I’ve been playing the game of life in easy-mode.

Let’s talk about White privilege.

Matteo Menapace
Jul 30 · 19 min read

Denial

“You know why I think White people started to notice our pain?” a Black friend asked me at the beginning of June.

“Yes, the videos of police brutality and the protests, but also this: during lockdown, many of you started to feel unsafe in what used to be normal just a few months ago. Walking down the street felt unsafe. Going into a shop, perhaps for the first time in your life, you noticed being looked at with suspicion, as if you carried something dangerous inside you. Maybe subconsciously, you started to feel what it’s like to be a person of colour in a racist society.”

A long pause.

“But this is where the analogy ends. Now imagine there were no viral pandemic, yet this invisible threat remained and underlined every action in your life. Something you are told doesn’t even exist.

This is how our lives actually are: everyday and in every situation we can expect to receive that same suspicion or judgement, to feel constantly unsafe and, when brave enough to admit it, to be told you’re making it up. To be told that you should stop being paranoid and be grateful instead.

Like the virus, like pollution. Because people can’t see it in plain sight, they can be in complete denial that it is there. But it doesn’t matter. It is there. And it is killing us all the same.”

I’ve been in denial about racism for most of my life.

Denying a problem exists so that you don’t have to even think about it, let alone think about tackling it.

.

This is for you

I want to share what I have learned about racism over the last two months, about my racism, my complicity with a racist society. I’m going to unpack the convenient beliefs I used to hold until recently. I’m going to share how my thinking changed, who and what has been helping me in this process.

If you’re White, I am hoping this can help you come to terms with your own White privilege, start appreciating how it intersects with other forms of privilege you may (or may not) benefit from, look at your own blind spots, and realise racism is our problem too, and that we’ve got work to do.

I’m new to this, so I can only share my first few steps in what is going to be a lifelong commitment to antiracism.

Let’s start with a question.

Imagine being called out for doing something racist. Would you respond with denial?

If you asked me a couple of months ago, I would have said something along these lines:

“Our genetic code is 99.9% the same, which means we’re practically equal, which means racism makes no sense.”

I have learned the colour of my skin doesn’t matter, so I assumed it didn’t matter for anyone else. I never experienced racial discrimination, so I assumed racism was not my problem. I convinced myself I was not racist because I never hated people of colour, nor intended to discriminate against anyone.

So if someone accused me of saying or doing something racist, I thought it could only be a misunderstanding.

“I am not racist”

I used denial to absolve myself. And I was so wrong.

As a White person, I found the book a useful starting point in the work of deconstructing my racist denial.

Let me be clear, understanding our denial and defensiveness around racism (aka our White fragility) is only preliminary work. A couple of years ago, a colleague recommended . I dropped it after a few chapters, because at the time I found it “too much”. Had I read White Fragility first, maybe I would have understood my initial reaction to Me and White Supremacy was indeed a sign of White fragility, and I would have continued the work. This is why I’m suggesting White Fragility as .

Start by redefining racism

I used to think a racist is a bad individual who intentionally discriminates against other people because of their skin colour.

  1. A racist has bad intentions. I have good intentions, so I’m not racist.
  2. A racist acts on their bad intentions. Even if I had, I wouldn’t act on them, so I’m not racist.
  3. Bad actions make the racist a bad person. I’m not racist, so I am a good person.

White Fragility’s author Robin DiAngelo calls it the good/bad binary.

Within this paradigm, to suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow — a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character, and that is where all my energy will go — to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior. In this way, the good/bad binary makes it nearly impossible to talk to White people about racism, what it is, how it shapes all of us, and the inevitable ways that we are conditioned to participate in it. If we cannot discuss these dynamics or see ourselves within them, we cannot stop participating in racism.

So what is racism?

This is how Ibram X. Kendi defines it in , the book I read right after White Fragility.

Racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas.

A racist idea is any idea that suggests one racial group is inferior or superior to another racial group in any way.

Racial inequity is when two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing.

Policies are written and unwritten laws, rules, procedures, processes, regulations, and guidelines that govern people. A racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial inequity between racial groups.

Racism is institutional, structural, and systemic.

Racism is way deeper than the immoral choices of prejudiced individuals.

Racism is a system of discrimination backed by racist ideas and racist policies. A system that privileges White people as a group, and discriminates against everyone else.

Reframing racism as a system has been liberating, I have to admit. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it was this step which allowed me to start seeing myself as part of this system, and investigate my own responsibility.

