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Mindful : October 2019
Recognizing our own privilege star ts with being dispassion- ately, mindfully open to the possibility that it exists. Some simple steps: 1 Ask yourself if you belong to a privileged group. Societ- ies differ as to their privileged groups, but in general, West- ern societies privilege those who are white and wealthy. 2 In daily life, when you get away with something or get treated to a perk, ask if some- one who looks different from you would have gotten the same treatment. For example, if you’re white, you probably won’t be hassled for loitering in an upscale store, complain- ing loudly in a restaurant, jay- walking, or committing some other social infraction. 3 Now think about whether privilege has brought you something more valuable than a store clerk’s tolerance. If you have benefitted from net- working, academic or profes- sional recommendations from influential people, or even good schools, ask whether you got them, at least in part, because of an accident of birth rather than because you labored hard for them. Not everyone who winds up on third base hit a triple. A LOOK IN THE MIRROR REFLECTION maintain a belief in one’s innocence and to feel meritorious. In Western societies, particularly those that believe hard work brings success, people want to feel that their accomplishments are earned. “ Mer- itocracy is how we justify unequal outcomes,” says Phillips. “ We want to explain them as the result of hard work and talent.” That’s a difficult position to maintain if being white gives people a leg up. But class is another source of privilege that its recipients prefer not to acknowledge: The child who gets into Princeton because her father gave $5 million for a building is certain her success reflects merit, and the teens who got prestigious internships thanks to the intercession of their wealthy, power- ful parents’ friends are sure they were the best candidates for the position. In one experiment by Phillips and Brian Lowery of Stanford University, white participants completed a survey and read essays about racial inequal- ity in America (specifically, white peo- ple’s advantages) and about childhood memories. They remembered many more “personal life hardships” com- pared to white volunteers who did not read the essays, including agreeing with such statements as, “There have been many struggles I have suffered,” and “My life has had many obstacles.” “ Whites respond to evidence of racial privilege by claiming their life was filled with hardships,” Phillips says. “ We want to feel like we’re good people, which presents a conundrum when we’re faced with the existence of white privilege: It can make us feel that we didn’t earn what we have. So we say, ‘Privilege? What privilege?’” In another study, Phillips and Lowery found that white participants who read about racial privilege and possible unearned advantage claimed to work harder than those who read a completely unrelated essay. “ We’re all motivated by a desire to attribute our achievements to personal merit,” Phillips says. Real-life experiments, not only laboratory ones, bear this out. People who win a job through contacts rather than hard work or merit “nevertheless claim that their personal effort was responsible for their success,” Phillips and Lowery wrote in a 2019 paper analyzing privilege blindness. White Fragility Research on blindness to white priv- ilege coincides with the recognition of what author Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.” It means that white people “freak out” at the slightest reminders of racism, she argued in her 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. DiAngelo reached that conclusion over the course of two decades running diversity-training workshops for US businesses, finding that white partici- pants almost universally insist they are “color-blind,” talk about their minority friends, and boast of all their anti- discrimination activism. Challenged by unpleasant reminders of racism, they react with “anger, fear and guilt,” DiAngelo writes, as well as “argumen- tation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation.” That, too, might drive privilege blindness, but while DiAngelo is nearly despairing about white fragility, Phillips is more sanguine. People can cast off their blinders and be mindful of the existence of white privilege, but mindful- ness extends past merely correctly perceiving reality: It can facilitate introspection, causing us to question why recognizing racial privilege is so threatening to those who benefit from it, Phillips says. Especially when a little introspec- tion will likely reveal what some of us can get away with, due to our race and gender—well beyond pounding scofflaw cars. ● October 2019 mindful 37