I spoke last month about the political divide in this country and how we talk to each other about it. I’d love it if you took 11 minutes to watch it. If what I say means something to you, please let me know.
If watching videos isn’t your thing, the full transcript is just below the video.
I believe we’re in the midst of a crisis of understanding. We don’t understand each other in this country very well. When we talk about important subjects, we often push ourselves further away, instead of bringing ourselves together.
Part of the problem is definitions.
When I was a kid, racism meant doing something bad to another person because of their race. That definition has changed. Today the definition says you cannot be racist to a white person. You can be prejudiced against a white person or discriminate against a white person, but you can’t be racist to them.
Language is important, and our words have power; but we have to ask ourselves how important this particular definitional debate is. Because other things are important too. I’ve seen this particular debate derail other conversations that would also have been important.
The other day, someone posted on Facebook a story about themselves. They had been hurt by some prejudice, and they happened to be white. They shared this story on Facebook, and the responses zeroed in on the person’s use of the word ‘racist’ in the post.
This person shared–vulnerably–a story about them being hurt. And the responses were a critique about their language. At some point, we stopped being empathetic about how we reply to others.
But it’s also important to ask why people like me fight for this new definition of racism. Part of it is that this new definition of racism takes into account white privilege. But that’s another definitional quandary. I haven’t seen a lot of good explanations of ‘white privilege’ either.
Some conversations about white privilege go a bit like this: One person says “There’s no such thing as white privilege! Are you telling me that, just because she’s black, Colin Powell’s child has more hardship than a poor white kid?” And the reply is a long, complicated, summary of critical race theory. It doesn’t go particularly well. It’s not coherent, and it’s also not what that conversation needs to be. It shouldn’t be academic. It should be personal, and it should be relatable.
We need to decide if we want to be right, or if we would rather be persuasive.
Being right is easier, but it’s also nebulous. It’s also bad science, because it’s not provable. Over time, truth itself has changed fundamentally. We used to think the world is flat! At any time, we could be wrong and not even know it.
Being persuasive is testable. It’s scientific. If you want to know if you were persuasive, just ask the person you’re trying to persuade, “Hey, did I persuade you?” And then you know.
But being persuasive is harder, because it requires us to understand the person we’re trying to persuade. You’ll never be able to persuade someone if you don’t understand where they’re coming from. To do that you have to be patient and open to listening to them, even when doing so makes your blood boil.
The way we talk about white people today, it’s like we expect them all to be invulnerable. Like we think nothing we say can hurt them–or if it does hurt them then good, they deserve to be hurt.
To a poor white parent who can’t afford to take their sick kid to the doctor, the idea of white privilege is confusing and downright insulting, unless it’s explained well. They don’t have the time or will to distinguish between privileges of class versus privileges of race. All they hear is: You’ve had it easy this whole time, and somehow you still can’t take your sick kid to the doctor.
White people are not invulnerable, and they are growing accustomed to only hearing bad things about themselves from us. We all need to hear about our goodness. If we don’t find affirmation in one place, we’ll seek it elsewhere. We will ally ourselves with those who affirm and understand us.
This is why it should be particularly disturbing to all of us that the only people saying good things about white people are militants and supremacists.
We need to start prioritizing persuasion.
We also need to address the American ego. Americans don’t like having it easy. Our heroes were born and raised in a log cabin which they built themselves when they were six years old, and they walked uphill both ways to school, in the snow, where they read their textbooks by candlelight… and then they became President. This is the material with which we build our icons, so it makes sense that we’re so resistant to the idea of privilege.
But we have to try to dismantle the American aversion to privilege.
This starts with admitting our own privileges freely and with more humility. I am very privileged. I also worked very hard to make a career for myself, and I was lucky and supported by other people. All of that combined means that my kids will be born into a financially secure household. They will not have to worry about health or eating well. They’ll have fun; they’ll work hard and play hard. They’ll travel and make memories that they’ll later write about in essays for internship applications.
They’ll have a good start. They might screw it up, but they’ll have a good start. They won’t have worked for that at all. We’re giving it to them.
Isn’t that what every parent wants to do? Don’t parents want to give their kids the most sure-footed start that they can? Privilege is not something evil to run away from or deny. Accepting it can help us build some bridges.
White privilege isn’t an attack on any one person. It’s not about comparing one person to any other person, or about cherry-picking a poor white kid and rich black kid. Doing so just confuses the subject. Instead I like to think of white privilege as part of how we might answer a very complicated question.
The question is: How long does it take to remedy centuries of oppression?
The ideas behind white privilege suggest that it takes longer than you might think.
In the 1950s, the GI Bill helped veterans of World War 2 buy houses and go to college. It was a tremendous benefit–someone can begin to build wealth on the back of that benefit. Of the first 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill, fewer than 100 were taken out by people of color. That was also a time when many of the best universities legally prohibited black students from enrolling. How many generations does it take to build wealth? Some of you might still have relatives living who were denied a mortgage or university admission because they were black.
So, how long does it take to remedy centuries of oppression? Are you open to the idea that it might take longer than you think?
Next month, when we’re sharing blessings at Thanksgiving, please consider not just how life would be if you hadn’t had a particular blessing but also how things would be if your lineage for hundreds of years had been denied many of those blessings. What is the impact of that kind of denial? What would it feel like to speak about that inequity? Is it hard to make that kind of claim and still feel the same sense of self-esteem that others do?
I might not have convinced anyone today that white privilege exists. But I hope I’ve at least made it clear that white privilege did exist. If we’re going to argue–and we should argue–let’s argue about how long it can take to unravel the overt inequality of the 1900s. Let’s argue about what the impact of having been denied equal benefits, equal colleges, equal suburbs, equal prison sentences might be.
And when we have those conversations, we need to do it better than we have been. Some of you might be thinking, “Sumeet, how dare you police my tone? How dare you tell me how to speak about my oppression.” And you’re right–I can’t do that. Many of you have taken on the tremendous emotional burden of speaking about this at all. I can’t ask more of you than the courage you’re already providing.
But some of you are like me. You know racism first hand, but you are also privileged to have had it easier than some. Of you, and of myself, I do ask more. Use your privilege to have the hardest conversations. Use it to know and to love the people who are within reach, even though reaching out hurts. See if you can build a bridge to understanding, instead of just being righteous.
There is a vision of this country where different ideas and different people all mix, and everyone has the same power to choose their path in life. It doesn’t feel to me like we’re getting closer to that vision. It feels like it’s drifiting away.
But I love this country. I’m an American, and I’m worried about my country. I think that part of the solution is to improve the way we talk about the most important subjects. That requires understanding that righteousness has a place and is important… but what I’d like you all to do is aspire to be persuasive.