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Unearned Privilege

 

I know that it shocks my Caucasian friends and acquaintances when I say “Oh he’s my white friend Fred who I knew in college.” When I refer to a friend or someone I see who is Japanese or Asian I simply say, “Oh he’s my friend George.” I feel it must be difficult for whites to fully understand what the big deal is all about not being represented in media. It became extremely obvious to me when my cousin asked me to watch over his home on Oahu when he went to visit Japan for several weeks. 90% of the people on TV were Asians and not just the token female Asian news anchor but people in car ads, mouthwash commercials, and furniture store ads. And many of them were Asian MEN, something seldom seen on the mainland. And as I roamed around the island away from Honolulu everyone looked like me, men women and children. It was then I discovered what it must be like to have white privilege, where almost everything that is represented looks like you.

It has taken me a few weeks to formulate my feelings for this post since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN. In 1968 when I was a young teen living in SoCal the Watts riots happened. I remember watching it on our family’s black and white TV. We had moved from Crenshaw to Anaheim so we were removed from the LA area. My aunt and uncle along with my cousins still lived in LA but not near Watts. I remember being disturbed by the images of rioting, looting and violence as I watched the news. But my parents tried to protect my sister and I by turning off the TV and not discussing it with us. When we went to school there was no mention of the riots or the reasons why it happened, only uneasiness that was apparent in some of the teachers, who were all white and 95% male. The suburbs where I lived were far removed from Watts so any danger was only on the TV screen.

There are certainly people I’ve encountered that I classify as a racist or bigot. But there are also people in between those all or nothing titles. People I call “Racially Ignorant” who are not full bigots or racists, but because they have been born into white privilege they have never experienced or understood what it TRULY FEELS LIKE to be marginalized by a white social structure. Whites in the USA along with nonwhites are schooled by a white social system. What we are taught, how we are taught is all homogenized to support the elevated status of being white. If you think back to how we were taught about “American Indians” in school it was painted as a fair trade, land for trinkets. Cowboys were the heroes and the Indians were savages, people the white man saved by taking away their lands. I was never taught that the Native’s land was forcibly taken away and they were forever banished to ‘reservations.’ We learned about the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War. But again it’s all painted with pretty American colors to satisfy the palate of a white nation. How white America made life better for nonwhites.

I like other minorities encountered direct as well as veiled prejudice and bigotry as I was going up. My parents decided to move from Crenshaw to Orange County after the helicopters and gun fire became too much. Crenshaw was predominately black and when people saw me they referred to me as “The Chinaman.” Upon moving to all white Orange County I was again referred to as “The Chinaman.” I discovered later as an adult that the white neighborhood where we moved started a petition to “Keep out the Orientals” citing‘our kind’ reducing property values. Although I was not privy to that information at the time I know my parents especially my Dad would have been incensed. He, mom, my aunts and uncles were all imprisoned in camps during WWII for simply being of Japanese descent. Of course I knew nothing about that because in school it was never taught. Just like how the Native American story was never told truthfully. Neither my parents nor any of my paternal or maternal relatives ever spoke of their times in the prison camps. The lessons they learned from that time was to teach their children to assimilate, to give them American names and hope it would not happen again. There was a period of time when Italians were being considered to be imprisoned, but of course that never happened. Historically it’s much better to identify an easily recognizable race to blame, fear and ultimately punish.

1962 at a YMCA summer camp. I did my best to pretend to be part of my camp group.

The type of prejudice and bigotry I’ve experienced has been both overt and subtle. When dad and I were at the LA public library a white woman approached me to ask if I knew where the library science section was located. After explaining the area where she could look she said “My goodness your English is so good!” Shocked I simply replied “Uh thank you.” When we were going home I told my father the story and he said “You’re going to run into that a lot in your life boy. White people assume that everyone who are obviously not white speak with an accent. They’re ignorant people because they don’t have to be aware, but they like to think they are. Don’t worry about it.” Throughout my lifetime, it’s been unanimous hearing people of color say “They’re just ignorant’ when referring to whites and their cluelessness about races other than white. In 1989 I traveled to Indiana for business; the regional airport I flew into was named Michiana Airport.