It’s so easy and so convenient for self-identified good White progressives like you and I to point fingers at blatant racists like Trump or Salvini, while feeling exempt from learning about our complicity in propping up a racist system, and from doing the work of becoming actively antiracist.

What’s the problem with being not racist? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: “I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.” But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of racist isn’t not racist. It is antiracist.
Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be an Antiracist

I would have stayed in that comfortable space of self-absolving “neutrality” and ignorance if it wasn’t for my partner Aimee, who grew up multiracial in racist England. She convinced me it was time I started going beyond the empty gestures of performative solidarity, beyond the black squares on Instagram, beyond the general terms, and started unraveling my own past.

Scan for racist ideas

I grew up in a village in the Italian Alps. Bianco che più bianco non si può.

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When I was a toddler, I sang nursery rhymes about the dangerous uomo nero, literally the black man. I’ve been told to finish my meal because “kids in Biafra are starving”. Years later, I’ve looked in vain for in all the atlases I could get hold of.

My primary school teacher taught us “the sun in Africa is so strong it makes Black people lazy”. All he taught us about Italian colonialism is that we were and still are brava gente (good people) and our grandparents’ generation “built roads and schools in Ethiopia”.

“We shouldn’t have followed those crazy Germans, it was all their fault” my nonno told me.

I’ve learned that white is clean and brown is dirty.

I’ve been told Black girls are easier, I was bombarded by images of “Black Venuses”, sexualised bodies that I should desire but not befriend. “Don’t sit next to that Moroccan girl” said my classmate on the bus home from secondary school.

All of my teachers were White. All my role models were White. I never encountered a person of colour in a position of authority, until I moved to London when I was 22.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Of course I internalised White supremacy. Of course I was (and still am) soaked in racist ideas, even if I was sure I “treat everyone equally, no matter their skin colour”.

Are you ready to turn your scanner inwards and dig out your racist ideas?

Racist ideas are likely the first encounter with racism for us White people. Identifying and uprooting those ideas is the foundation of our personal antiracist work.

However, racist ideas are not the source of racism. They are a tool for racist power to justify the racist policies that produce racial inequity.

The history of racist ideas is the history of powerful policymakers erecting racist policies out of self-interest, then producing racist ideas to defend and rationalize the inequitable effects of their policies, while everyday people consume those racist ideas, which in turn sparks ignorance and hate.
Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be an Antiracist

Self-reflection and education can therefore only be our first step.

As we start unpacking our racist ideas, it’s crucial to consider how racial inequity benefits us. Racism works for us White people, so we have a strong (and well hidden) self-interest not to see the system as broken, and as the saying goes “if it ain’t broken…”

Take a walk on the White side of racial inequity

Instead of the typical focus on how racism hurts people of colour, to examine whiteness is to focus on how racism elevates White people.
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

The word privilege might be triggering for you, as it used to be for me.

I used to think that whatever I define as success is the result of my intelligence and my dedication. I learned that from my parents, and they learned that from our ancestors. In Trentino, we have such pride in being hard workers and earning everything we have. I learned to feel entitled to and deserving of my advantage. And I learned not to see it.

Then Aimee asked me to consider what role my being White might have played in the following examples, based on her personal experience.

Individuality

☑️ Have you ever been mistaken for someone else, because “you all look the same”?

No. I’ve always been considered a unique human being.

A significant aspect of white identity is to see oneself as an individual, outside or innocent of race — “just human.” This standpoint views white people and their interests as central to and representative of humanity.
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

Superiority

☑️ Have you ever been mistaken for the shop assistant?

No. I have never been made to feel like I should serve anyone. I also learned I don’t need to extend openness to other cultures or belief systems, because “mine is the most advanced”.

Normality

☑️ Do people point out your otherness?

No. Nobody ever told me “You’re so White” (either as a compliment or as an insult) because White is considered the norm, the standard for human, and people of colour as a deviation from that norm.

The White perspective is considered neutral and objective, even though that is clearly not the case. For instance, the history I studied at school was White history, written by White people to reinforce White supremacy and selectively omit crimes against people of colour.

Belonging

☑️ Are you often asked where are you really from?

No. I rarely felt like I don’t belong racially, that I’m not welcome because I’m White. In fact, I never had to think about it.

