Reflections on White Privilege
- August 19, 2020
- Ann Depner, LCSW
- 4 Comments
“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