Guest Post: Ending Systemic Discrimination Starts with Individual Acts

Sarah Elizabeth Pahman, a masters level social worker licensed & certified in advanced practice social work, is experienced in trauma counseling and advocacy for survivors of sexual violence, sexual abuse, trafficking, and interpersonal violence. She is interested in trauma-informed care and has passions in empowerment & social justice within our communities. Based in Chicago, Sarah loves writing, working out, and Pablo Neruda.

Please welcome our first guest writer, Sarah Elizabeth, who is exhilaratingly discerning, fiercely loyal, and rooted in being.

The first time I noticed my privilege as a white person was in high school. I was in the 10th grade and I was quite the unmanageable, unruly child due to a myriad of circumstances in my home and in my environment. I had little guidance as a teenager and was very much on my own from about the age of 15 on. I found comfort and acceptance in the communities of color that made up the tapestry of my friendships and the people who I genuinely loved. I started recognizing I was different from my friends on several occasions, but the ones that stick out for me are the ones where I was a witness to the racism my friends experienced.

I remember walking through a grocery store parking lot when I was 16 and an old white man yelling “you should have never been born!” out of his car window at myself and my motley crew of friends with a similar life to mine: those of us on our own. Was the old man yelling this to us because everyone else in the group was black and Mexican, or was he yelling at me – the white girl in a crowd of young men of color? Back then we laughed, threw up our middle finger at the guy and joked about it for the rest of the evening. It is only as an adult I recognize the poignancy. And yet, throughout my high school experience I knew white people saw me differently as a white person who hung out with people of color.

There was the time a white male teacher approached me in the hallway and with venom dripping from his lips stated “your parents must be so ashamed of you” in reference to the fact that my boyfriend was black and my best friend was Mexican and my loyalty lived in the brown skinned shades of friendships I held tightly to me as I survived my life through the love I held for the same people this teacher so abusively proclaimed as shameful.

Shame.

Riding on the bus next to my black girlfriend and watching as the two white girls standing in front of her grabbed their purses and zipped them up while staring at the only black woman on the bus and talking about being scared on campus because people “who didn’t belong there” were protesting in the streets.

I remember driving in a predominately black neighborhood in my city to visit friends and being pulled over by police and asked “do your parents know where you are?” I remember being pulled over as the only white person in a car full of black people and asked if my car could be searched. I remember being called a wigger. A white n*****. I remember being told I was “going through a phase” and would “eventually grow out of it” because of who I surrounded myself with. Because I did not uphold the value of sticking to my own race, and I did not sit at the white table, or the black table, in the racially segregated high school cafeteria… I rotated my days and because of this I was an outcast.

Shame.

And I internalized the shame and blame and venom that poisoned my young soul into believing I was different and I was unacceptable because white people are not supposed to have THAT MANY friends of color, else we get called wannabes, wiggers, betrayals to our race and squanderers of our inherited privilege.

I knew I had privilege as a white person because whenever my black friends needed to do something important, like go to the bank, or court – they would step back and let me do the speaking. Mind you, we were kids, 17, 18 years old – and I could see the effects racism and classism had on my black friends because at those tender ages they already clearly understood white people talk differently to each other than they do to people of color. I clearly understood as well, it became a game for me – I would show off how “white” and “proper” I could be in order to get the answers and privileges we were seeking.

And so what I could so easily call a game, turn on and off at my discretion, and not have to think about when alone in public with only my white skin as my first impression on people – what I could so easily choose to partake in or decide to shun based solely on my decision of what race I would hang out with – was my inherited privileges as a white person. And so the games of a 17 year old become the lessons of adulthood, the lessons of recognition that my friends of color had barriers to overcome simply walking into a store, the bank, the courthouse, the classroom, or cafeteria, the boardroom or the office or the interview or or or – where white middle and upper middle class values and norms and worldviews and cultural standards predominate and outcast those who don’t play by these rigidly defined rules, who don’t look and act a certain way – who dissent and reject imperialism as it stands before us.

Embracing each other is a revolutionary act. Embracing each other is an act of dissent.

