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.
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.
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.