The Privileged White Guilt Complex

Growing up White in middle class suburban America, I knew I was fortunate. Unlike some of my classmates, I was lucky enough not to grow up with divorced parents, crazy debt, abusive relationships, or in poverty.

By the time I reached middle and high school, I tried to show my gratitude for the opportunities I had (something teenagers are not best known for). I admired the people working to help less fortunate teens gain a closer-to-equal shot at an education and tried to envision a career where I could do the same. One of these people is my (White) mother working with her (mostly Black) students at one of the city’s poorer high schools. It wasn’t until she told me about teaching her students how to open a bank account and balance a checkbook that I realized the immense disparity between us, even though we shared the same zip code. While I don’t want this to come off as a White teacher saves Black/Asian/Hispanic students story that Hollywood has popularized, seeing a real-life version of this inequity threw me out of my milkshakes-and-movies existence.

It wasn't until my senior year of college before I really started thinking about White privilege. It took four years of education before I learned about all of the ways being White has benefited me (thanks to Peggy McIntosh’s classic Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, among other things).  At the time, I was studying international development to try to help those with less globally, and I didn’t know how to react. I became cynical about changing public policy and felt like I had few options. During discussions of equality, race, and ethnicity in my international relations classes, I couldn’t help but feel enormously guilty. Once, I began to cry as a Muslim-American student described the racism she and her family experienced after the 9/11 attacks in the relatively affluent area they had lived in for years. I felt as if it was my fault that people of my racial group (which I had never thought of as a race because White was just “normal”) were doing wrong.

The Trayvon Martin case has promoted a discussion about race in America (see Kristian Davis Bailey’s insightful and honest articles on being Black in America), and I want to raise the following question to my White peers: How do you accept your White privilege? What do you do about the knowledge? The guilt?

I don’t have any answers to this question. I am still the middle class White girl that stumbles over her words when she has to talk about race, especially with people that the group I was born into has harmed for hundreds of years.

I believe it is important to discuss what it means to be Black, Asian and Hispanic in America, but we also need to find a way for those who grew up White in America to discuss race constructively. Why aren’t our schools addressing these issues earlier? Why did it take a specialized degree and four years of post-high school education to get me to see my privilege for what it was?

I don’t think I’m an exception to this White middle class ignorance. We must teach our children about the injustices and privileges inherent in the current U.S. system and Western world. We need to open up space for both privileged and unprivileged kids to vent their emotions and turn them into opportunities for action.

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Katie Gresham

A graduate of American University's International Peace and Conflict Resolution program, Katie currently lives in London where she works with well-known international development NGOs. She has a keen interest in international affairs skewed towards development and conflicts issues. She has augmented her academic studies with trips to Northern Ireland, Kenya, Cyprus and the Balkans.

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