Op/Ed: Growing Up With White Privilege

by | Jun 10, 2020

By Maya Barnes

I am white. I live in a predominantly white town and I live a predominantly privileged life. Though I am only in high school, the aspects of my life affected by privilege are endless. I become at fault when I fail to recognize this privilege of mine. I realize I have never been treated negatively because of my skin color. I do not feel fear when I see a police officer because throughout my life, the police have existed to protect me. My life has been made easier because of my white privilege. It is crucial to acknowledge this.

Posted on a door of an East Greenwich house.

I have felt very emotional the last several days. I cried after watching the video of George Floyd and have had a similar reaction any time protests are on the news. My immediate reaction to this sadness of mine? Who are you to be sad and who are you to be angry? This is not your experience.

Herein lies the problem. Many times when a black man or woman is killed in an act of racism, there is a burst of activism. There may be a march in Washington D.C. or a trending hashtag, but many of us with white privilege fail to respond appropriately. We are not sad enough. We are not angry enough. 

After the shooting of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, there was some movement. Our country was nearing a breaking point and the murder of George Floyd tipped us over the edge. Social media blew up with activism. Marches and rallies and riots started in cities across the country: citizens begging for change. This explosion was full of pain and centuries of suffering – but it woke some of us up. Those of us with white privilege were horrified by some of the things happening in our country. We always had the ability to turn the videos off, put our phone down and go to bed. I remember thinking when I was younger: I don’t know if I can watch some of this footage, it makes me too sad and uncomfortable. News flash – this is not a piece of content. These are people’s lives. 

So, I found last week to be a turning point for myself and some of my classmates. Much needed conversations started. Maddie Curnow, a junior at East Greenwich High School, wrote:
“While I have always been filled with anger in regards to the discrimination African Americans face in the United States, my anger has greatly swelled in the past week. I know that I will never be able to fully understand the struggles black lives encounter everyday, so instead I am doing my best to amplify the voices around me. Ask yourself, have I been doing enough or is my silence contributing to the oppression? If you want to help but do not know where to start, go to https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/ for a list of resources.”

Instead of just feeling sad, I wanted to do something. Not because I am black or can relate to the African American experience, but because I care. I do not want to live in a country where an innocent man can be suffocated for almost 9 minutes by a police officer’s knee. I do not want to live in a country where peaceful protests go unheard. I do want to be aware of some of the social ignorance I carry.

Leah Valente, another junior at East Greenwich High School, shared:

“After reading and watching many videos and posts on social media, I have come to truly understand the role of ignorance in our country. I had been ignorant to the horrors that occur everyday until I completed a year of U.S. History and have been keeping up with the news. The more I learn, the angrier I get. Educating ourselves right now is the most important thing we can do. Acting right now does not make you right or left, it makes you human.”

My plan is to read and watch these works in hopes of understanding and becoming a better American citizen. As Angela Davis said, “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.”

Here’s what’s on my list:

13th, a Netflix documentary about racial inequality in America and our prison system

So You Want to Talk About Race, a book by Ijeoma Oluo

White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, a book by Robin DiAngelo

The Fire Next Time, a book by James Baldwin

When They See Us, a Netflix limited series about the Central Park five

Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, a book by Bell Hooks

I hope this is just the beginning. 

Maya Barnes will be a senior at East Greenwich High School in the fall.


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25 Comments

  1. Matt Stark

    Maya, thank you for creating this message. I know one kiddo who found it “moving”. I think you are brave to put yourself out there. You are not alone as you navigate the complexities of race in America. Thanks again.