If I were to single out the most persistent reminder of that sense of not belonging, it would be The Question. The Question is: where are you from? Although I have lived in five different countries as an adult, nowhere have I been asked The Question more than right here where I started, where I am from, in Britain. […] But being asked where you’re from in your own country is a daily ritual of unsettling. […] The Question is reserved for people who look different, and, thanks to it, someone who looks like me is told that they are different, and asked for an explanation, every single day, often multiple times.

Safety (state-sanctioned)

☑️ Have you ever been stopped by the police, asking you if the car you’re driving is yours?

No. The very few times I interacted with law enforcement, I’ve been treated with deference. The White officers were almost apologetic in letting me know I had been stopped for a random check, and they would let me go after a couple of minutes. Nobody ever questioned my property.

Safety (physical)

☑️ Do you often worry for your safety when you walk around in your neighbourhood?

No. Whether it’s the village where I grew up (I could safely walk to school from age 5) or the metropolis where I live, my default feeling is safety. I never felt like my presence in any space was perceived as threatening by anyone. Imagine what this feeling does to your mental health.

Safety (mental)

☑️ Have you ever been gaslighted when something terrible happens to you or your family? Have you ever being told it didn’t happen, or you overreacted?

No. I grew up feeling that my peers and adults would believe me, as well as believing in me. I have been taught it’s good for me to express my opinions, and when I do so people will listen. I’ve also learned I rarely need to qualify my opinions, and rather state them as facts.

Trust

☑️ Have you ever had to deal with strangers taking an instant dislike to you and not knowing what you did wrong?

No. I’ve always being surrounded by a community that assumes I am trustworthy and innocent by default. I’ve been aware of this from a very early age. I remember being trusted by my kindergarten teachers, even when I made things up. I never considered someone might dislike me because I’m White.

“Think about the impact of this mistrust” said Aimee. “If I meet another child in the playground who doesn’t like me because I’m Brown, that can be painful. If I meet a friend of a friend who doesn’t like me, that can sting too. If I meet the same person in a job interview, now my ability to get employed, pay my bills and build wealth is compromised. If that person were to deal with my passport application at the Home Office, my freedom of movement will be compromised. And because this kind of discrimination is covert and not easily proved, people of colour are being constantly gaslit and told they just don’t work hard enough.”

Capability

☑️ Have you ever felt you have to work harder than your peers, in order to prove your are just as capable?

No. I have learned that as long as I work hard, anything is achievable and within my reach. I have been trained to focus only on my merits as the reasons for my achievements, and so I believed that “anyone can succeed if they work hard” and bought into the myth we operate in a meritocratic society. I remember several teachers telling me and my parents that I had “so much potential”, and even when they were scolding teenager-me for causing trouble they would still remind me I was “not making the most of that potential”.

What impact has that seemingly unlimited personal credit had on my self-esteem? And what impact does the lack of this “assumption of capability” have on people of colour, who are degraded and humiliated, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, from an early age?

Solidarity

☑️ Have you ever felt betrayed by a friend who didn’t stand up for you when someone told a racist “joke”?

No. I have never felt I’m the butt of a racist joke. I have never felt my racial identity was used as a negative term of comparison. Instead, I have kept quiet and smiled along several times, for fear of making other (White) people uncomfortable, or being considered a guastafeste (party pooper).

Freedom (of movement)

☑️ Have you ever been denied the freedom to move in and out of the country? Also, have you ever been followed or harassed while shopping?

No. I can move freely, both long-distance and in my everyday life.

I am free to move in virtually any space seen as normal, neutral, or valuable. All places I perceive as beautiful are open to me racially, and my expectation is that I will have a pleasant and relaxing experience there.
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

Freedom (from responsibility)

☑️ Have you ever been told it was your responsibility to educate others about their racist ideas or behaviours?

No. I was never told it was my fault if someone expressed anti-Italian prejudice, and my responsibility to educate them.

As I move through my day, racism just isn’t my problem. While I am aware that race has been used unfairly against people of color, I haven’t been taught to see this problem as any responsibility of mine; as long as I personally haven’t done anything I am aware of, racism is a nonissue. This freedom from responsibility gives me a level of racial relaxation and emotional and intellectual space that people of color are not afforded as they move through their day.
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

Access

☑️ Have you ever considered changing your name, so that you can guarantee your CV will be looked at by White employers?

No. Quite the contrary. My name has always sparked curiosity from potential employers. In the rare occasions when my racial identity comes up, my difference is framed as a national identity and it is talked about with admiration, as if I somehow inherited the spirit of Leonardo, Michelangelo and all those Italian geniuses. Nobody ever held me accountable for, say, inventing Fascism or the mafia.

