The 5 Stages of White Privilege Awareness — STAGE FOUR
Ten years after that night in Los Angeles, I began to notice a waning of personal enthusiasm during discussions of race. I had given up on being a WPGI, my anger had started to dull around the edges and I was beginning to wallow. In the intervening years since that email conversation with my friend, Janelle, I had slowly peeled away and peered into some of the deeper recesses of racism, both personal and cultural, and the result was an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
Like all American kids I had been taught in school that the Civil Rights movement had by and large eliminated racism. That’s the official party line. The unjust laws were overturned. Everything is now fair and square; the playing field leveled. But in reality, while the civil rights movement did change the rules of the game in an attempt to make things “fair” for all, the starting line is still substantially staggered, with white folks getting a rather hefty head start.
According to NYU sociologist Dalton Conley, a staggered starting line is found when one looks at something like the racial wealth gap in the United States. As Conley explains, “It takes money to make money. Part of the reason that there’s this enormous gap is because whites have long had higher wages and wealth to pass on from generation to generation.” In fact, he points out, 50–80% of our lifetime wealth accumulation in the U.S. is due to past generations. That’s a staggered starting line.
So what does that mean? It means that even though I think my husband and I are such hard workers (and we are), most of our wealth actually stems from the wealth and benefits that were bequeathed to our parents, grandparents and on back on account of being white.
An example: In 2010 71% of whites owned their own home compared to 45% of blacks and 47% of Latinos. Most white Americans equate their high home ownership numbers with pulling themselves up by their bootstraps in the pursuit of the illustrious American Dream, but it actually didn’t work that way.
Following World War II, the government gave low-interest loans to returning veterans and other whites. It was known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act or the GI Bill but it excluded blacks and other minorities. My grandfather fought in World War II and when he got home, he bought a house — almost certainly with help from the GI Bill. So too for my husband’s grandfather.
Because we used inheritance money when those two grandfather’s passed away to buy our house — the one I’m sitting in right now — my husband and I can directly trace our home ownership to the wealth and home ownership of our grandparents (and likely much farther back). We couldn’t have bought our home without the money they left to us. My Black friends don’t necessarily have those generations of wealth and home ownership to draw from because their ancestors were excluded from things like the GI bill. Staggered starting line. If anyone knows about pulling oneself up by the boot straps, it turns out it’s them.
Another example: The National Center for Children in Poverty reports that higher education is one of the most effective ways that parents can raise their families’ incomes. And children from a family with college-educated parents are nearly three times more likely to reach college than a person whose parents did not, according to the US Census Bureau. Both of my white parents went to college. My husband’s white mother went to college. They all attended university in the 1960s when discriminatory laws and attitudes excluded many blacks and other minorities from attending. This put both me and my husband in higher income brackets as children and thus greatly increasing our odds of going to college ourselves. Staggered starting line.
Being white with white ancestors means that I have started several rungs higher on the proverbial ladder than my friends of color and that realization feels incapacitating at times. Demoralizing. Depressing. It’s tempting to just shrug, shake it all off and say, “I’m not responsible for the past. It’s not like I made the laws.” But the truth is that I am an “inheritor of the past,” as Conley puts it — as we all are — and our inglorious history has bestowed us with this staggered starting line.
Only the person at the front of such a starting line wants to believe that everyone else is being given a fair shot. But the reality remains that every white person in this country, regardless of current or past financial status; regardless of educational status; regardless of their belief or lack thereof in white privilege; every last one of us benefits from the legacy of slavery that set us up with a system of such vast inequity that it continues to linger to this day.
Want to keep going?
Click here for the fifth and final stage.
What now? (AKA ACCEPTANCE)
Want to go back and read STAGE ONE?
Click here → I am NOT a racist! (AKA DENIAL)
Click here → Get This Thing Off Me! (AKA ANGER)