    Reply
    • Johnny B

      I have been discriminated against because of the color of my skin. I have been beaten and tazed by police officers to the point of hospitalization. I do fear the police. I’ve never inherited anything in my life, other than burial costs when a loved one passes. I grew up sleeping on the floor of a trailer single wide mobile home with four adults and seven children. My first dental appointment was at the age of 20 when I could afford to go. Neither of my parents completed the sixth grade. My heritage is predominantly Native American (Cherokee Indian). So, if I chose to have a crutch and blame my problems on things from the near ancient past, obviously I could do so. Because not only were my ancestors enslaved, but we had our land and heritage stolen from us, all the while a near 3/4 of our population was decimated by European disease. I have been accused of committing a crime that I didn’t perpetrate. I started a landscape company when I was 11, so that I could buy clothes and pay for school lunch. The day after my 14th birthday I started my first real job. During the summers of my high school years I worked building homes from 6 in the morning until 4:00 in the afternoon. Then from 4:30 until 11:00 I worked at my second job. After three years of this I was able to purchase my first car, pay for my insurance, and get my first cell phone. I also was able to put money up to pay for school lunches and to buy clothes. After graduation I went on the first vacation of my life and saw the ocean for the first time. After that trip I started my first full time job. Through hard work and sacrifice, I flourished to the point of running a multimillion dollar company at the age of 24. Soon I was managing multiple multimillion dollar companies and making north of a quarter Of a million dollar income. Of course, I was working around the clock. In excess of 80 hours per week. I ran those corporations for 11 years until I saved to a point to start my own company. Earlier this month in nine days work my company netted $106,020.95. I have 11 employees, but my two supervisors are both black. They both made $10,914.75 for those nine days of work. I’m not being braggadocios, the point I’m trying to make is hard work, not the color of my skin or anyone else’s, has lead to my overwhelming amount of success. You see, rather than blame the world for the circumstances I was born and raised in, I decided to work as hard as I could in order to be successful. That’s the greatest thing about our wonderful country. Anyone here can do exactly what I’ve done and be successful, regardless your race, religion, gender, sexual preference, etc. So, the reality is there is no such thing as white privilege. Wealth, and/or economic privilege absolutely exists, but that’s not based on race. Do you not think Jeffrey Jordan has had or lived a more privileged life than I have? How about Robert L. Johnson Jr. has had opportunities that I didn’t?

      Reply
  2. Charles

    1st…what happened to geo floyd or any other human being in similar circumstances was horrible. However we should not be embarrassed or apologetic for who we are and what we have achieved based on our backgrds…btw that has to do with diversity…I am truly amazed on how mr floyd w his criminal history has been canonized a saint…this is the same indiv who held a gun to the stomach of a helpless pregnant woman…and his criminal activity continued after he left tx for minnesota…yes we always need to make improvements to society…but placating a certain group or indiv is not the answer…just remember the more we classify and pinpoint people or groups the more we divide a d establish prejudices and yes hatred…

    Reply
    • Mandy Brebach

      What does this have to do with a high school girl who is owning her white privilege? Seems like more deflection from the real issue at hand to me.

      Reply
      • Alex

        I think Charles is a Russian troll working for the Internet Research Agency to sow division between Americans. Does anyone know who Charles is? He probably watches Fox News, which is fake news. Fox was telling people it was still safe to go out and denying the virus as a hoax. You are brainwashed if you watch Fox fake news. If you don’t believe me then do what Fox told their viewers to do and hold your breath for one minute to see if you have the virus. I read the Mueller report. Investigated and written by a true patriot, Republican Robert Mueller. Impeached Trump is a traitor and should have been removed by the Senate. You want to talk about the bad of George Floyd? Let’s look at all the rape accusals, fake trump university, and the trump foundation and how incredibly corrupt that was. The list goes on. Racism is everywhere and systems have to change. And can’t some of you let a high school kid freaking go through figuring out who she is and not fault her for sharing her feelings?

        Reply
        • victor volpe

          Great job Alex. Nice to read facts versus fiction.

          Reply
    • Claire Nicogossian

      Charles, you’ve missed the point. Maya, the author, is expressing how her sadness, anger from racist events, paired with looking inward within her life, which includes acknowledging her white privilege and observed systemic racism, opened her heart and mind to make a commitment to do change and be an activist for racial equality.

      Reply
    • Leah Valente

      Bringing up George Floyd’s criminal background is exactly a “deflection from the real issue at hand.” You are trying to find flaws of people like Floyd in order to discredit the real issue: Racism taking lives away from African Americans. Claudette Colvin did exactly what Rosa Parks did, but 9 months earlier. She was 15 and pregnant, so they didn’t use her as the bus boycott figure because they worried that this information would cause controversy and become a greater focus than the actual movement. They used Rosa Parks because she had a “cleaner” background than Colvin. Therefore, your focus on Floyd’s flaws is just a way for you do take the focus off the important issue of racism.

