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Reflections on Racial Justice: Part IV – White Privilege

The home I grew up in did not seem racist.  My mother had a recording of South Pacific, and consistently endorsed the message of “You Have to be Carefully Taught.”  She spoke about the time her parents opened their home near Eugene, Oregon, to the singer Marian Anderson when she was not welcome in local hotels.

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Reflections on Racial Justice: Part III – Anger Revisited

My father, though, voiced what seemed to me as a child to be harmless anachronisms—a Brazil nut was a “nigger toe;” the African American kids in the Little Rascals were “pickaninnies.”  My brother and I were taught that this language was offensive.  We were not to use it, especially “the N-word.” Dad was good-naturedly called on it when he did.  We were taught that Negroes were not inferior people, they had rights equal to others’; they were to be respected as people, and that it was wrong to discriminate against them.  A boy in my scout troop was Japanese-American, and his family had been interred during World War II.  Even though my father “spent three years of my life trying to kill as many of those people as I could,” that did not apply to our friends and neighbors, the Takahashis.  Grounded in this personal relationship, we knew that displacing and imprisoning American citizens was wrong.

We never had a version of “the talk” in which Black and brown parents explain to their children how to dress, speak, and behave so as not to put themselves at risk out in the outside (white) world.

My brother and I were assured that we could be anything we wanted to be.  That seemed appropriate.  We were smart.  We did well in school.  Our parents and their friends were civic-minded and politically active.  We did not get into trouble.  We never felt financially insecure.  We went to good colleges, graduated, and got good jobs.

I felt a sense of entitlement based on educational achievement and assumed competence, not because I was white.  I expect I communicated that kind of entitlement to my sons.

Through recent conversations with friends and colleagues of color with similar or better educational backgrounds and career achievements, I have come to understand that my skin color was part of the reason I was afforded those opportunities.  They had to think daily about their skin color, and they experienced what one of them calls “everyday racism.”  I did not.  For them, education was a way to combat these things.  However, some of them also experienced pressure that I did not.  They were told that they had to be better at academics and athletics than white students because, when all things were equal, the white students would be chosen.

Although I now can see the impact of white privilege on my opportunities, I don’t feel guilty about that.  I don’t feel that my life experiences were undeserved.  However, I do better appreciate that deserving others were denied similar opportunities because they were not white.  Understanding how I benefitted from white privilege, I see that I should use my privilege to help elevate people of color:  calling out racism when I see it; serving as a mentor or sponsor to someone; working to dismantle racism in organizations I am a part of, by recruiting people of color to their boards, for example.

My Black and brown peers had to overcome barriers that I did not to obtain opportunities similar to mine.  However, it should not be a zero-sum game; it can be additive.  We each can bring insights to the other—in relationships, at work, and in the community.

Frank Lloyd
Frank Lloyd
Dr. Frank Lloyd is the former Associate Dean of Executive Education at Southern Methodist University's (SMU) Edwin L. Cox School of Business, where he led development and delivery of award-winning executive leadership programs that transformed careers and organizations. He was the driving force in the creation of a national center of excellence on Latino leadership, and he was instrumental in the launch of the James M. Collins Executive Education Center. Dr. Lloyd joined SMU’s Cox School from the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona, where he was Vice President of Executive Education. Prior to joining Thunderbird, Dr. Lloyd was a human resources executive with General Motors. Among the highlights of his career, he was responsible for organization development and leadership training for GM Europe during its transition from mass to lean production, and he was the first GM Human Resources manager at New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI), the historic joint venture between GM and Toyota noted for its innovative labor-management relations and the introduction of the Toyota production system. Dr. Lloyd is an emeritus member of the Board of Directors of UNICON, the Global Consortium for University-based Executive Education. He served on the national board of Inroads, an organization with the mission to develop and place talented underserved youth in business and industry and prepare them for corporate and community leadership. He is the former board chair of Daystar US which mobilizes resources to support Daystar, a non-denominational Christian university in Nairobi, Kenya whose mission is to prepare servant leaders for Africa. He currently is a board member for Literacy Achieves, a Dallas, Texas-based non-profit that teaches English as a second language to adult immigrants to facilitate their employment, parenting, and other life skills. Dr. Lloyd was a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Isfahan in Iran. He also served as a U.S. Information Agency curriculum consultant for Germany. He earned a master’s degree at Purdue University and a Ph. D. at the University of Iowa. His undergraduate degree is from Occidental College.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Enjoyed your reflections and thinking on this. Thanks for sharing. For those who like a visual approach, there is a fascinating article on a fairly common image that is circulating on the Internet on Equity, Equality and Justice. The discussion of the image’s metaphor is somewhat instructional. I don’t like to get too caught up in the details, but do appreciate that people are educating themselves and self-reflecting on this. This is how we grow.
    https://culturalorganizing.org/the-problem-with-that-equity-vs-equality-graphic/

