Making White Privilege Work for Good

Dear Joel,

I’ve been thinking this week about your recent post on the casting for Hellboy. For the reboot, handsome and not at all Asian actor Ed Skrein was originally slated for the role of Ben Daimio, a biracial Asian-white character. He gave it up to make space for an Asian actor to play the role instead, and it appears (as of Monday) that Daniel Dae Kim will star instead. (Kim left his work on CBS’s Hawaii Five-o due to pay disparity between the white and Asian actors on the show, so this is especially gratifying.) As you note, this is laudable and relatively easy for Skrein. He’s not giving up his livelihood, just this one role. And, frankly, it’s a smart move–he gets a pat on the back for being aware of racial privilege and doesn’t have to deal with the criticism that other actors who have donned yellowface–Emma Stone in Aloha, Scarlet Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange.

Image result for daniel dae kim

Above, Daniel Dae Kim, on the set of Hawaii Five-o. 

Anyway, the real point of your post was that it’s easy for Skrein to do this because he’s a handsome white actor who’s going to have plenty of work ahead of him. How do those of us who have benefited, in terms of our employment, from our whiteness, at the expense of people of color, do the same?

To be clear, this is all of us. You can’t untangle capitalism and race in the US, because our system of capitalism was built upon the removal, genocide, and enslavement of people of color. We would have no US economy as we understand it today had the first hundreds of years of our history been determined, not merely shaped, by assaults on (and too often the destruction of) indigenous cultures and the the selling and buying of Africans and their descendants. That didn’t go away with slavery or even with the end of Jim Crow. By and large, unions preserved good jobs for whites. In 1945, we voted against a robust social welfare program and instead chose a system that links benefits to jobs, insuring that only those who had “good jobs” would be protected in sickness and old age; those jobs, of course, were (and still primarily are) for white people.

This isn’t hard to see, but it’s hard to fight, on an individual level. You can explain white privilege to “a broke white person,” but that doesn’t mean he’s going to enthusiastically give up his $7.25 job so that a person of color can work it instead and he can be unemployed.

White men out-earn black and Hispanic men and all groups of women

Above, data from the Pew Research Center highlights the wage gap between whites and people of color. Black men earn 73% of what white men earn, while Hispanic men earn just 69% of what white men earn. Black women earn 65% of what white men earn, while Hispanic women earn 58% of white men’s earnings. 

Which brings us to the central conflict: the difficulty recognizing and then acting on our own agency (We can do things to change the system.) in the context of a system that is very hard to change.

It’s a simple comparison, but I think of this kind of work kind of like caring for the environment: I must do what I can, but I also recognizing that doing all I can still won’t stop climate change. It’s up to me, but I can’t only act alone.

So, to get toward (if not to) an answer to the challenge you pose: As white people, we can do individual acts that work against a racist system–we have that power, and those acts will make a positive difference. We also have to act collectively.

What are some of the things you do to remedy this? Here are some of mine, not always executed perfectly:

I patronize businesses owned by people of color. If, for some reason, I need to use a ride share service, I choose Moovn, which is black-owned. If I’m looking for an artsy gift or a set of notecards for myself, I search for products crafted by artists of color. I give a lot of books as gifts, and I select books by and about people of color. When I need a realtor, auto mechanic, or piano teacher for my child, I ask around specifically for people of color. I choose to eat at restaurants owned by people of color.

You get the idea: get this white woman’s money flowing into the wallets of people of color.

Here’s another one: just as I seek out people of color for work, I seek to recommend people of color. For example, I serve on the editorial board of a major journal in my field. My main job is to suggest books for review and to locate reviewers for them. I work hard to identify books by scholars of color for review, and I locate reviewers of color to review books (and not just books about race or books by people of color). As much as possible, I make my top choice for a reviewer a person of color. Since a lot of academic work is done via networking, this brings more people of color into the journal’s network.

Depending where you are in life as a white person, you can do more. If you are part of a hiring committee,  implement a revised Rooney Rule, interviewing at least a few people of color for any job. (It turns out that if you interview just one member of a minority group, it doesn’t really increase the odds of hiring someone from that group. Instead, that single person sticks out to them as “strange”–1 woman among 9 men who were interviewed, 1 black man among 9 white ones–which doesn’t help.) Once people of color are seen as a part of a “normal” hiring pool, things start to change.

And, if you are white, take care of your colleagues of color. Ask them how you can help them advance. Protect their time. Advocate for them to take on leadership roles and limit their emotional labor. In institutions where most people are white, people of color are always doing work that white people cannot see, including the work of putting up with micoaggressions and white nonsense. Assume that they are working harder than you, because they probably are. Ask them straightforwardly how you can make their job more pleasant, more fulfilling, or easier. Ask to take an item off their to-do list. Ask them what they need to be more successful or happier at work, then find it and give it to them.

Beyond supporting your colleagues, work for a more just workplace. Make it the job of the white people there to address racism and structural inequality. You don’t even have to identify yourself as a person doing this work–in fact, it’s probably better than people come to see you (rather than you telling them) that you’re here to do this work. And here is the best part: because you are white, you are going to be more heard more easily by those white people higher up the food chain. You can exploit your whiteness here.

And, if you can do it, hand off paid work to people of color. Very often, we white people can. 

I’m interested in what our readers here suggest. White people: what do you do to insure the economic success of people of color, given the realities of our economic system? People of color: What do you need us white people to do more of?







  1. I am a white person who has the rather unusual of being in the minority. Yes, my neighborhood is mostly nonwhite, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Guyanese, and others in the neighborhood. So for me, ensuring the economic success of business in my neighborhood (most of them owned by nonwhite people, of course) and ensuring the economic success of nonwhite people are one in the same.


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