      Reply
  3. Tom D’Abrosca

    What’s truly frightening is these high school kids are being brainwashed into thinking they have to apologize for being born white or being raised in East Greenwich. Since when does anyone have to explain or apologize for their ethnicity? No sane individual thinks George Floyd’s death was acceptable and certainly changes can and should be made on policing tactics during arrests but how did we get to kids blaming themselves for being born white for what happened to Mr. Floyd?

    And Charles’s comments are spot on…no one in the main stream media has mentioned his background during this time. Only presidents should get a funeral that this man received. For a true perspective, enlighten yourself and read what Candace Owens, a black women, had to say about Mr. Floyd.

    Reply
    • Sharon Siedliski

      I don’t believe anyone is brainwashing these high school students. I think they are trying to increase their awareness of how simply being born white has inherent privileges in this country that they may not have thought about a lot before. I am too. I don’t pretend to know a lot about systemic racism but as a privileged white woman I’m going to learn and ask questions, examine how I contribute to it, and be an ally. I think now is the time to seek understanding of each other’s experiences, understand each other better and show grace.

      Reply
    • victor volpe

      Candice Owens, this is a joke, right?

      Reply
      • Neal McNamara

        Candace Owens is a BAD joke!

        Reply
    • Claire Nicogossian

      Tom, the author, Maya, is not being brainwashed, nor is she apologizing for being born white. She is coming into awareness how being born white has provided her with opportunities and protection and privilege. Growth happens when we get uncomfortable enough to make change. Which means we have to look within ourselves first, instead of blaming the victim or distracting from the issue of racism.

      Reply
    • Nat Turner

      Tommy- Just want to make sure we have the right Candace Owens- the alt-right white supremacist literal Nazi bigot. The person who said she had no problem with Hitler’s nationalism, or the person with a repeated pattern of inflammatory statements that spread hate, discrimination, intolerance and falsehoods against the black community? Thank god you are not a teacher. Take a look in the mirror. You are the problem. Thank you, Maya, for showing that our younger generation is sometimes much smarter than us. Certainly more compassionate. I would encourage Tommy to actually read about people such as Breonna Taylor and others who have been killed by police. As evidenced by his complaint about the funeral size is further Tommy has a deep-seated racial superiority complex.

      Reply
      • victor volpe

        Nat, you got the right Candace. I don’t know Tommy.

        Reply
  4. Laurie Luth

    Yay! Maya Barnes! This is a thoughtful, mature opinion written with insight and openness. You embody the hope for the future. White people must come to terms with our history and the systemic racism that we have participated in and have allowed to persist for generations, and we must do that without defensiveness. Until we own it, we will not move past it. Talk of “blame” (kids blaming themselves) is completely useless and not what is happening, The irony of claiming a teenager is brainwashed in one sentence and citing Candace Owens in another is stunning! Owens’ catering to white fragility while claiming that supporters of the movement toward racial equality have no idea about the flaws of the man who was sacrificed for the cause is insulting – and the opposite of enlightenment. Everyone now knows exactly who George Floyd was. He was a human being who paid his debt to society for past crimes and did not deserve to be murdered for a $20 crime. Equally insulting is claiming that his funeral is somehow undeserved. This flawed human being is a catalyst for a global movement. The inability to recognize what honoring him in death has come to mean to hundreds of thousands of Americans is truly tone deaf. Flawed white people have been given repeated opportunities for redemption. Denying that same opportunity to a black man is exactly the point. There was more to George Floyd than his criminal history. I would encourage commentators above to “enlighten” themselves on George Floyd’s whole life – The Daily podcast from today, 6/10/20, is an excellent place to start. Or read the words of Dahleen Glanton, Chicago Tribune columnist; “ Owens likes to quote great writers and orators, but clearly she has no real sense of history. If she did, perhaps she would quote the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous words, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ King did not say injustice to any ‘perfect’ person anywhere, because he knew that the most flawed among us often are the most vulnerable to social injustices … Yes, we embraced Floyd in spite of his flaws and maybe even because of them. We lifted this ordinary man to a status he never could have achieved on his own because he forced us to open our eyes.
    We made him a martyr because social justice reform is all about giving flawed people an opportunity to turn their lives around.“ https://www.chicagotribune.com/columns/dahleen-glanton/ct-george-floyd-funeral-candace-owens-20200609-ywgqwvfjnrherh6se3ber6fxmm-story.html Thank you for your courage, Maya!