Upon arriving at my client’s office I asked the receptionist, “Hi is the airport named Michiana because it’s shared by Michigan and Indiana?” Her reply “I think it’s called that because it’s the airport.” So I dropped the conversation. When I met with the MIS director I told him the story to which he replied “Oh she said that because she’s a Pollock, she’d dumb.” I discovered that when NO people of color are in an area the whites start to delineate ethnicity of their European ancestry.

In high school Jeff, Amy and I were the only nonwhites in the school of 790 kids in my graduating class. All three of us are Japanese. When I attended classmate’s summer party I entered the kitchen to get some food I heard the mother of my friend Connie whispering “Yeah, Mark’s not bad looking for an Oriental boy.” I ended up leaving right after hearing that and went home.

In both of those (and many other situations) the white people felt their intentions were fair and positive. A woman complimenting an Oriental boy on his English, the mother of a high school friend saying I was not too bad looking compared to white boys. I believe that most whites don’t believe or do not want to believe they are racist bigots. They are genuinely angered by the Ku Klux Klan, the Neo Nazi’s, etc. But those are the extreme easily identifiable racists. Cutting out the “N Word” from their verbal vocabulary makes things “OK” but I wonder how many use “Nigger, Jap, Gook, Slant, Greaser, etc.” in their thoughts. And even then it would be too much to admit, even to themselves.

Greg Conn’s Facebook video on June 6 2020 in Phoenix Arizona of a racist white woman.

And just one of the overt bigotry events I witness was as my dad and I were at a takeout Chinese restaurant we frequented every Wednesday. Mom took her night off from cooking so we all had our favorite Chinese food on Wednesday nights. Dad called those “Wonton Wednesdays.” Anyway the place was takeout only, no seating with a very large menu selection sign above the counter where you order and pay. Mr. Canton was the owner, always wearing a soiled apron with a number 2 yellow pencil behind his ear. Dad and I were the only people in the store and as we were looking up at the menu a six foot tall white man with cowboy boots and a cowboy hat came in and stepped right in front of my dad. Dad politely said “Oh excuse me, but my son and I are in line.” The guy turned his head slightly and dismissively to one side and said “I don’t have to wait behind any Japs.”

As SOON as the man uttered “JA..” my Dad moved instantly to the cowboy’s side, put his hand on the guy’s belt and leveraged him up in the air. I was shocked as I saw him upside-down with his boots up in the air and then heard his head hit the bare concrete with a distinctive “FLOWOP!” No punches thrown, just an instant judo move. His cowboy hat was still on his head, but he was out cold! Mr. Canton called the police and when they arrived, the cowboy was still unconscious. They questioned both my father and Mr. Canton separately and let us go home. My father admonished me to “NOT SAY A WORD ABOUT THIS TO YOUR MOTHER WHEN WE GET HOME BOY!”

When we arrived home mom was pissed “What took you so long to get the food!?” I yelled out “MOM DAD KILLED A COWBOY!” (BTW my dad was 5 foot 5 inches, a brown belt (before all of the now in between participation belt colors) in Judo and a Golden Gloves boxing champion. He taught me how to fight and tactics, but that does not apply to this post.)

In all of the lessons my father taught me about life with whites or the police NOT ONCE did he ever tell me that the police may or will kill me. NEVER. Had dad and I been black during the Chinese food incident I know the police would not have let us go after dad bounced the white cowboy on his head rendering him unconscious. Even if Mr. Canton had described what occurred we would have been questioned much harder and at the police station or handcuffed in the back of their patrol car. Japanese as well as all Asians are considered the “Model Minority;” non-threatening, passive or both. I remember the first time I heard that moniker and was offended. Why? – Because we were anointed by white people with that title who again felt it to be a huge compliment to Orientals. “Look at the Orientals, we kinda mistreated them, but they worked hard (and didn’t cause us any trouble) and look where they are today! See ‘some’ minorities can be good!”

