comfortable the narrative—a white protagonist wrestling with relatable problems. The more diverse your media intake, the more diverse perspectives you come up against. Comb through your social media– are you following BIPOC? Check your bookshelves: are you reading stories written from a broad range of perspectives?
Some of my favorite books (these are all affiliate links) that introduced new perspectives include:
Of course, this is just a small smattering. There are stacks of books out there to investigate racism and privilege. To research the reverberations of systemic racism, I recommend these books:
5. Pass the microphone
Whether you’re organizing conference speakers, an interview panel, or hiring for your team at work, it’s important to pass the microphone. Whatever platform you have, feature voices of people who don’t look like you. The smallest example of this for me is my blog—it’s a platform in itself. When I feature guest posts, I want them to be from people who tell important stories that I couldn’t have written myself.
Set audacious goals. It’s not enough to get a token opinion. The result of listening is that it’s easier to see. People become individuals with their own complex inner-lives, rather than a stereotype of a group.
6. Actively dismantle white supremacy
It’s time to demolish the racist power structures that mistreat minorities in our society. Turn your focus on justice, on policies that uphold liberty, equity, and the value of Black lives.
As Alexander writes in The New Jim Crow:
“….racial caste systems do not require racial hostility or overt bigotry to thrive. They need only racial indifference, as Martin Luther King Jr. warned more than forty five years ago.”
That said, it wouldn’t be enough to give the ‘guide’ in the story racial sensitivity training. Our systems are broken and in need of critical reparations. Engage in your local schools, workplaces, and politics to remove racist power structures and replace them with something better.
While the first step might be recognizing the privileges you have, the crucial action is to turn focus on the human rights that are being denied to people of color in our country. It’s easier to focus on individual acts of racism than it is to reflect on our own internalized racism or work to change existing racist systems—but it’s work that must be done.
What About You?
Do you relate more to the first traveller or the second?
In what other ways do white people benefit from white supremacy?
What have you done to dismantle white supremacy?