I recently had an insightful conversation at work with a white colleague. We had just attended a diversity training. Unlike me, who grew up in the suburbs, my colleague grew up “dirt poor” and does not know how to relate to the concept of “white privilege.”
My colleague worked very hard to create a prosperous life, which is a source of pride, imbedded in gratitude that we live in a country where hard work can move someone from “rags to riches.” This is America’s story of hope and promise to those who work hard.
Hard work, however, is only half the story. The other half is opportunity. Without opportunity, hard work does not lead to financial success, let alone, wealth. White privilege, as I understand it, is recognizing that the opportunity deck is stacked in favor of those who are classified as racially “white.” Those who are not considered “white” face a myriad of barriers that my colleague and I did not have to overcome.
I have come to understand my own “white privilege” by looking at the data and listening to people who have struggled against barriers because of the color of their skin. I have come to see the patterns that value white over non-white people in our social, economic, political and cultural systems and institutions, creating an unfair playing field, particularly for African Americans and American Indians. For so many years I did not see these dynamics because they did not affect me. That has been my privilege.
When it comes to data, I need look no further than my own state. Minnesota consistently ranks high in national studies for quality of life, health, education and employment—if you are white. Minnesota also consistently ranks high in racial disparities. The gaps in education, income, home ownership and health between “white” people and “people of color” is stark.
In 2016, the Metropolitan Council published a paper, RACE AND ETHNICITY MATTER FOR ECONOMIC SUCCESS AND OPPORTUNITY that details these disparities. I encourage you to look at the report and its sobering conclusions.
Looking at data and listening to people have motivated me to learn more and do my part to dismantle institutional, cultural, systematic racism. I want to help create a workplace that values every employee and provides equal opportunities, regardless of one’s skin color or background. I want to live in a nation that lives up to its promises of freedom and justice, where every child and adult feels valued, and has the opportunity to realize her or his dreams, just as was possible for my white colleague, and for me.