The Privilege of Being Privileged

“I am an invisible man. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. 
When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination– indeed, everything and anything except me.”

–Ralph Ellison,  The Invisible Man

My Dear Readers,

Finding a single topic to focus on this week has been a challenge—there are so many directions to go!  Either way, your responses to my recent writings have provided some good food for thought, and I have noticed a common theme in some of your recent responses, most notably to My N-Word in the White House (May 9) and to Adult Children: Disrespect or Deference (May 16).


My N-Word in the White House

In this post, I reviewed this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where African-American comedian Larry Wilmore referred to our first African-American President Barack Obama as “my nigga,” as part of a joke that he told.  I received numerous emails from parents raising black children who are pulling out their hair regarding their children’s use of the N-word.

One email that piqued my interest was the one I received from a set of white parents who wrote in about their adopted African-American son, whom they have raised from infancy to his current young adulthood.  The parents write the following:

Your posting about the comedian who referred to the President as “my n—a” left me feeling despondent.  Sal, our son, is one of those young people who sees no problem with the use of this term.  It was somewhat mollifying to reflect that he may well have come to that determination even with black parents urging him to reconsider, because as you point out, many young African Americans use that term with one another.  My husband and I have broached that subject many times with him. We know that when things happen to him, he often wonders: “is it because I’m black?” This time, it’s us that wonder: “Do we not understand because we’re not black?” Is this the reason he ignores our arguments about the use of the term?

Hair Raising, Woodinville, WA


Adult Children: Disrespect or Deference

I received a volume of criticism questioning the attachment of race or color to the concept of love and respect within a father/daughter relationship.

Dr. Kane,

You are an asshole.  Why are you always linking race to everything you write about when it comes to black people? When are you going to let people be just “people?”  After all, under the skin, we are all just people.

A White Guy With No Name


The common theme here is white privilege.  In the case of the white parents, they are realizing for perhaps the first time that their privilege may inhibit them in relating to and understanding their son’s point of view.  On the other hand, in the case of the father/daughter relationship, the writer simply wants me to take away the concept of race in the interaction.

For white parents raising African-American children, you simply lose the privilege of having white privilege. You are loving and raising children who, simply by existing, will have a tougher life than you can conceive of, and will have access to a culture that you will not have access to.  Regardless of the love that you share with your children, your children have different forefathers and ancestors, and are subject to a different reality than what you have experienced.

Having said that, regardless of race, a parent’s reality is that despite our teachings, our children may demand to use the language and words that they decree as “fitting” for their generation.  This isn’t to say that you should allow your son to use the word.  Feel free to demand the respect you deserve as parents—there is no cultural reason why your child should be allowed to use words that are offensive to you under your roof.

However, in general, as parents we must want to pick our battles, and there will be many to choose from as our children move forward in a world that fears them, not for the content of their character, but for internalized fears associated with the color of their skin.   We must understand that race will always play a major factor in our lives.  If you seek to ignore or deny the reality of the impact that your son’s race has upon his life, you will be acting out of your privilege—and you have the safety of your dominant group that empowers you to do so—but it will irrevocably harm your son, who does not share that same privilege, and it is not something you can pass along to him.

The response about injecting race into my writings was an interesting one. Will race ever be a nonfactor in human relations?  I suppose so, at some point. Man eventually landed on the Moon.  A black man eventually became President of the United States.   Both actually occurred in my lifetime, so I’m sure that anything is possible.  However, this is still an era where a black man can simply be killed by stepping out into a darkened hallway and then left to die, as happened with Akai Gurley, who was shot by (former) NYPD Officer Peter Liang, who had his second-degree murder conviction downgraded to criminally negligent homicide, and was sentenced to probation and community service.

What happened to Akai Gurley could have happened to the son those white parents wrote in about—and that is a direct result of the reality of racism that people of color face in this country.

Concluding Words

A white colleague and friend once remarked that when looking at me, he saw a friend, he did not see color.   Ben (not his real name) is a good man, but still, a man of privilege.  He, like many of my clinical social work colleagues, is not able to understand the issue of privilege and often willingly close their eyes to the difference, and hence, the damage, that happens to the friend that they care so much about.  Such is the danger of privilege, not only to those who don’t have it, but to the privileged as well.

Until the next crossroads…the journey continues…

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