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Excerpted From: Krystal D. Williams, Why White Privilege Is a Necessary Part of Any Conversation on Racism, 35 Maine Bar Journal 110 (2020) (Full Document)


KrystalDWilliamsWhite privilege is the inevitable result of racism. It is axiomatic that if one group is disadvantaged, another group receives an advantage. For well over 300 years, Blacks were deliberately and systematically enslaved and then intimidated and legislated into subordinate societal positions. White Americans were the perpetrators and benefactors of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow laws. Current White Americans continue to benefit from the legacies left by those systems, legacies which continue to put Blacks and other people of color at a disadvantage in every facet of life.

White privilege is a necessary part of any discussion on racism because systemic racism cannot be truly eradicated unless it is fully understood. It is imperative that White Americans acknowledge that the roots of our current economic and government systems were, by design, established to reinforce and sustain White supremacy. Systemic racism is not just a cop's knee on a Black man's neck. Systemic racism is also predatory lending in communities of color, high infant mortality rates among Black women, the school to prison pipeline, and the use of 911/the police as a tool to control Black people's tone or expression of joy. By understanding and combating the many different ways in which racism manifests, we can begin to truly build toward an equitable society.

White privilege does not negate or ignore the struggles that any White person has faced. White privilege simply means that your struggles--no matter how significant--were not on account of your race (in legal speak: there was no nexus between White identity and harm). As recent national events and even local police statistics have painfully highlighted, the same cannot be said for Black Americans which is why we march and shout, “Black lives matter!”

White Americans must acknowledge and accept their White privilege in order to shine a bright light on all the dark ways that racism has been normalized. Racism is insidious and pervasive, and it morphs in language and expression to remain at the fringes of what society is willing to accept as tolerable behavior. Now is the time to cast off the willful ignorance that provides the shade under which racism's roots grow unchecked.

Yet, even as we undertake the important work of dismantling systemic racism and making our institutions equitable, we must not fall into the trap of merely refashioning the tools and language of oppression to use in service to Blacks and other communities of color. There has to be another way forward, and I believe it starts with empathy.

I didn't attend the training Leah referenced, and I don't know whether the information provided was, as Leah stated “[for] no other purpose than to shame the individuals that [sic] were white in the room.” But, as a Black woman, I frequently face assaults on my humanity in large and small ways, and I know what it looks and sounds like when others feel similarly assaulted. The way that White privilege was discussed with Leah attacked her sense of who she is and what she has accomplished in life. Anyone who watches the video will immediately notice the obvious emotion in her voice. I was particularly struck by Leah's comment that she was one of “[m]any of the attorneys in Maine [who] despite having white skin, have had their struggles to achieve all of the academic achievements they have made and become attorneys.”

I, too, know struggle. I have moved from poverty to economic comfort through hard work, grace, and opportunity. I know the years of singular focus and sleepless nights that it takes to reshape the very foundation of your life by sheer will. I know how feelings of “not being good enough” can tease the corners of your mind during early morning moments when you are groggy and unguarded. More importantly, I know what it feels like to believe that you have finally “made it” only to have someone in my case, a corporate vice president-- suggest that you don't belong in the one place that you've worked so hard to be a part of. The feeling is indescribable and searing--planting seeds of shame at the very core of your being.

To the Maine State Bar Association I say: To the extent that your discrimination trainings or trainers intentionally create feelings of shame, isolation, and unworthiness merely for being White, the program and/or program providers need to be replaced.

To Attorney Leah Baldacci I say: I see you. I applaud your accomplishments, and I admire the determination, focus, and hard work that it took for you to overcome the obstacles you faced in life. And, I would invite you, Leah, to consider that your struggles--no matter how significant or difficult to overcome-- were not caused because you are White.

[. . .]

Looking at and talking about systemic racism is hard. Uncovering and admitting our own racial bias is difficult, messy, and can cause extreme reactions. However painful, we can--right now choose to dig in, to understand where we are, how we got here, and what we are going to do to create lasting change.

Dismantling systemic racism will require us to call on and listen to the better angels of our collective nature. We will need to change ingrained collective habits of governing and policing. Many of us will also need to change aspects of our individual habits of thought and action. Change is a process that begins by wanting to change. Even though it's messy, let's change Anyway--together.

Krystal D. Williams is Of Counsel at Bernstein Shur, where she focuses her practice on energy law and land use and environmental law.

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