The Hazards of Checking White Privilege

Please do not assign me a subordinate role, a specific psychology or a particular worldview based on the color of my skin.

May 4, 2018

It happened at an elite university in the Midwest a week ago. It happened just this week with a group of alumni of my organization, Interfaith Youth Core. It happens, actually, quite frequently.

In a conversation on issues of diversity, a white person will open by checking his/her/their white privilege.

Here is how the student at the elite private school in the Midwest did it. “As someone who presents as white and male and therefore has never known oppression …”

I politely interjected: “Are you saying that because I’m not white I have known oppression?”

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. I’m not quite sure why. When a white person says to a person of color that he isn’t oppressed because he is white, the suggestion seems to be that said person of color views himself as oppressed because he’s not.

I think the uncomfortable silence in the room was a function of me disrupting what is often (though of course not always) something of a logic model. If white equals privileged, then person of color equals oppressed.  

I want to say this loud and clear, even if I am the only person of color who feels this way: I do not want anyone, either subtly or overtly, to assign me a subordinate role, a specific psychology or a particular worldview based on the color of my skin.

Is it safe to assume that people who are not white have experienced racism? I think the answer to that is yes. I have, I still do, and it sucks. But isn’t it massively presumptuous to suggest – directly or indirectly – that said racism has been internalized as oppression?

Yes, I’m brown and Muslim. I’m also healthy, a husband, a father, a Rhodes scholar with a PhD from Oxford, an author of three books (and one that’s forthcoming) and the founder of the largest interfaith organization in North America.

As my dad used to say during the years I did refer to myself as oppressed, “Eboo, if you are oppressed, what word do you have for the 99% of humankind who would trade places with you.” Having just returned from a trip to India, where the image of leprous beggars was seared into my mind, I realized I did not have a good answer to my dad’s question, and decided to reserve the word oppressed for people like them.

There are, of course, people of color who, whatever their other identities might be, do use the word oppression in connection with their experience. They are perfectly free to do that.

I don’t. And I’m offended by anyone – white, black, brown, whatever – who tells me how I should interpret my experience, or who assigns me a role based on the color of my skin.

In fact, aren’t the differences in how people interpret similar experiences a hugely important part of diversity?


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