Liz Oppenheimer: Basics of Unearned White Privilege

The 2013 White Privilege Conference took place in Seattle with more than 40 Friends and 2,100 people total attending. This was the fourth year FGC has sponsored a group of Friends attending. Three of these Friends, Liz Oppenheimer, Joan Broadfield, and Kitty Taylor Mizuno, have shared their reflections on their experiences at the conference.

This piece was written after attending the White Privilege Conference with FGC in 2013. 

by Liz Oppenheimer

A few years ago, I began reflecting on how much “talking” I did about my anti-racist views and how little actual “walking” I did to demonstrate them. I didn’t seek out or make plans to attend events that were hosted by people of color. I didn’t learn about or follow “their” issues. I didn’t challenge well-intentioned White people who made remarks that were hurtful to people of color or that reinforced stereotypes or the status quo; and I didn’t take responsibility for my own education about unearned privilege, about historical trauma, about systemic oppression.

Switching the paradigm from talking the talk to walking the walk required a conscious choice on my part.  But telling myself “I’m going to take more action to bring about equality” is nothing like doing the actual work. I had no idea where to start, so I started with me.

An early and unexpected part of committing to “walking the walk” of anti-racism work focused on affirming my own willingness to let my White guilt rise–and not let it immobilize me. I learned to be aware of the guilt and then carry it with me into whatever situation was in front of me.  In a matter of weeks, I learned about national conferences that travel around the country and address race, racism, and White privilege.

It was at one of those conferences, the annual White Privilege Conference (WPC), where I learned a few of the “first steps” that I could immediately incorporate into my life. After attending with about 10 other Friends in 2010, I realized I didn’t want to keep the treasure I had found on the journey for myself.  I worked with our small dedicated group of Friends and began to invite other Quakers who expressed concern about racism and privilege to attend the same conference in 2011, and nearly 70 Friends from around the country did.

This year, Friends connected with FUM, EFI, Conservative meetings, and FGC all attended the WPC, held in Seattle.  In some ways, I feel as though we are just taking our first corporate step on a much longer walk…

What I share below is a list I’ve compiled on what I see as the basics of examining White privilege–a system of rewards and advantages based on skin color.  The list can be applied to many other types of unearned privilege, such as privilege and advantage based on gender, education, occupation, sexual orientation, gender conformity, immigration status, etc.

I should also say that this list represents where I started, personally, in looking at my White privilege. Everyone’s starting point will look different, but the key is to start.

SOME BASICS of examining unearned White privilege

Recognize that there is a distinction between intention and impact.  

Even after years of learning about privilege, I so very often still want my good intentions to outweigh the hurt feelings or harmful impacts that people of color bring to my attention.  But when I assert my good intentions to the point of shutting down the person who’s talking with me, I miss an opportunity to practice humility; I miss the chance to witness the pain that my brother or sister of color experiences as a result of such small but cumulative incidents of oppression. Learning to give greater weight to the impact of my good intentions allows me the experience to begin to see the world through a different lens, learning to connect the dots of our country’s long history of how “good intentions” were the basis of European colonialism and the genocide of indigenous peoples in North America.

Remember that individuals live and work within large systems.  Acknowledge the individuals who seem to be exceptions and keep your gaze on the systems that oppress.  

Because I have wanted to believe that my Quaker community over the years has been doing a good job of living into the testimony of equality, as a White person I am too quick to point to personal story–either my own or that of someone I know–that counters the assertion that I, or that we as Friends, aren’t addressing racism.  For example, I might insist that I can’t be racist because I have friends of color. Or that my meeting isn’t racist because our presiding clerk is of Asian descent or because we have a committee to address race and racism.* These exceptions don’t excuse me or us from looking at the wider context in which these individual situations exist: Within the larger system, who has the power to make decisions and how aware are they, as a group, of systemic racism? Who set up “the rules” or has reinforced unspoken norms over the years? Does my life as a whole reflect the diversity of the wider society, or do I interact with my “friend of color” in the same way as I do my White friends?

Recognize that there is a distinction between input and influence. 

I may think I am being an ally by allowing people of color to chime in with their opinions and concerns, but if the group that we are a part of is considering a decision that will have direct impact on people of color, I must be willing to allow the voices of people of color to have greater influence and carry greater weight than I typically would have done in the past.  Now that I am more aware of how unearned White privilege has historically and systemically affected people and communities of color, I can take a longer view of how a decision today may reinforce an unjust system or chain of decisions; or I can speak out about how willing I am to allow greater influence from people of color because if a decision doesn’t benefit all of us, then it’s likely to benefit none of us in the long run.  In this case, I must also be careful not to speak on behalf of the people of color, which is tricky to do… See “Show up and stay present.”

Show up and stay present. 

Once I committed to “walking the walk,” I was challenged and encouraged to show up at events that are offered and coordinated by people of color. These events, I have found, are fundamentally different from events that are intended for people of color but are coordinated by well-intentioned White people.  For one thing, there are many more people of color participating at events that are coordinated by people of color.  Also, the presenters, facilitators, emcees, etc. are often people of color, which sends a strong message to young people about who is able to be in positions of leadership. Granted, the more I show up and the more I “walk the walk,” the more likely I will say or do something out of my good intentions that are hurtful or unknowingly oppressive. When this happens–and it does!–I must be disciplined enough to receive the feedback with humility, and I must be disciplined enough to stay present, to keep engaged, and to show up again anyway.

Take responsibility for self-education about oppression, privilege, and history. 

I am often tempted to ask people of color to tell me about an event that they reference or a historical figure that they talk about. It’s a subtle form of privilege to be accustomed to asking questions and having answers provided me without my having to do any real work.  It’s a form of “taking” without giving back or without being held accountable for how the “taken” information might be used. Educating myself about a history that seldom gets told in the mainstream educational system or by the mainstream media also is a way for me to practice humility and to begin to lend credibility to the hidden history of a people long oppressed.

Get connected with people who are also engaged in the work of undoing racism and of examining White privilege.

One of the most important assets to me in this new walk are my friends and acquaintances who are also examining White privilege or are involved in anti-racism work. I need people who “get privilege” to challenge me when we fall back into my all-too-familiar patterns of defensiveness, good intentions, and staying away.  By having people in my life who have walked this path a bit ahead of me, I have hope for becoming more aware of how racism shows up and what I can do about it–personally, interpersonally, institutionally, and systemically. And by staying in touch with people who are newer than I am to this journey, I can encourage them to keep at it, or invite them to join me at an event, or just witness them in their struggle to move from talking the talk to walking the walk.


*Neither of which is currently the case; these are hypotheticals in my local Quaker community.

About Liz Oppenheimer:  Liz identifies as having a lot of unearned privilege: she is White, owning class, well educated, cisgender, able-bodied, and a natural-born U.S. citizen.  She was raised a Jew and identifies as a monogamous bisexual woman. She is married to a woman, under the care of Twin Cities Friends Meeting (St. Paul, Minnesota).  Liz has edited and published Writing Cheerfully on the Web, a collection of online essays about Quakerism; and every now and then she blogs at The Good Raised Up,

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