You only need to read the news to see the plague of racism and sexism that still exists in the United States. So, what’s a middle aged, middle income, white, heterosexual male like me supposed to do? Clearly awareness is a crucial first step. Empathy and understanding are essential. But that’s hard to do when you have different lived experience than those who are marginalized, neglected, ignored and abused. I wrote about this with my own experience with race (So, should we even talk about race any more). I am now, and have tried diligently in the past to understand where others are coming from, but that doesn’t help me know how to use the advantages I have to help others.
Two quick anecdotes to illustrate: A couple of years ago I was in D.C. for work walking down a street near the capital with two white colleagues. We were all professionally dressed and engaged in conversation. I notice up the street from us a middle aged black man, casually dressed, hailing a cab. The first cab passed him, then a second, then a third cab was close to him at the same time my group was near him. I had the thought: I could simply step out hail the cab then give it to this man. As I was about to hail the cab, a second thought came to mind, If you hail a cab for this man, you may cause him embarrassment and shame: “Thanks white guy for using your white powers to help me overcome systemic racism today so I can get to work on time.” I hesitated, the third cab went by and my group walked on. My colleagues were unaware of the entire situation (which is how I have lived most of life). Yet here I was, aware of the inequity, yet still unable to make a difference–not knowing if my efforts would have been helpful or hurtful.
Sometime later I discussed this story with a friend of mine. I asked her what she thought I should have done. She was kind with my inquiry (as if her blackness would have been a qualifier to direct the use of my whiteness). Her response surprised me, “Dude it’s cool that you even noticed or cared to think about it.” Of course, she didn’t know any more than I did how that man would have reacted. However, the fact that I thought about it let her know at least there are people outside of her lived experience that are trying to understand her experience.
The second story happened as I was walking down a crowded street when two men asking for money called out to a young woman in front of me: “Hey beautiful, help a homeless vet? Why don’t you let me come to your place and keep you warm? Spent a little time making an old vet happy.” The woman smiled and said, “No thanks.” She did not seem overly affronted by the solicitation. I was thinking: should I call this guy out? Tell him to shut up? Was her smile a defense mechanism? Was she just trying to deescalate an unwanted advance? Or did she find the guy harmless? I like to think if he had moved closer to her I would have intervened. But would that be too little too late? Should I have said something? Or would that have made it worse? As I related this to my wife and my adult daughters, they gave me no direction on what I should have done either, but acknowledged the awkwardness of the whole matter.
So here I am left with the blessings of white male privilege. I never worry if I’ll be followed around in a department store, or if I will be able to hail a cab, or if my Airbnb profile pic might cause me trouble when booking. I can jog, go to Starbucks, wear a hoodie and carry Skittles with no fear. I never feel unsafe in an elevator with a man or wonder how closely I am being followed in a parking lot. I want to do more than try to understand. I want to help right wrongs, change culture, raise awareness and fight inequality. So, I march I read, I listen, I write, I vote and I am trying to make a difference. Yet here I am day to day still wondering: what’s next? What more? What now? How can I use my privilege, my influence, in a way that won’t just bless me but those around me? I don’t have all the answers. Good grief, I’m pretty sure I’m not even asking the right questions, but I’m committed, I’m determined and I’m trying.