White privilege & identity

My head has been swirling the last couple of days in the wake of protests that have been happening around the country and in our city in response to George Floyd’s death. San Jose, CA now has a mandatory curfew set for the remainder of the week to help curtail further riots from happening. My heart, like many others, is hurting badly. Our country is in desperate need of change yet there is so much resistance to do so. I’ve been pondering on what needs to happen for real changes to take place and two key things came to surface: 1) people need to see the problems that exist and 2) people need to be willing to change.

I took a Masters course years ago at San Jose State University that touched on the topics of white privilege and identity, topics of which I’ve thought a lot about since the courses end. The professor of this class, an Indian man, wished to have an open discussion one day about white privilege in the “safe” confines of his very mixed race/gender classroom. Despite his assuring us repeatedly that his classroom was a safe place to express ourselves, many were not very vocal on the subject; myself and the only other white women were the most outspoken people in the class. I remember expressing that I knew that white privilege existed for the white man but I simply could not see that it existing for a white woman and remember being offended that they were suggesting it which shows how “blind” I was to it at the time. My limited thinking had me spew out examples focusing on jobs/salaries and overall treatment of women by men which to me seemed to be very unfair. I was not thinking more broadly about how simply moving through the world from day to day could be an issue, it never occurred to me to think about that which is where my blindness showed through. I wish the other students had educated me about this as I was open to hearing what they had to say.

Looking back on this day now I have no idea if this classroom really was the “safe” space my professor wished it to be when it came to this particular topic. Is there really a safe place to talk about such a loaded subject? It could be that the people of other races felt unsafe and uncomfortable speaking up about why I was so wrong in my arguments or perhaps they saw how blind I was, assumed I was unchangeable, and didn’t bother to give their point of view. It’s possible they did try to enlighten me that day but that I wasn’t ready to hear what they had to say.

In that same classroom on a different day we spoke about identity: the things that make up ones sense of self. We talked about what specific things make up ones identity, how attached people are to their identities, and how identities are very difficult to change.

The professor asked us to imagine our identity as an onion which has many layers, some layers you are born with and other layers you acquire over the years. At the core of the onion would be things about your identity that have been with you since you were born of which you relate most strongly to like gender, race and religion. The things at the core of one’s identity are very difficult to alter even if those things are things you do not relate to any more. So even if there is something about your identity that you no longer relate to and wish to change, doing so would be exceedingly hard to do as people are very attached to who they are, however, there is a most wonderful loophole: you can always add new layers to your identity/your onion. You don’t have to give up part of who you are to do or be something different. Who you are at your core will always be with you. Always.

Why is this so remarkably important to know and understand? Because then it is easier to see WHY people don’t change their ways even when they themselves might not like who they are being. You cannot change somebody’s mind if they feel their identity is threatened in any way. Understanding that identities can only continue to grow gives people FREEDOM to add new layers to who they are without having to worry about letting go of their sense of self. Knowing and understanding this can change everything!

After comprehending this I was finally able to resolve something in my own life that I’d been struggling with for a very, very long time. I had been wrestling with my identity as being Catholic (a religion I grew up in but I no longer could relate to). I was not able to formally join a new church that I related to very much despite the fact that I had been attending the church for years (a non-Denominational church that accepts people from various religions). Although in my heart I knew that I no longer related to the Catholic church and didn’t even agree anymore with its core fundamental beliefs, I couldn’t give it up because I felt that I’d be giving up a part my identity and I simply couldn’t do it. Once I saw that in joining a new church, I was only adding a new layer to my identity and not betraying anyone (including myself) I was able to move on easily and become a part of a community I did relate to and could be proud of.

If more people could begin to see the problems we are facing right now, a big one being that white privilege exists, and are able to free themselves from their own limited thinking about identities then real change will be able to happen. Imagine how these shifts in thinking could help our nation move forward. Unnecessary deaths like that of the late George Floyd could finally become a thing of the past.