Reflections on White Privilege

  • August 19, 2020
  • Ann Depner, LCSW

“White people have to see how they will benefit from racial equality.”

Ibram Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti-Racist, uttered these words in response to a question posed at the University of Pittsburgh’s recent Diversity Forum – “Can white people be engaged in dismantling racism?”  This struck me full force.

How will I as a white person benefit from racial equality, when my European ancestors and I have benefitted from the racial inequality pervading our nation’s history?  White privilege obscures the ideal of equality.

As with most perplexing questions in life, I find Bowen theory useful in thinking through this conundrum and finding direction for myself.

  • By way of background – in his research of human behavior, Dr. Bowen observed the phenomenon of “overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity ” in families and other social groups.  The overfunctioner assumes a “one-up” stance – taking charge, directing others, knowing what to do and how to do it.  An overfunctioner tends to deny shortcomings in self and projects them onto a vulnerable other.
  • An underfunctioner tends to buy into the overfunctioner’s projection, losing a degree of agency, ability, and self-esteem in the process.  The two actors reinforce each other’s roles in a manner that is non-conscious, involuntary, and hard to reverse.
  • Dr. Bowen further observed that the overfunctioning/underfunctioning process occurs in broader society.  Some societal groups assume a one-up position and project inadequacy onto other groups.  I think this clearly manifests in terms of racial inequity.  As Kendi states in his book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, “Racist ideas make people of color think less of themselves, which makes them more vulnerable to racist ideas.  Racist ideas make White people think more of themselves, which further attracts them to racist ideas.” (p.6)
  • Bowen theory asserts that patterns of projection are passed down through generations.  From the time Africans were first wrested from their homes and literally sold to white Americans, a system of racism and white privilege has prevailed.  I grew up enjoying economic prosperity and social perks that came at the cost of Black subjugation.  My white-oriented elementary and secondary education was an “open sesame” to the college of my choice.  My white-oriented higher education paved the way for a financially and emotionally rewarding career, which likewise led to a low-stress retirement.  Would all this have been possible, had my parents and forebears not worn the invisible badge of white privilege?
  • So I’ve worn and profited from this badge of white privilege, but now I want to be rid of it. This is an instinctual, feeling response.  Bowen theory contends that human behavior is greatly determined by instinct and feeling, and it is instinctual for humans to suffer in empathy with others’ pain. For example, the video of George Floyd’s killing both sickens and motivates me. It takes me back to Kendi’s quote – How will I as a white person benefit from racial quality?  I’ll feel better when I act to bring it about.
  • Bowen theory also contends that humans function best when they use rational thinking to oversee their instinctual, feeling responses.  This describes Bowen’s concept of differentiation, and it’s easier said than done. It calls me to shake off the instinctual lethargy of privilege and consider what would be best for society as a whole. As the problem of racism and white privilege is systemic, so must the solution be.
  • Rationally, I believe a well-functioning society would offer opportunity to all and would benefit from the contributions of all, regardless of race.  That’s the kind of society I want to live in, and that I want as a legacy for my children and grandchildren.  A better functioning society would be the ultimate perk of racial equality.
  • But like it or not, I’m embedded in a complex, entrenched system that sustains racism/white privilege.  My commitment now is to  identify actions I will take that actually serve to dismantle the system.

Since we all live together in this system, I welcome suggestions for appropriate actions a white person can take to dismantle it.  Stay tuned for a new blog post as I ponder next steps!

Ann Depner, LCSW
WPFC Faculty Member

4 Replies to “Reflections on White Privilege”

  1. I don’t know that Martin Luther king Junior knew Bowen theory, but he did say that sentimentality without rationality or reason is worthless. If we rush to give everything to all people rather than giving opportunity which we foster in support, then we encourage the feeling of one down. There has to be some thoughtful way to have the back of all people with our side-by-side support rather than our encouraging their disbelief in their own skills and fine qualities.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Ginger. I think you’re implying that the act of giving, if it flows from a sentimental, “Lady Bountiful” sort of stance, is yet another form of overfunctioning that tends to hold recipients in a one-down position. It seems to me that the apportioning of opportunity to all needs come from a democratically elected government in which all races and classes are well represented. Once again, easier said than done! But this does point to some actions an individual can take in service of systemic change – such as voting for representatives who advocate for equal opportunity, encouraging others to do so, and urging elected representatives to vote for specific legislation that promotes such opportunity.

  2. I have read excerpts from Kendi’s recent book. Please hear what is being said in this statement, “The defining question is whether discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is anti racist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racism.” This statement says that one can be racist in order to create equity. But we know that in natural systems there is never equity. Equity is not the same as equality. And if we are talking about the equality of outcomes, how can that be assured? Opportunity, that is another matter. These beliefs strike me as antithetical to a rational, reasoned course of action. In fact, I hear reactivity and, therefore, I find them regressive. I believe that Bowen theory leads one to look at one’s responsibility and be accountable for one’s actions, to ask what is my part in the problem. That is a more mature position. Ann, I hear you struggling to ask that question of yourself, but I also believe Ginger is on to something in noting that picking up the mantle of white privilege is another step on the slippery slope of an over/underfunctioning reciprocity.

    1. Whew! Part of the purpose of this blog and its comments section is to stimulate an exchange of ideas relating to Bowen theory and topical issues. Your comment certainly fits the bill for me, Annette! I have a couple of thoughts in response. 1) Immediately before the sentences of Kendi’s book that you quoted is this sentence – “If racial discrimination is defined as treating, considering, or making a distinction in favor or against an individual based on that person’s race, then racial discrimination is not inherently racist.” Kendi was defining discrimination very broadly, rather than in its narrow sense of withholding something deserved by some person or racial group. And Kendi essentially defines racism as promoting ideas or policies that create or sustain inequity between racial groups. For example, in 1865, Union General William Sherman issued a proclamation that gave all newly freed families 40 acres of formerly Confederate land to farm and produce a living for themselves. Since these people had formerly been enslaved and deprived of earning their own living, Kendi would call this an anti-racist policy; it was a move toward racial equity. Sherman’s Special Field Order 15 was (in the broad sense of the term) discriminating between the races and giving land to newly freed African Americans to compensate for what had been unjustly taken from them in slavery. I do not see this as regressive; I see it as creating more equal opportunity between the races. (Unfortunately, when Andrew Jackson was elected president, he nullified the order, in what Kendi would term a racist policy.) 2) As I see it, white privilege is the legacy of policies such as Jackson’s that discriminated against African Americans, keeping whites in an artificial one-up position at the expense of African Americans’ one-down. So if I as a white person advocate for positions that create more racial equity, such as community oversight of Police Review Boards or ensuring equal access to voting, then I see this as progressive action I can take. In light of my inheritance of the one-up white position. I want to do what I can to help level the playing field. However, I do agree with your assessment that addressing white privilege can be a slippery slope that could lead to one-up do-goodism, and I want to avoid that.

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