    • Joe, the original visual and the critiques are very interesting. It reminded me of my experience as a contestant on the TV quiz show Jeopardy some years ago. Contestants are provided boxes to stand on behind their podiums so that to the camera operator and the TV audience they appear more equal in height and the camera does not have to jump around. I am quite tall so I didn’t need a box. Alex Trebek is surprisingly short. During commercial breaks he chats with contestants. When he came to me, he looked up and remarked, “you’re pretty tall.” “Would you like a box?” I replied. I don’t think he liked that. Was I exercising my “tall” privilege or offering him something in the way of equity — to level the “playing field” between us? Frank

  2. Thanks very much, Frank.

    I’ve discovered that embracing the truth of my accidental racism is extremely discomforting and extremely necessary. I’m working on a project, “Character over Category” (What I am is a coincidence, Who I am is a choice). I am accidentally white, male, tall, American, musical, a stutterer, shy and introverted (to name a few). As far as I know, we don’t get to stand in the get-ready-to-experience-the-trauma-of birth line and choose those identifiers. So I also don’t need to choose being guilty or proud for any of those, simply nourish accuracy along the lines of responsibility and acceptance.

    I remember when my father finally had to hire some black employees in his factory. I worked there in the summer (strictly in the trenches, down and dirty) and he came up to the loft where I was loading cans of ceiling tile adhesive onto pallets for shipping. As the employees below filed out for their break, he pointed to the two black men at the back of the group. “See how they move so slow? It’s because their feet are so big.”

    I believe we all have deep aches and pains from this embedded fact of our culture (and humanity in general) that doesn’t separate the power of the tribe (the company softball team, for instance) from the corrosion of the tribe (they are not us=they are less than us=we owe them less than we owe each other). Acknowledging that magnetic otherism takes courage, and it also takes absolute, rigorous honesty. It does not necessitate shame.

    Keep walking the good walk.

    Let’s talk . . . .

    Be.
    Mac

  3. I have so appreciated reading your reflections, Frank. I think about my childhood. My parents grew up in the south and used sayings that they didn’t think of as racist, they were just part of the everyday colloquialism. Like, when someone was working really hard they’d say, “Looks like you’ve been slavin’ away!” – The intention was meant to be a compliment but of course now we know better. It’s so important that we all examine these messages we received, trace the language we use to its origin, and explore how we can individually dismantle racism in our own lives – as we need to do in our institutions. But looking in the mirror and telling ourselves the hard truths, is essential. It’s so easy to point the finger to what others need to do or should do, but change always begins with ourselves first. Thank you for modeling this for all of us.

  4. Thank you for sharing your story, the attitudes that shaped you in your childhood home, and the recognition of those privileges that are not there for all citizens, Frank. I appreciate Isabel Wilkerson’s call to radical empathy-as a way to find common ground…to see one another as multidimensional, multifaceted, complicated, breathing beings-that our “packaging” no longer divide us-one human from another human. I appreciate your insight that “deserving others were denied similar opportunities because they were not white.” Yes, indeed. I highly recommend to you the book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Isabel Wilkerson. Eloquently written, thoroughly researched..a must read for all of us.

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