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Whiteness: Guilt, Privilege, and Opportunity

Tony Johnstonfavicon Rachel Dolezal and Dylann Storm Roof are two white people in America who engaged in two vastly different actions. One lived a lie while working for racial justice, and the other committed a horrific and cowardly act of terrorism. Yet both of these individuals share a commonality that played a role in their actions: an obsession with race.

White people love to think about, talk about, marvel at, and laugh about race, as long as it doesn’t include systemic and institutionalized racism or threatens that which facilitates our outward gaze, our white privilege. But our ways of obsessing about race have been interrupted in the past year. White people have been jarred into thinking anew about racism, white privilege, and intersections between race, class, and the criminal justice system in ways many would prefer not to.

From Ferguson to South Carolina, a year like none other in recent memory has been dominated by issues of race, moving us towards a space where many are considering how they experience the world differently from non-whites. We’re witnessing just how much our institutions are structured so as to shield us from uncomfortable truths and justify the lies that have comforted us and lulled us back to sleep when the specter of race is raised.

I will not speak for Rachel Dolezal and her particular brand of obsession with race — but I do recognize it. I find her actions reprehensible for the reasons that many have already addressed. Yet, if I am being honest, I find familiar some of her lived experiences. Like Rachel, as a white person who chose a professional path determined to dismantle racism and fight for social justice and equity, I too chose work requiring a critical analysis of my own relationship with issues of race and my identity as a white person.

Also, like Rachel, I grew up in a multi-racial family. Sharing the same mother, my brother and sister are both black and white, neither of whom could “pass” for white. In addition, I am married to a woman of mixed race and am the father of multi-racial children. This is all to say that I can relate to one’s desire to diminish the whiteness that inhibits the extent to which I can know the experiences of those I most love in my life. Giving her the (generous) benefit of the doubt then, what could be more indicative of trying to erase one’s own white privilege than hoping to pass as an African-American?

Unlike Rachel, while I at times despised my whiteness, I never questioned it. Unlike Rachel, my half-siblings were biological, I grew up in the diverse neighborhoods of the Bay Area, and generally appreciated and enjoyed the diversity that surrounded me. Growing up, I suspect Rachel went through many of the stages of white guilt I did — being ashamed, defensive when being told I was trying to “act black,” latching on to my Irish heritage in the hopes of minimizing my whiteness, memorizing the lyrics to NWA and Public Enemy songs at the age of 15. My guilt was enhanced by seeing an older brother who I loved and admired experience racial slights and injustices I was immune to. I was a confused, defensive teenager, probably just a few years before the age Rachel was when she made the dubious call to change her appearance.

Over time, through missteps and maturation, it became clear that white guilt did me no good, did not serve those I love, nor did it allow me to be a better person in the worlds I inhabit. If anything, this whiteness I enjoy is a tool I hope to use in the struggle for equity. I’ve tried to make note of the micro-aggressions caused by my own white privilege, and have worked daily to dismantle them when I can.

As an academic working with primarily white pre-service teachers who will often teach non-white students, I’ve observed reluctance to face privilege head-on. At best they recognize their white privilege, but without the strategies and tools for addressing and minimizing the effects of this privilege on their future students, this recognition only paralyzes them with feelings of guilt and defensiveness.

The time for expecting non-whites alone to do the work of solving the problems created by, sustained by, and benefiting white people needs to become a thing of the past. To do this, it is not enough to not “be a racist” or have non-white friends, or condemn the actions of a white supremacist killer in South Carolina. Only by dismantling white supremacy and mitigating the effects of white privilege can we begin to make a difference in race relations.

Many whites are at a “what now?” moment. While our privilege affords us great opportunities to eradicate systemic oppression, not all of us will join organizations or activist groups or professions that allow us to do this work. But regardless of what field we find ourselves in, it is in the daily choices that we as white people make that ideally sow seeds leading to a more just and equitable society. From white and non-whites who I admire and hope to emulate, I’ve understood that it is in the small steps that I can take as a white person that can reduce the effects of the privileges I enjoy. Some might dismiss these steps as too minor or as examples of mere political correctness. Regardless, these steps serve as daily reminders of just how much our world has been developed and shaped to best serve those who look like me.

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5 Steps Whites Can Take to Minimize Privilege

1. Rethink how you hear the phrase, “white people.”
In my experience, when discussions of race include the term “white people,” my fellow whites grow silent, defensive, and sometimes hostile. As such, further discussion on the topic of race can often fall on deaf ears. To counter this, a former professor of mine at Berkeley, Dr. Zeus Leonardo, would point out to the students that there is a distinction between white supremacy, white privilege, white culture, and white people. While the four concepts inform and benefit one another, they can be thought about as separate entities for critical analysis. “White supremacy” was developed and is sustained by historical and institutional systems of oppression and exploitation for the purpose of maintaining systems of wealth, power, and privilege enjoyed by whites like me. “White privilege” is a normalized and pervasive preference for whiteness that has infused our society, allowing me access that others do not have, serving as a reminder of my presumed racial superiority, making me immune to challenges non-whites face, and colors all interactions with those in the world around me. “White culture,” while certainly variable based on class and region, might include the activities, traditions, ceremonies, and ways of interacting with one another that whites tend to engage. “White people” are those whose appearance suggests a white identity.

When we hear the term “white people,” it benefits both the speaker and listener if we take a moment to ask which of the four categories is being referenced. My white appearance is not the cause of bigoted police officers or the disproportionate number of black men in prison, but the white supremacy and privilege I benefit from are. If I make the discussion around a racist criminal justice system about my appearance, I lose out on the opportunity to engage in dialogue to address these very real problems.  If we are committed to dismantling white supremacy and mitigating privilege, we must be able to understand these distinctions and know that attacking a system of oppression will in fact liberate white culture and white people in the process.