Living in the Bay Area the news cycle covered stories about black men being killed by the police. Rodney King was one of the most visible stories. It was one of the first times a video of the beating of a black man by police officers was captured and shown. Following the King beating there were many others since citizen cell phones became as common as ever. But it was witnessing the killing of Oscar Grant that began a series of feelings in me that brought about rage. A black man held down by a cop and shot in the back by another was beyond comprehension.

Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia who was ‘thought’ to be a burglary suspect in a neighborhood. Three white men chased him down with their cars and went after him with firearms. Ahmaud began defending himself as any man would do in a situation like that and so he was shot. Cowards use guns on an unarmed man because they fear being hurt. And a property burglary in a neighborhood does not condone hunting a person down to kill them. Ahmaud was not coming into someone’s home at night where the threat of harm to the homeowner could be perceived as real. No, he was a man jogging through a neighborhood. But since he was a black man, in the view of the three white people he was automatically a prime suspect. In the minds of the three white bigots a black man running warranted a death sentence when he began defending himself against whites with firearms.

And then George Floyd’s murder at the hands of three white and one Asian cop. Watching a man die before our eyes is not something most people want see. In reading accounts about people watching an execution, even the victim’s families describe the scene as incredibly horrific. Adding to the horror is watching the nonchalant expression on Derek Chauvin’s face as he stared DIRECTLY into the camera that was filming him. No remorse, no emotion, simply his eyes of death. And this was the TO (Training Officer) for two of the other three cops there. THEIR TRAINING OFFICER, teaching them how things should be done!

I have never marched in protest for anything in my lifetime. And with the COVID-19 pandemic I have been careful of my health because I’m in the high risk group; 65 years of age with preexisting hypertension. But when my town organized a march from City Hall to the Police Department there was no question I wanted to march. Social distancing is out the window during a march and should not be expected. But even though it was 89 degrees, wearing a mask made it hard to breathe, walking from the PD to City Hall and back is further than I normally walk – those incidental sufferings meant nothing compared to what blacks have endured in generation after generation. The most powerful aspect of my life is choice. I chose to march and if I contracted COVID-19 and die it would be worth that sacrifice.

This is not a news cycle movement like Occupy Wall Street or a fad like white people going on and on about gluten free food or avocado toast.  Make no mistake, within non-white communities prejudice exists between races. The difference? Nonwhites are not in power or control – whether that is in government or the police departments and their unions.

In listening to a real President, Barack Obama’s speech his sage words are the blueprints for change. Social unrest makes elected officials nervous, nervous enough to make changes for those who they are alleged to represent, US. Vote in local elections because those elected officials are the people responsible for appointing the local police chiefs and officials. Freedom is not free, yet in a society whose constant yearning for convenience by hitting the Easy Button has turned us into drones who just want easy, just want the way things have been. White privilege is the same as pretty privilege, as male privilege, as all privileges that are not EARNED, just unearned privilege. Being white is not earned, yet it is rewarded. Being black was not earned, yet it is punished.

I’m not painting all whites in a poor light. Like all things there are varying degrees of culpability in terms of bigotry and racism or supporting its continuing attitudes. I believe that one of the things that some whites fear is the threat of becoming ‘the minority.’ Is it possible that their perceived fear is predicated upon knowing how current minorities are treated? And standing on ‘reverse discrimination’ openly acknowledges discrimination against non-whites exists.

As with all things, when something is taken away or is being threatened to be removed it is much worse than never having something. And like high paying corporate jobs where the term “Golden Handcuffs” is well understood, becoming complacent because of a comfortable and safe lifestyle, most are unwilling to sacrifice losing that status, that lifestyle. So a fine line is danced to justify that “we’re not racist or bigots, we care…” Self-justification is as powerful as denial, yet both are so counter to actual human progress.

