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Learning More About My White Privilege

November 6, 2017

I have opposed discrimination and racism beginning when I was in high school at the time of the lunch counter boycotts in the South.  I wanted to ask retail and service establishments if they would serve “Negroes” in our very white town in Montana with only three known African American families.  I was conducting this survey because I might create problems for those families. 

Later in my thirties, living in Detroit, I was confronted daily by the impact of racism on the population in this majority black city.  I volunteered with an organization that provided anti-racism education workshops to churches, community groups, non-profit organizations and businesses.  Through interactive workshops, deep discussions and sometimes painful feedback from black colleagues, I learned about my white privilege, how much prejudice and racism I carried and the many ways our culture has institutionalized racism.  I also learned how much I didn’t know about the African American experience in the United States. 

I now live in California and find myself learning more and again.  Not only is there so much I don’t know about the black experience, I am pretty ignorant about the experience of being brown, (Mexican, Hispanic and Latino/a).  Although I did have one personal experience…as a high school student when I was asked to leave a restaurant because the staff thought I was Mexican.  (I tanned easily and my hair wasn’t gray as it is now.)

I was reminded of that humiliating experience recently when I attended a one-woman show, performed by Irma Herrera, “Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name.”  She taught the audience the correct pronunciation as “Ear-ma”.  Proud of her Mexican and American heritage, Irma recounted experiences from her life requesting nuns, professors and strangers to accept the Spanish pronunciation of her name.  Through poignant stories and humor, she told us how pronouncing her own name had often resulted in insults, pain and the denial of her identity.  She recounts experiences of rejection and humiliation which brought back the memory of my lone experience of rejection based on an assumption and stereotype.   I remember being so embarrassed and mortified in front of my friends.    However, I refused to leave and my friends stood up for me.  That experience so many years ago certainly increased my sensitivity to discrimination based on color and stereotypes.   

I left Irma Herrera’s show with my own emotional tenderness.  But most important, I had a clearer understanding of the historical context of the discrimination and racism experienced when growing up brown in this country.  With the mirror she offered, I was forced to re-evaluate my thoughts, actions and biases once again. 

Last weekend, I saw the film “Dolores”, a provocative documentary about the civil rights icon and labor leader, Dolores Huerta.  The film provides a personal story of Dolores Huerta’s involvement in the founding of the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez in the context of the economic, social and physical violence experienced by the farm workers in California.

From these two recent experiences, I recognize again how my white privilege contributes to my ignorance of what it is like to be brown or black in the United States, (or Native American or Asian American).   I am grateful to have financial security, respect and a supportive community.  I don’t have to worry about the police response to me because of my color.  I grew up with a good education.  I have been able to purchase homes without redlining.   I have not experienced discrimination based on color in my career. 

I continue to learn that my life privileges have protected me from the institutionalization of our country’s racial biases.  My experience of gender bias, however, is more direct and personal.  But that is a different blog.

(Photograph of Dolores Huerta is by Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

Bev Scott specialized in serving executives and managers as a leadership coach and organizational consultant for over thirty-five years. She taught organization psychology and founded The 3rd Act, a program whose mission supports positive aging. As she grew into her own third act, she started a genealogical journey to uncover the details of her grandparents’ lives. She concluded that the story needed to be told as fiction using the known facts as her framework. “Sarah’s Secret: A Western Tale of Betrayal and Forgiveness,” Bev’s debut novel, is the culmination of her long-held desire tell the family story and confirm the whispered story about her grandfather. For more information, visit