Recognizing on an intellectual level exactly what white privilege was did not happen until I entered college. It was when I read “white privilege: unpacking the invisible knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh and found myself nodding my head over and over again that I began to recognize the experiences I had as a youth was a systemic experience for people of color and not something unique. My “acting white and proper” as a youth was my own developmental understanding of what white privilege meant, albeit ignorant – I felt it. When I presented to other whites as a stereotypical white, middle class female in the way I talked, dressed, and behaved I was rewarded for it. When I surrounded myself with people of color white people were sure to make sure I understood I was a betrayal. I also think class status has a profound effect on how we view each other, and think we must keep intersectionality in mind when discussing privilege.

As an adult I am first and foremost thankful I was able to attend college because this was where my mind was opened to the systemic issues of race and class discrimination and white privilege. This is not a subject taught or talked about in the basic educational system that most people go through. Having the childhood experiences I had was what helped me connect the dots, and not view what was being discussed as a theory, which I fear many white youth consider diversity classes to be due to their own limited exposure to these issues. If one grows up in a small town surrounded only by other white people and only receives exposure to these issues through college diversity classes (which is always the class most complained about), it can be perceived as an attack on whites, it can cause white guilt, and extreme defensiveness.

What this country needs is to address white privilege and white guilt and defensiveness constructively through compassionate and assertive advocacy within not only diversity trainings, but also within the everyday dynamics of the classroom, work culture and broader everyday environment. Making race and class and gender issues a part of the discussions and meetings and using ourselves as the catalyst for change by addressing these topics openly is how we uphold the ethics and values that we as a nation claim to hold dear. In agencies and corporations dominated heavily by whites, making sure the issues of privilege, guilt, race and class are not ignored is the task at hand, approaching ourselves with the assumption we are racist, at the very least. Recognizing that racism and structural discrimination against people of color can only change when whites acknowledge their own isms within, and address it on a daily basis – is the only way systems built on whiteness and maintained by white denial can ever crumble. Recognizing that affirmative action has not done nearly enough, that white people still have predominantly white friends, that we segregate ourselves both personally and professionally, that we still can’t talk to each other across racial/class/religious/gender differences because the group in power still hasn’t learned how to in a productive manner….

Because The Group In Power Still Hasn’t Learned How To In A Productive Manner.

And this benefits the group in power over and over again because silence is akin to shame, and shame creates dysfunction across entire generations, it keeps the isms within us swept under the rug and hidden away, conveniently denied. The modern isms that permeate liberal circles, white activists, and male feminists.

Our activism, our feminism, our liberal values and proclamations, our friends and loved ones of color…. None of these things shield us from participating in the very things we claim to be fighting against.

15 thoughts on “Guest Post: Ending Systemic Discrimination Starts with Individual Acts

  1. KelsShels

    it keeps the isms within us swept under the rug and hidden away, conveniently denied. The modern isms that permeate liberal circles, white activists, and male feminists.

    On point. Reminds me of the difference in how the news covers Ferguson compared to the pumpkin riots.

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    1. I was just reading about the Keene Pumpkin Festival Riots this morning. (Leave it to white people to riot over pumpkins lol.) The difference in tone is astounding. Articles covering the pumpkin riots emphasize how quickly the community cleaned up, accept without question that most involved in the riots weren’t part of the community there, and characterize the rioters (who flipped over cars and threw rocks at police by the way) as college kids just being college kids. The riot was a thousand times worse than the “riot” in Ferguson and yet is described as a mere “raucous.”

      Meanwhile people in Ferguson (who are protesting over someone having been KILLED and not rioting over their drunken parties being broken up mind you) are demonized. Unacceptable.

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  2. Wow! You really are handing us the solution to ending discrimination on a silver platter with these words…………. I am so happy that I read this!

    “Recognizing that racism and structural discrimination against people of color can only change when whites acknowledge their own isms within, and address it on a daily basis – is the only way systems built on whiteness and maintained by white denial can ever crumble”

    This is as true as the fact that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening!

    Wonderful post, truly………

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    1. rootedinbeing

      And Bill Maher, and all those small town white kids going to college diversity class and throwing fits… and the white liberals who go on poverty tours, and the ones who scream about reverse racism and and and….. how about the ones who get super defensive when called on their shit instead of sitting back and evaluating? Whatever happened to “fuck, I’m so sorry” and changing ourselves after those confrontations?