    Reply
  5. Carla Swanson

    So well-said, Maya. Your insight, introspection, and openness to learnIng gives me hope. Thank you for writing this-and for sharing your terrific resource list!

    Reply
  6. Kim

    Maya, thank you so much for your incredible article. To have this insight at such a young age is truly remarkable and it gives me hope for the future.

    It’s a shame not everyone got what you were trying to say, making this more about your apology for being white (which, by the way, you never made) and about the fact that because George Floyd led a less than exemplary life, his death is less important. Sigh…

    I get what you’re saying and applaud you. No white person needs to feel guilty about their white privilege or apologize for being white. We do, however, need to acknowledge it and act accordingly. And that means more than just “not being racist.” We cannot accept the rate at which black men and women are being executed by the police; nor can we accept the fact that many black individuals are too afraid of the police to utilize them for their true purpose: protecting the public. That’s wrong and it needs to change. By the tone of your article, I suspect you’ll be an instrument towards that change. I hope many of us will.

    Reply
  7. Dave Abell

    It’s great to see our high school students being engaged in these important conversations. Mostly a civil discussion. Let’s keep it that way.

    Reply
  8. Afreen Siddiqui

    Kudos Maya for your insight, maturity, and bravery. Thanks to you and other youngsters like you that I feel there is hope for us as humanity. Bravo!

    Reply
  9. Claire Nicogossian

    Maya, your words, vulnerability and honesty is exactly what the world needs right now. So proud of you! What a wonderful article and you give me hope for the change so needed in the world.

    Reply
  10. Rebecca Macri

    That you, Maya! We need young people like you to speak up and be on the right side of history. You’ve clearly started to research this complex issue and do the self-reflection that’s needed and I hope other young people are following your example. The people posting negative comments have not done their research about White Privilege, and the role we white people, especially in a wealthy town, play in maintaining inequality & oppression. And their comments are textbook examples of White Fragility. Please ignore them and keep on doing this important work.

    Reply
  11. Matt Stark

    Charles, if you had stopped with your first point, it would have been great.

    Instead you went on to contradict the last sentence in your post. “The more we classify and pinpoint people or groups the more we divide and establish prejudices and yes hatred.” Seems like you did a great job of creating a “group” in EG that should feel a certain way. Then you painted Mr. Floyd as a criminal. Does It makes it easier to countenance the gross abuse that way?

    I’ll follow the advice of your last point and just think of him as a person – one of many people who are part of a pattern of horrendous treatment. All Americans should be horrified by the patterns of abuse before our eyes year after year after year. And for those who are unaffected, our silence has been complicity. I think it is fair for Maya to struggle with similar concerns. Our democracy is strongest when we aspire to improve upon it, not when we are commanded to accept the status quo or be accused of self-loathing.

    Reply
  12. Jes

    I too am fair skinned and from EG, where life is easy. Maya, when you leave EG, you will see that most of your privileges do not cross borders. Meaning, white is not a privilege everywhere. Not all cops are like those in EG. Your gender will become a problem. Your accent may even be criticized. The list goes on. Stop calling it White privilege, and start recognizing its economic privilege of living in an EG type bubble. Leave these bubbles, and life won’t be so cushioned.

    Reply
    • Tom

      But is it solely economic privilege? Maybe the things she enjoys are driven by an economic comfort, but a wealthy black person living in EG (yes, they do exist) still faces an uphill battle – probably not nearly as difficult as a less financially fortunate black person, but difficult in other ways as they go through life.

      Reply

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