How will you use your privilege to create change?

Melissa Gilliland
Vice President, Human Resources

In the spirit of our DEI journey at Matrix, I recently led an interactive discussion on the book Waking Up White by Debby Irving with the Matrix Officer team. I found Waking Up White a thought-provoking book, one that made me squirm a little at some of its arguments and challenged my beliefs. I want to share some of the most interesting parts of the book with you, in hopes I can make you squirm just a bit…..during my career in HR, I’ve found that sometimes we’re only able to overcome our most challenging issues when we address the things that make us the most uncomfortable.

The overall theme of Waking Up White explores the concept of white privilege, which is the implicit or systemic advantages that people who are (or perceived to be) White have relative to people who are not (or not perceived to be) White. The author‘s DEI journey began when she started realizing that life in America has different rules and different starting places for different people. She was shaken by her discovery that her skin color had provided her a life of opportunities and rewards that she previously had been certain were available to everyone who worked hard. She says, “just because I didn’t see my skin color advantage didn’t mean it didn’t exist. As a White person, I don’t have to do anything to have skin color advantages conferred on me.” She was bothered by how easy it was for her to go about life in a world that was constructed for her as a White person, as compared to the roadblocks and hurdles people of color face every day.

As I read about her realization of the privilege she had been given throughout her life, I began to examine my own life experiences. Let me stop here and share something about myself that influenced my interpretation of this book. Although I appear to be White, I am Native American. My grandfather was full-blood Cherokee and my grandmother was slightly less than full-blood Cherokee. My ancestors are traced back directly to the Dawes Rolls created in the early 1900’s, and even further back, to the Trail of Tears in the 1830’s. I share this because in looking back, this shaped the tremendous impact the book would have on me.

In particular, although I am a minority and identify as such, my appearance leads people to assume I’m White, and because of this, I too have benefitted from white privilege even though I am not White. I began to think about the very difficult lives my ancestors lived and how they did not have the good fortune of such privilege. This profoundly impacted me, to realize that I too, through no action of my own, have benefitted from white privilege due to my appearance.

From the book, I was ashamed to learn how much the color of one’s skin affects their access to housing, education and jobs – the very building blocks necessary to access the great American dream. In the U.S. today, it is a vicious cycle – if you can’t get a good education, you can’t get a good job, meaning you can’t pay for medical care, transportation, healthy food or a home in a neighborhood with good schools, which then means your children can’t get a good education or a good job, meaning they can’t pay for medical care, transportation… get the point. It’s a cycle that traps people in a state of perpetual disadvantage.

Some of the systemic examples in the book date back to the post-WWII era. The GI bill was a program that offered returning servicemen free higher education and low interest mortgages. The GI bill was a major force in giving many American families a boost towards security and prosperity. But benefits under the GI bill were largely inaccessible to the one million Black GI’s who served. Banks considered black and brown neighborhoods risky investments, so Black GI’s were denied access to the low interest mortgages because banks avoided “risky” loans; in fact, only 2% of Black GI’s were able to access the housing benefit of the bill. Regarding the GI bill’s higher education programs….in the 1940’s, most colleges and universities used a quota system limiting the number of Black students accepted each year. This meant there were not enough “black seats” available for the one million Black G.I.’s returning from WWII; to be exact, only 4% of Black GI’s were able to access the bill’s offer of free education. Although nearly 80 years ago, the GI bill’s lasting effect helped White families achieve the American dream and left Black families on the outside looking in.

The book also opened my eyes to the systemic white privilege that exists today in the U.S. public education system. I think we can all agree that education is a critical component of the American dream. But in the U.S., public education is primarily funded by property taxes, and thus based on property values. With still largely segregated cities and towns, this leads to very different educational experiences and opportunities for White and non-White children. Suburban schools tend to be better funded, whereas urban schools are less so. This impacts the quality of school facilities, books, technology, supplies, teacher retention, extracurricular programs and safety. And remember, if you can’t get a good education, you can’t get a good job, meaning you can’t pay for……

And the vicious cycle continues.

After finishing the book, I was left thinking – where do we go from here? Debby reminds us that although no one alive today created this mess, we have the power to be a part of undoing it. The good news – people are not born racist; racism is taught and racism is learned. Understanding how and why our beliefs developed along racial lines holds the promise of healing. Today, most White people (and those who are perceived as White) would take a stand against racism if only they knew how, or even imagined they had a role.

So what can you do? I encourage you to examine and challenge your own belief systems around race and class. Have courage; don’t be afraid to find your blind spots and ask “why did I just think that thought?” Question your first impressions. Question cultural stereotypes. Monitor ourselves for unconscious bias. Become comfortable seeking what you don’t know rather than proving what you do know. Read books, watch films, take time to engage and learn about the problem of racism in your community. Audit a college course on race and identity. Purchase books and donate them to your local library, community center or church to help spur racial awareness and education.

Lastly, I encourage you to take time and reflect on how you may have benefitted from privilege in your life; it could be related to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. Like me, you might be surprised at what you discover. When you do, keep in mind this quote from Waking Up White: “I can’t give away my privilege. I’ve got it whether I want it or not. What I can do is use my privilege to create change.”

How will you use your privilege to create change?