      We’ve all said dumb shit…. ok… maybe not.. I’ve said dumb shit :) I work with people who have experienced trauma and at times I take on the language of those I serve. I’m a feminist and I use terms like whore, broad, bitch, “the life” when engaging with my clients depending on the language they use to describe their reality. I go into their world and meet them where they are at in their lives. After time of course that engagement turns into empowerment work and a focus on shifting our worldview with feminist, humanist therapy approaches, but not always right away… I find myself bringing some of those conversations and terms home with me…. I don’t know how to fix that… I’m still deciding if this is or is not a flaw.

      Because of my own truths I am not too quick to judge those in my field (which is what this writing was about, “the ones” we’re supposed to trust) unless I see a pattern or denial when the person is called on it. It’s just that I’ve seen patterns in people so often, and have experienced how useless white liberals and male feminists are in diversity trainings, and broader conversations about isms, because of their denials. They’ve stopped working on their “inner stuff” because they don’t think they need to.

      Anyways….

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  3. A preamble: I live in a village in northwestern Michigan, USA. Historically, the village and the county seat nearby have been predominantly white. I have had non-white friends in the past, but the only ones I still stay in contact with are very far away in other states. Thus, my ability to work on whittling down my white privilege is pretty low here.

    Which is why I’m so happy I found this blog. It helps me (with other blogs) continue to examine my privilege and learn more about others’ lives, beliefs and thinking. Thank you, Ms. Pahman, for your incisive insights and continued work to increase understanding of and compassion for all people.<3

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    1. rootedinbeing

      Janinmi, you are very kind, thank you.

      I don’t want to convey a message that white people have to surround themselves with people of color in order to “whittle down” their white privilege. Ultimately working on our own inner stuff is a personal endeavor that we don’t need to (and shouldn’t!) have people of color take part in with us. Growing up where you have grown up denied you those natural interactions, and friendships. The consequence of this is many white kids from these suburban and rural areas come to college and this is their first time even seeing and meeting people of color (and what if they don’t go to college?….). Enter diversity class and it is such a rude awakening for them (and even then, in most colleges it is not a required class). The burden becomes having to speak so basically about things like privilege, racism, etc and having to battle over such basic issues. It is a pattern, and it follows an observable process. Denial, anger, guilt, acceptance. A lot of whites stay stuck in denial, anger and guilt.

      Although I would suggest that there is no way you can whittle down your privilege because it is inherent in you as a white person due to the simple truth that you are white and living in a structurally racist society, I do think it is great that you are aware of it. That’s wonderful! It will serve you well when faced with your own privilege in the future. The test will then be to act on that knowledge.

      One way you can gain insight and further work on yourself is to read as many books as you can, learn through people’s writing and the vast depth of experience they have to offer. Read history, memoirs, short stories, essays – there is so much out there. Here are some of my suggestions for an introduction:

      When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America – Paula Giddings
      Race, Class, and Gender : An Anthology – Margaret Anderson & Patricia Collins (it also includes White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack).
      Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans – Ronald Takai
      A People’s History of The United States: 1492-Present: Howard Zinn
      Occupied America: A History of Chicanos – Rodolfo Acuna
      Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in The Segregated South.
      Orientalism: Edward Said
      Brown Skin, White Masks – Hamid Dabashi

      Almost a Woman: Esmeralda Santiago
      When I Was Puerto Rican: Esmeralda Santiago
      The House on Mango Street: Sandra Cisneros
      Walking The Rez Road: Jim Northrup
      Caucasia: Danzy Senna
      The Toughest Indian In The World: Sherman Alexie
      Reservation Blues: Sherman Alexie
      The Normal Heart – Larry Kramer

      After that you can start reading about post colonial feminism. :) There is SO MUCH out there. I feel I’ve done an injustice only recommending these. But it’s a good start.

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      1. It appears that, in my pursuit of brevity, I left out too much in my preamble. :-) I’ve been where I am now since 2003. From birth, I have lived in France, California, Oklahoma, Michigan, Virginia, Maryland, Missouri, Massachusetts, Germany (when there was a West one), South Korea, Kansas, and Florida. I’m an Army brat [grin] and served for 9 years as well.

        My adolescence spanned 1968-74, and I was reading about feminism, racism, sexism and several other isms at the time. I still describe myself as a radical. [grin] My apologies for not being clearer.