Yesterday a close white friend called me and was obviously upset. A group has assembled a listing of companies of which his was included. The list highlighted some of the racially ignorant examples over the years which included those prior to and during his leadership. “I was raised to be colorblind Mark that people are to be judged by their abilities and actions, not the color of their skin.” I could hear the pain in his voice over the phone and sympathized with him. He went on to say that some of the people in the discussion stood up for him. All nonwhites have heard the exact same statement as my friend stated over and over and over and over from their white friends or acquaintances – all with the best of intentions. But like I stated in the opening of this post, whites are raised in white privilege, unearned privilege.

The insidious nature of racial ignorance reminds me of hypertension (high blood pressure), which I have that eventually resulted in me having a stroke. When undiagnosed it’s hidden, I felt fine, but it was always there and I didn’t have to think about it because it didn’t affect me; until it did. Much like George Floyd’s murder and the resulting protests, racial ignorance has always been here, unnoticed by whites since it did not affect their daily lives, until it did.

It’s as simple as hearing white parents announce how they found the ‘best school’ for their elementary school aged kids and they were accepted. Are whites the only parents who want their children placed in the ‘best schools?’ Are those schools open to nonwhites? I hear many people tell me that their kid’s school is diverse, but that is from the perspective of how whites feel about what constitutes diversity in their world. I imagine that asking nonwhite parents whose children attend the same school would yield a different perspective.

The New York Times published a story “A School Admissions Process That Caused Segregation Fell Apart in Weeks” which paints a real life picture of white privilege in sought after public schools.

“Critics say that the process is inherently unfair, because it privileges children whose families have the time and money to navigate the complex system and pay for test preparation or consultants, and that it discriminates against qualified but low-income black and Hispanic students. The screening system produces selective schools that are largely attended by white and Asian-American students, though the city’s school system is mostly black and Hispanic.”

One of my clients, Village Theatre recently ran an open discussion with four black women who appeared in “Dream Girls.” Alexandria Henderson, Lauren Du Press, Joell Weil and Angela Birchett. They were joined by Jerry Dixon, Village’s Artistic Director who is also black. Although their discussion surrounds the world of black lives in the world of theatrical arts, many of the issues they bring up are germane to black lives outside of theatre.

I am not striving to be a Model Minority but to be a Model American. And that means to resist when it’s needed, to speak up when bigotry and racism is displayed and to help those who paved the way for people like me yet who continue to be maimed and killed.

“It always seems impossible until it is done.” – Nelson Mandela

“I’ve been out there with the protesters. I feel very optimistic when I see who is out there. I very much think of this as not a moment but a movement.

And there’s a specific thing that is different about this, and that is the significance of smartphones. I will tell you that probably over the last 10 years, my white friends would come up to me and say, “Kamala, what is going on all of a sudden with all this excessive force?” And I would say to them, “You sound like a colonist.” Because you’re seeing it for the first time, you think you’ve discovered it.” – Senator Kamala Harris in her interview with the New York Times.

“But there is no one that has been hurt more by White America than Black people (specifically Black women). Following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, every individual in America must choose a role to play in the fight against anti-Blackness. To be silent is to be complicit; this extends far beyond white people. For my fellow Asian American women, this includes us, too.” – Sara Li’s Op-ed in InStyle

“Ask not what your country and do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” – JFK

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ― Edmund Burke

To begin I believe we should add two words to Black Lives Matter, Why Do Black Lives Matter? Honestly asking yourself that simple question can reveal powerful things about yourself you may have never realized. For me black lives matter moves to eliminate the numbness which is the norm for blacks to survive in a white world. Making themselves smaller and invisible in order to be acceptable to whites will be eliminated when everyone recognizes black lives matter. Black lives matter means no longer being secretly reminded to “know their place” in a white world.

Does it matter to you? And if so what will you do to take action to actually manifest change?

8 thoughts on “Unearned Privilege”

  1. Thanks for your heart, Mark. I too noticed Derek Chauvin’s eyes, completely devoid of humanity, ungodly, and quite probably transcending racism itself. Still assimilating that.

  2. Thank you, Mark, for this insightful, powerful and transformative piece. I so appreciate your heart and the grace and eloquence with which you share it here. I agree this feels like a movement, not simply a moment, and I stand with you in taking tangible and real action to be a part of the solution to expose and dismantle systemic racism and promote humanity. Sending you much light and appreciation. – MaryTheresa

    • Mary thank you for helping to overcome centuries of injustice. It will be white people who are the solution. Bless you.

