Being White in America: A Social Worker’s Perspective
By Meredith Swinford, LMSW
Editor’s Note: This post was written in response to Jennifer Petersen’s article “How We Talk (Or Don’t) About Being White.” If you’re interested in contributing to the blog email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This concept has been on my heart and mind since Trayvon Martin’s shooting, but has grown heavier and brought more uneasiness as the racially charged events continued to occur over the last few years. I found myself thinking occasionally that I should apologize for being white, being unable to understand fully the people I was trying to support and help. The uneasiness came when I realized that I wasn’t really sorry I was white, because I’m not, I just didn’t want to be seen as someone who didn’t care about equality because I was a white middle-class Southerner. I didn’t want people to judge my character based on the color of my skin. Huh. Beautiful irony. I’m very grateful I’m white. And at the same time, I’m angry and resentful that African-Americans (not to mention other groups) are so often treated as if they are inherently less than I. I happened to be born as a white, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian child of two college-educated, white, heterosexual parents, both of whom are still alive and married to each other. All of that made me privileged. I am still privileged.
I cannot change any of those identifiers, nor would I ever want to. I cannot change the fact that people that look like me and, most likely people that are related to me, were slave owners. Some of my ancestors helped settle Maryland, one was the first Governor. I’m proud of that. I think it’s kind of cool. That’s part of my heritage. I can be proud of the achievements, while denouncing the fact that they probably owned human beings. It makes me sick to consider the possibility of my ancestors’ part in such a heinous institution. So what I finally concluded for myself is that being privileged does not mean that I should be sorry I’m privileged. Who would be sorry they were born privileged? And I don’t have to apologize for who I am in order to support others.
As a social worker, I was taught and have experienced the power of validating another’s feelings. I realized that’s what much of race relations boils down to: validating another’s feelings. When you validate that another has a reason for feeling the way they do, you begin to think and behave differently toward them. I’m sure I have family members that were slave owners and I’m sure I have friends whose family members were enslaved. I can never change that. The actions of my ancestors and representatives of my race do not represent me. The only thing I can control is what I do with my actions today and how well I love those around me. And as I’ve said many times, the beauty of apologizing is that sometimes you’re not saying “I’m sorry I caused you pain,” you’re simply saying “I’m sorry there was pain.”
So I say this to all of you: I am very grateful to have been born with the privileges I have. I cannot apologize for that. Most importantly, I acknowledge that white privilege is real. And many, many, many others were not born with some or any of that privilege. I acknowledge that many lives around me are different solely because of the color of their skin or their religion or their age or their diagnosis. I am sorry that certain groups in this country are still subjected to the remnants of a system that we (white Americans) told ourselves was abolished centuries ago. I hate that. And I would be really angry if I had to deal with many of the things some Americans deal with daily. I am so tired of hearing white folks say “Slavery is over…Jim Crow is over…Just get over it.” You are not apologizing for sins you didn’t commit. You are validating the feelings of oppressed people because those are real. You are acknowledging your own privilege because it is real. Physical slavery of African-Americans is over in our country, yes, but all is not equal. I think the healing comes when white Americans stop denying the oppression that was, is, and continues every day, individually and systematically. There is inequality everywhere, and though I will never pretend to understand what that feels like, I know it’s there and it affects more than we ever give it credit for. I will stand with those fighting for equality and justice, and I will continue to examine my own thoughts and behaviors to catch subtle prejudices because it’s the right thing to do, it’s what God commands me to do, and because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”