Opinion

I asked a wise man how to atone for white privilege. Would you quit your job? he asked

Tom Llewellyn is one of six 2017 reader columnists for The News Tribune.
Tom Llewellyn is one of six 2017 reader columnists for The News Tribune.

I don’t know how to have this conversation. I’m going to have it anyway.

I’m a well-meaning white man. I recognize that I have white privilege. I’m college educated, live in a safe neighborhood and have a good-paying job. I believe I worked hard for these things.

I was raised by a single mom. Had no health insurance as a kid. Put myself through college working long hours as a roofer.

I never had a friend’s dad put in a good word for me. Never belonged to a country club. My first job out of college paid $7 an hour.

But I’m privileged because I’m white. I don’t worry about getting pulled over by cops. I don’t worry about getting turned down for a job for my skin color. I jaywalk with abandon.

And the executives at my company — more often than not — tend to look like me. Middle-aged. White. Male. A bit thick around the middle. I don’t kid myself. This is a huge advantage.

My wife Deb and I care deeply about race issues. It’s personal for us because we have two handsome white sons and two stunning black daughters.

Our home is complicated and beautiful. As parents, we work pretty hard to figure it out. We have gone to Black Lives Matter rallies. We go hear people of color speaking about issues. We read Ta-Nehisi Coates.

So when something like Charlottesville happens — when white supremacists, Nazis (I refuse to say neo-Nazis. See how enlightened I am?) and the KKK hold rallies in 2017 to uphold the values of the pre-Civil War South — my blood boils.

But what do I do about it? Hold a rally with my (mostly) white, progressive friends? Join another rally, put on by white progressives I don’t know? Hold a candlelight vigil at my white, progressive church?

This time, I asked for guidance. I spoke to a wise black man I know named Dorian Waller. He is, among other things, a Pierce County representative on the Washington State African American Affairs Commission.

I asked him to educate me about racial equity. How could I make a difference? Which rally should I attend?

Dorian said: “I don’t want to downplay the power of rallies and anti-protests, but talk is cheap. For the most part, people in positions of privilege aren’t sacrificing. They’re expressing their shock without taking any real action. Sure, a few act in meaningful ways, but most just want to keep talking. Most talk on social media. Some talk at rallies. But it’s still just talking.”

Dorian asked if I believed in white privilege. I said yes. He asked if I believed I’ve benefited from white privilege. I said yes again.

He asked, “If you really care about equity, would you be willing to give up some of that privilege?”

I said nothing.

Dorian continued: “You called me and said you want to talk about equity. You recognize you’re in a position of power. Equity means having to cede power to allow those who are unequal to gain power. So, would you be willing to quit your job and give it to me?”

I said no.

Dorian said, “You might be surprised that there actually are a few people who do this. Who volunteer to get passed over for a promotion to allow a person of color to take that role. But I recognize how rare that is.

“So, in the meantime, how about if you, a professional, mentor a young black person? How about if you recommend someone who looks like me to your next open board position? How about if you use your network to advocate for a black woman? And the next time you hire, try to hire someone who does not look like you.”

Dorian’s final comment was this: “At the end of the day, having good intentions may not always work out as planned, but when it does, it may change the life of a person of color forever.”

Thanks for your wisdom, Dorian. And here’s to changing lives.

Tom Llewellyn of Tacoma is a content marketing director and children's novelist. He is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Reach him at tom@tommyllew.com.

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