  3. I have been reflecting on this essay since reading it yesterday. I was so moved by the candor, how nothing at all is sugarcoated which is just as it should be. For me, Black lives matter because I don’t want to be a part of a world where people do not feel safe or worthy to exist as they are. Black lives matter because no one should be made to feel less than.

    Reading your words again this afternoon, I find myself reflecting on three terms: acknowledgment, advocacy, and action.

    I think there are a lot of white people who are aware of their privilege, be it on a conscious or subconscious level. And moving forward in this statement when I say “your” I am speaking about white people like myself. I believe one of the first parts of taking a step to real change and/or growth is awareness, and I say part of the step because I don’t think it’s enough to simply be aware of your privilege or complicity. You must acknowledge it. To me with acknowledgment is owning your “unearned privilege.” That you get to move through the world in a way that’s easier than how other people do. To be aware of it on its own does not mean you’re holding yourself accountable and to me accountability is essential.

    It’s essential because I believe acknowledgment of that “unearned privilege” fuels your advocacy. I don’t understand how you can publicly support this vital movement in our country without first acknowledging your role in the problem – not only your role but the problem itself which is white supremacy. Without that, how is it possible to truly advocate for change? I think advocacy is essential right now. It is important to be public, to say where you stand. But that leads me to my next term: action.

    To me action transcends advocacy in that I feel like too often advocacy stops when you’ve said something, whether that’s speaking up on social media or having an actual conversation with someone. While those are both valid, that is far from the only action we need to be taking right now. We need to be outspoken, not letting anything “go” anymore in terms of what we hear be that in the workplace or at a family dinner. We need to put our money where our mouths are and donate to organizations supporting the movement and take the time to shop responsibly because in America money (unfortunately) talks. We need to take action in our communities, from volunteering to voting and making sure everyone can exercise their constitutional right to have a voice. We need to commit to educating ourselves and doing the work necessary to actively fight against an oppressive system from which we benefit every single day. We need to keep going after the news cycle ends because it will.

    I acknowledge my “unearned privilege.” I advocate for change now, while absolutely understanding that nothing being said is anything new. I vow to act every single day. And I hold myself accountable for this work which will last for the rest of my days.
    Thank you for these powerful, necessary words, my friend.

    • Cara what you have identified is what I pray that all whites associate with, advocating for change within the minds of whites. “To me with acknowledgment is owning your “unearned privilege.” That you get to move through the world in a way that’s easier than how other people do. To be aware of it on its own does not mean you’re holding yourself accountable and to me accountability is essential.” It’s not asking A LOT, it’s being self aware and not self absorbed. Ron Dawson has posted some thoughts that exemplifies how he feels, and how some of his white friends epiphanies have shown him and me that there is hope, albeit reserved hope. I am formulating a new post about the parallels of BLM comparing it to domestic abuse. I look forward to your thoughts on that as well. Thank you for posting a comment Cara. It means much to me, but more importantly to all non whites who have suffered far too long.

  4. Thank you Mark, for sharing your story and your words.

    Black Lives Matter.

    It means so much more than just those three words. And most importantly, to me, it means WE HAVE A DESIRE TO HEAL. We want LIBERTY and JUSTICE for ALL. That means ALL! BIPOC and LGBTQ and EVEN THE WHITE PEOPLE WHO ARE IGNORANT IN THEIR CONTRIBUTION and PERPETUATION of a system of OPPRESSION. Black Lives Matter seeks truth and reconciliation for us ALL. And we do that, by moving forward in LOVE.

    You lead with your heart. That is abundantly clear. I am so grateful for your presence in my life. I promise you that I will ALWAYS stand with and for you. YOUR life matters to me. I love you friend. Thank you.

    • Anya it’s white people like you that will help to make this happen. Keep up the fight, the pressure the conversations. I love you for helping me, but most of all helping so many others. Thank you.

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