When White Privilege Becomes White Silence

How to work toward change and action.

Posted Jan 22, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

 James Eades on Unsplash
A protester holds a sign up that says, "It's a privilege to educate yourself about racism without experiencing it!!!"
Source: James Eades on Unsplash

I have seen it time and time again. Well-meaning people with privilege often become overwhelmed with guilt, shame, and even resentful of their privilege. This often results in silence, where they are overwhelmed and unsure of where to begin and/or performative allyship without a commitment to change and do the work of changing the system that created the oppression in the first place. I have also felt this myself. And if I am being honest, I too, have been overwhelmed to the point of feeling hopelessly guilty. This guilt can become so stifling that many people who have privilege then do nothing with their privilege, which allows for oppression to continue.  

This summer many people spoke out against police brutality and racism with the Black Lives Matter protests that occurred across the globe. Many white people began to educate themselves on anti-racism work and what this means and the part that they have played. Organizations and groups of people put out statements denouncing racism. 

My question, dear readers, is: What are you doing now? Notice how you feel when I ask that—this is the purpose of this post. To help white people to begin to work toward change. We need to march, we need to gather together, to make statements and post social media posts denouncing the evils of racism, and we need action. This is going to take us all.

Here are some steps you can take to help you toward action. Please, hear me with curiosity and openness, and notice when you want to close up. Notice when you become defensive or begin making excuses. When we begin the work of action with awareness, we can then lean in and become attuned to when we want to back down. This will help us sustain the work and help us grow along the way.

Here are some steps that can help:

1) LISTEN: When you have any form of privilege (i.e., racial, socioeconomic, religious, etc.) it is important that we begin with listening. Listening involves empathy, curiosity, and self-awareness. Use your feelings of unease, maybe even defensiveness as cues that there is a gap in your knowledge or understanding. If you approach this as a learner, rather than an expert, then you will be able to understand what is needed. 

2) Identify the goal: When you have done the work of listening, this step will come organically. The goal should be in line with what you heard. Not what you want, but rather, to meet the needs that were identified. Start with the "big" goal and work backward and develop smaller goals along the way. Then start with the smallest goal and keep working toward what the need is. 

3) Research others doing this work and join them: Most changes occur when people can join together. Before you start out on your own, find out if there are any local organizations or people who are already in the process of doing the work you hope to accomplish. Connect with them: Send them a direct message, or email, and tell them you want to help. Join forces together with many—this will help amplify your message and efforts. If you can't find anyone else who is doing this work, consider connecting with key people in your community (i.e., local city council, business leaders, non-profit leaders, pastors, social workers, etc.) to increase their awareness of the problem you are trying to address. They might even help connect you with other people they know who also might want to join together with you.

4) Locate your "sphere of influence": We each have our own sphere of influence, no matter how big or small. They include our friends, our family, our neighbors, our coworkers, our schoolmates, and those in the community whom we know and interact with each day (e.g., mail person, doctor, grocery store worker, delivery driver, basically anyone you have a "touch point" with). Identify the people you know and tell them what you are up to. Tell them what you have learned and give them actionable steps with which they can join you (e.g., letter writing, educational meetings, introductions, contacting city council, attending a meeting together, volunteering time, donating money). Keep your goals in mind and use your sphere of influence to meet your goals of change. This is where you can enact the work, together. 

5) Keep at it and stay curious along the way: We must be able to stay curious along the way. If we are truly wanting change, we must check our ego out of this work. Remember, it is not about you. It is about the work and goal of the community. Allow yourself to continue to listen, to adjust to what the needs of the community are. Yes, you are a part of this, but this work is not for your glory. It is for the betterment of your community. We need to expect that this work is hard. Yes, rest when you are tired, but then get up and go back to your goals. Work with a commitment to the idea that change is possible. If you believe it and act like it is true, you might just convince enough people to join you.

I would love to know how this blog post has inspired you. Please tag me on Instagram @theexistentialtherapist and @psych_today with what you are passionate about and how you are helping your community bend toward justice.