When we look at another person of approximately equal height, we often perceive them to be a bit taller than we are. We’re often looking at their height as peaking at the top of their head, and our eyes will be a few inches shorter than this. So, we’re still looking up at them, especially if we find ourselves comparing them to us. It creates a perception of inequality, even when none exists.
Humans are talented…
…at tricking ourselves. We can convince ourselves of things that aren’t true, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.
A similar phenomenon exists with a lot of white people, especially (but not exclusively) straight white cis men.
Imagine a footrace across an American football field. As a straight white cis male, I’m already at the 5 yard line, getting close to the end zone. The end zone can represent… really, anything culturally positive. Financial success, comfort, happiness, political power, influence, you name it. And I’m already pretty close. The only reason I’m not already there was because I wasn’t born into wealth.
I started at the 10 yardline, and thus far, I’ve only moved five yards. I look back and see genuine progress by people who don’t look like me. That black guy made it 40 yards in the same time I ran 5. What the hell? It’s uneven! From my perspective, I’ve barely moved, whereas there are all these programs, all these movements to help out those guys back there. And they’ve moved so much farther than I have!
Of course, with that perspective, I lost sight of the fact that I started at the ten yard line, and he started way back behind midfield. A century ago, his great grandfather wasn’t even allowed to leave the other end zone.
White people, I’m not telling you this to attack you. I’m saying you should be aware of the fact that you started out way ahead. Other people making progress, and wanting to fight for more, isn’t an attack on you. It’s not a way to beat you or to bring you down. It’s simply them trying to reach the same level of opportunity, to get the same shot at that end zone.
There’s a competition fallacy many have, even if they may arrive at it unconsciously. It stems, in part, from primitive tribalism. If another group is succeeding, we often believe that success is in spite of us, or even directly harming us.
This is a harmful and outmoded viewpoint. We create a better world when we have a vested interest in everyone succeeding. I would much rather stand in the end zone with everyone than get there first and block it off when I arrive. Social imbalance is good for nobody.
When a protest turns violent, far too many people (who look like me) will accuse the people who protested of doing something wrong. We accuse them of wanting too much, or pushing superiority. Without having experienced the time of day-to-day struggle that people of color, LGBT people, and women face, privileged white guys like me end up feeling under attack.
I get it.
It’s easy to feel like its personal.
The thing is, my fellow white guys – it’s almost never personal. I’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating. When people who have historically struggled in our society say that something is wrong – don’t dismiss it. Don’t argue, don’t act as though the complaint is about you. Just listen. Don’t try to pick at flaws or errors. Don’t change the subject. Did a window get broken, or someone get arrested? Maybe. But concentrating on that is an easy way to ignore the reason for the altercation in the first place.
The fact that straight white men feel this pressure is both proof that there are societal imbalances biased in our favor, and also proof that people are trying to do something about it. But it’s cool. We can be allies. We can acknowledge that we’re much closer to the end zone, and we were born that way.
That even goes for those of us who are financially depressed. A poor white guy is still less likely to be treated with suspicion by a cop than a rich black person. There are things that I can get away with that a person of color cannot, even if that person is in better financial shape than me.
I address my fellow straight white cis men quite often. Because we are the ones with all the advantages, even now. We run most of the corporations, and control most of the government. And yet, we are the ones who are often the most in denial about our advantages. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the last few years debunking cherry picked crime stats and explaining how the United States, even post-slavery and post-Jim Crow, manages to make life harder for everyone who isn’t a straight white cis man. And when I do, I’m almost always arguing with another white man. It’s always someone who doesn’t know the struggle, and isn’t interesting in trying to learn about it.
The problem lies with us white dudes, and the society we put together 200 plus years ago. We designed it for ourselves. Even centuries later, with greater awareness of our initial inequality, there is still reflexive resistance to getting everyone else pulled up to social, economic, and political parity. Don’t believe me? Look at the White House. Yeah, there have been a million competing thinkpieces arguing for and against the role racism played in Trumps’ election. It certainly wasn’t the only reason. But a reflexive white backlash against the idea of increased diversity under President Obama WAS definitely a contributing factor.
White people, I’ve asked this of you before, and I need to do so again…
Don’t always trust your gut. Don’t look only at the surface and react to it. You see people of color have made progress? You see marriage equality become the law of the land? You see transgender people become more ubiquitous in our popular culture? Yeah, you see all of that. And you assume that means the struggle is over, or at least that it’s wrapping up. Well, that’s because we have a bias to see things from our own perspective, and not think about what the world looks like from the eyes of another tribe. That made sense when we were competing with the other cave for the next woolly mammoth. But we humans now number 7.5 BILLION. We are on every continent, and we are losing resources and room quickly. We have no choice but to drop the tribalism. Our perspective of others is skewed, and we have to start learning how to change that perspective.
Equality isn’t competition. However, equality does require those who have long been in the lead to slow down, and either help make the race even, or stop racing altogether.
Black Lives Matter is a great example of this. I saw a poll recently showing only 14% of white Americans held a favorable view of the BLM movement. That means a huge percentage of white people distrust the idea that black lives matter. Or they believe it to represent something different. Meanwhile, these black lives are literally struggling to prove their value to white Americans. And they shouldn’t have to. Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that White Lives don’t. It means that white people have been ignoring or even actively hurting black lives, and black people are fed up with it. Who could blame them for that?
White people, please just shut up and listen for a change. Understand that by fighting against equality, and being defensive about your privilege, only leads to more struggle, more instability, and more demagogues stoking fear and hatred. We fall for con men, and then when they steal off with our money, wreck our environment, and destabilize our government, we blame everyone else, except ourselves.
I’m not perfect. I have biases and kneejerk reactions, too. But I’m doing my best to remember where I started. And I try to remember that I’m not going to improve my life if I ignore the struggles of others.
Others have said this stuff better. If you get a chance, take a look at this piece by Jason Pargin (writing under the name David Wong). He’s also addressing white people who may not be all-out racists, but have difficulty seeing things from someone else’s perspective. It’s a good article.
And think about my admittedly strained metaphor. We may all be racing to the same end zone, but white people, especially straight white men, have had a much easier run. It’s about time we use our advantages to actually help get everyone else to the end zone.