2. Shut up.
If, like me, you are a white, heterosexual male born in the USA, you have won the lottery. Congratulations. Consequently, when you are the first to speak in any meeting or social gathering on an issue of import, you are asserting your presence as the authority. This is especially relevant when the topic concerns people who do not enjoy the privileges you do.  However, if you will simply listen first, with an open mind, prior to opening your trap, you might learn something. You’ll also be diminishing the normative trope of “white man as expert” that silences others and often shuts down discussions.

It is alarming to me how this myth of white male expertise even informs discussions of race, gender and sexuality. By listening first, you respect the under-represented voices that could remind us that diversity is not the same as integration and that concepts such as “postracial” and “colorblindness” serve only to assuage our anxiety. When discussions take a turn toward race and racism, this is most certainly the time to listen, and to do your best to listen in ways that trust the speaker is attacking whiteness, not white people. Value the voices and experiences of people who do not benefit in the ways you do. Make an effort to de-value the voices heard again and again — namely your own.

3. Talk to the non-white person first.
This step allows you to alleviate the micro-aggressions that those in the non-dominant groups feel daily. If two people, one who appears white and the other who does not, are standing in front you in, say, a retail situation, whom do you tend to address? Generally speaking, I’d hazard the guess the white person. Why? Because we live in a society that assumes whites have some innate expertise others do not.  We reinforce this notion when we ignore the non-white person and look to the white individuals to get to the correct answers. What would it look like, and mean, if white people turned first to the non-white person for suggestions, advice, questions, concerns? How might that minimize the invisibility and powerlessness felt on the part of non-whites? How might this let the white co-worker know that his or her opinion is not the only one of value? Importantly, how might it serve as a reminder to ourselves that white perspectives and their accompanying authority have been duly noted, and maybe its time to listen to other voices?

4. Stop faking the funk.
Nobody says faking the funk anymore — except for white people trying to sound black — which is what this point addresses. If you are in the company of non-whites and adopt your imagined understanding of their language, discourses, and social norms with the intentions of being adopted by that community, you are fooling no one.  Painfully, I learned this from experience.

In diverse social settings, engage in the manner that the context suggests — be yourself and be confident and do so without being someone you are not. All identities are multiple, improvised and in process.  Therefore, being “who you are” means that for some white people this also includes non-white cultural norms for interacting.  However, even if this is the case, I’ve found that asserting this part of one’s diverse identity during initial interactions with non-whites when the intention is to create bridges, can be a move that erects walls. It’s a fine line.

On a related note, I am thinking about my white friends who are now condemning Rachel Dolezal, who themselves wore dreadlocks, used the “n-word,” or who went out of their way to assert how “down” they were at different points in their lives — hoping that they have a mirror handy. Rachel is an easy target, handy for the many progressive whites like myself eager to separate themselves from other whites in the eyes of our non-white community members.

5.  Smile and nod.
The power of a smile, a nod, a “how ya doing?” from a white person to a non-white person cannot be underestimated in terms of race relations. As one of my African American colleagues in grad school pointed out to me, this gesture is an imperative for him.  When he gets on an elevator with an older white woman, who perhaps shifts uneasily to the side clutching her purse, he feels an obligation to smile, say hello, and ease her anxiety. Why is this his job? If anyone should make an effort to put another at ease in a situation, it is the white person, since recent history indicates that our lives are far more secure in these interactions.

Second, being made to feel invisible is perhaps the greatest slight of all. It has become a habit now, but when I pass someone on the street who is not white, by making a concerted effort on my part to offer a simple nod or “good morning,” I can change the tone of the entire encounter. For myself, their smile or nod in response silences the prejudicial thoughts that color the way I’ve been programmed to see people different from myself. For my passerby, I hope it mitigates the feelings of stereotype threat activated simply by my mere presence. When we look someone in the eye, nod or smile, we acknowledge the humanity and life we see before us. We make it clear that our presence, as whites, does not necessitate their absence, as non-whites.

* * *

One danger of the tragic killings in South Carolina is that it might lead many whites to view it as an anomaly — something distinctly ugly and horrific and the actions of a sick, deranged individual that we can all shake our heads at. Something that we as whites can point to as the evil extremities of a culture and system we can simultaneously abhor and benefit from.

Until our obsession with race includes a commitment to examine our own whiteness, then the conditions that gave rise to this young white man continue.  White people must publicly acknowledge the privileges we enjoy and know others do not. We need to interrupt the racist jokes and comments we share in private. We need to have honest, difficult conversations amongst ourselves, rather than waiting for non-whites to solve the problems we benefit from. This will not be enough. As long as what it means to be white is predicated on and continually informed by notions of white supremacy, these steps will be both necessary and inadequate.

White guilt and white privilege are paradoxical bedfellows many whites carry. But rather than allowing this crux to be an excuse for ignorance or defensiveness, let us find healthier ways to work through feelings of guilt, and diminish the impact that our privilege carries in the social contexts we traverse. favicon

About the author
Anthony Johnston, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of Education at the University of Saint Joseph and is the co-author of Identity Focused ELA Teaching: A Curriculum Framework for Diverse Learners and Contexts (2015), Routledge Press.


  1. David

    With so many calls for a national “conversation” about race, I appreciate this constructive piece. I have seen precious few “white people” initiating the dialogue as you have in this writing.

    As a teacher I often hear students talk about “white people” in class discussions and I’ve been looking for a way to move them away from this ambiguous term. I’m wondering how introducing the four categories described here would impact my classroom. Thanks for the ideas.

Please share your brilliant insights!