        Once I gained Internet access in the early 1990s, I began to realize that I’d had a very charmed (and privileged) life. My secondary schools were diverse (perhaps all the military families in the area had something to do with that, not sure), as were the colleges I attended. My college years gifted me with the chance to meet people from other countries, some of whom became friends. I’ve had my share of personal tragedies, but nothing on the scale of what so many other women blog about currently. Sometimes I feel guilty about all that, when I’m not angrily frustrated with people who can’t see past their own four walls.

        The book list is greatly appreciated. I have a free copy of the Zinn book bookmarked on my computer. Being an incurable bookworm, my to-read list is always full, but at least if I make note of titles and authors I’m less likely to forget them.

        Blogs? Blogs, you say? ;-) ::giggle:: I find “new” ones nearly every week, of all types and flavors, and am able to spend hours reading and soaking up new information. There are a few perks to having a disability or three. ;-)

        Egad, enough about me, already. Again, thank you for the great essay, and to Nahida as well for posting it.

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    1. rootedinbeing

      Thanks for sharing, Janinmi. My greatest fascination with people is where they’ve been and how they got to where they are. I enjoyed reading a tiny sliver of who you are. From one bookworm to another, if you have any titles to share please do stop by my blog and share. I’m getting around to **cough cough…sometime soon** Creating a tab on my blog for a reading list.

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  5. rosalindawijks

    Yes! This also reminds me of what Amina Wadud so courageously did, leading men & women in a mixed prayer, and Asra Nomanis activism at her local mosque. And of course, Rosa Parks, God bless her! “And Rosa didn’t rise!” I, in my own way, try to follow in the footsteps of these great ladies. I didn’t really connect the dots until I saw a speach by Aisha al Adaweya. Even though I don’t agree with her distancing from Amina Wadud & implicitly defending the rule that women should pray behind man, she is very courageous for taking a public stand against domestic violence & barring women from the mosque.

    Here is something I wrote on the whole women-in-the-mosque-thing:

    Yes. A few months ago I started doing something I never thought I’d dare: Praying in the main/mens hall in the biggest mosque in my home town.

    It’s a beautiful, grand mosque that has been around for as long as I can remember (some 30-35 years) The founders/board are Desi/Hindustani Surinamese, but many Pakistanis and Ghanians pray there, too. Religiously, they belong to a conservative strand of Sufism.

    For jumu3a I always go to a small mosque which is a 5 minutes walk away, since they are friendly, respectful and inclusive to all. The big mosque is 5-10 minutes away with the bus.

    Anyways, the big mosque has a grand hall for the men upstairs, and a little space downstairs (smaller then an average living room) for the women.

    That space is always messy, dirty and dusty, and almost always closed, and nobody ever has the key or knows where the one with the key is.

    They also have a balcony for the women, which is almost never carpeted – the carpets and rugs are thrown in the back and the floor is of marble, so praying there would mean thrashing ones knees.

    So one day, I was just so fed up that I refused to pray in the womens area again. Brave pioneer women like Amina Wadud, Asra Nomani etc. inspired me and after reading their writings for years, I finally mustered the courage. And walking into that room was an amazing, inspiring, uplifting and empowering experience.

    I know make a habit of praying there whenever I’m around there to do groceries or shop. And ofcourse, there are always men muttering, but I greet them cordially, thank them for their advise, debunk their arguments when needed……………..and don’t move an inch.

    In that mosque, the back door is for the women. I never use that door anymore, since I consider it degrading & insulting for a woman who wants to pray to have to hide out, lest men see her.

    In my country of origin, Surinam, we had a practice what was called the “nengre doro” – the negro door. Surinam is in South-America, but the culture is Carribean, and we have different ethnic groups & faiths. The largest ethnic groups are Hindustanis, Afro-/Creoles, Native Surinamese, Javanese and Chinese. The largest faiths are Christianity, Hinduism and Islam.

    The “nengre doro” was the back door which the enslaved West-Africans, my direct ancestors, ahd to take to enter a house. I never really connected the dots with having to use the back door in the mosque, untill after seeing a speech of Aisha al Adaweya, who said: “I didn’t become a Muslim to sit in the back of the bus.”

    Watch her speech here: It is awesome and a must-see for every Muslim woman, in my opinion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjhagDJorug

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  6. rosalindawijks

    And yes, I sure as hell didn’t become Muslim to sit in the back of the bus or to enter through the nengre doro/back door.

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