As I consider career choices I will have countless role models across a vast array of fields. When I apply for a job, virtually anyone in a position to hire me will share my race. Once hired, I won’t have to deal with my coworkers’ resentment that I only got the job because I am white; I am assumed to be the most qualified. With race as a nonissue, I can focus on my work and productivity and be seen as a team player. This is yet another example of the concept of whiteness as property: whiteness has psychological advantages that translate into material returns.
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

What other material returns has your whiteness afforded you?

Representation

☑️ Do you often struggle finding people that look like you in films, novels, history? What about your teachers and classmates?

No. I’ve always been surrounded by people that racially look like me. Not just IRL. Practically all the stories I’ve listened to, watched or read where about people who would racially classify as the same as me. Both fiction and non-fiction. Wherever I looked for inspiration, there were plenty of White boys/men like me.

Innocence

☑️ Are people who look like you often represented as villains, criminals, or the reason why this country is in some crisis? Have you ever felt fear bubble up when a mistake has been made because you know you’re likely to be blamed, and that everyone around you is going to assume you’re guilty?

No. Whenever a White person is arrested, they are granted the benefit of the doubt, innocent until proven otherwise. When a person of colour is arrested, their whole racial group is perceived as dangerous by White people. In reality, every time a person of colour is arrested and the news mention their racial identity, their whole racial group is in danger.

Did you answer “no” to most of these questions? That’s part of your White privilege.

What I’m starting to understand as White privilege is a powerful combination of advantages I have as a result of my racial status as a White person.

I call it a privilege because so many other people are not afforded what I take for granted, what I was trained not to see. In other words, privilege is unfair advantage.

When somebody asks you to “check your privilege” they are asking you to pause and consider how the advantages you’ve had in life are contributing to your opinions and actions, and how the lack of disadvantages in certain areas is keeping you from fully understanding the struggles others are facing and may in fact be contributing to those struggles.
Ijeoma Oluo,

White privilege is not just a matter of perceptions. Unchecked White privilege prevents people of colour from (among others) building wealth, accessing financial credit, getting jobs and being promoted.

It wasn’t your choice to be born White. But it is your daily choice to either maintain or challenge White privilege.

If I don’t challenge that, if I just accept the unearned compliment (and the better grade, the job offer, the access to more financially successful areas of society) with a smile and don’t ask why it was given to me or why it’s not also given to my darker-skinned counterparts — I’m benefitting from privilege and helping perpetuate it further.
Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race

“But life is hard, even if I’m White”

Talking about racism doesn’t erase your struggles. You can be privileged in some areas of life, and at the same time underprivileged in others.

Stating that Black lives matter doesn’t insinuate that other lives don’t. Of course all lives matter. That doesn’t even need to be said. But the fact that White people get so upset about the term Black Lives Matter is proof that nothing can center the wellbeing and livelihoods of Black bodies without White people assuming it is to their demise.

If you answered “yes” to some of the ☑️ questions above and/or feel resistance towards the idea that you have benefitted from White privilege, I would encourage you to . As a White woman who grew up in poverty, she acknowledges the impacts of classism and sexism, and deconstructs at the same time the privileges afforded to her by her whiteness.

Sit down and think about the advantages you’ve had in life. Have you always had good mental health? Did you grow up middle class? Are you white? Are you male? Are you nondisabled? Are you neuro-typical? Are you a documented citizen of the country you live in? Did you grow up in a stable home environment? Do you have stable housing? Do you have reliable transportation? Are you cisgender? Are you straight? Are you thin, tall, or conventionally attractive? Take some time to really dig deep through all of the advantages that you have that others may not.
Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race

I’m a White, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual man with no disabilities or mental illness. I grew up with both parents, who had stable jobs, surrounded by a supporting family and community. Nurtured with home-grown food, I never struggled finding clothes that fit my body. I am well-versed in the language imposed by the largest colonisers on the whole World, which I can travel freely with my passport.

I thought I was pretty good at “playing the game of life” and I didn’t realise I’ve been on the easiest level.

Imagine playing a game of Monopoly in which you play on behalf of your opponent for 400 rounds.

Acknowledging our White privilege is not easy, and there’s a risk our discomfort turns into guilt and shame. I shut Me and White Supremacy and walked away when it challenged me to reflect on my privilege. But prioritising our comfort is a form of privilege too. People of colour can’t switch off from racism.

I’m not here to make you feel bad about your White privilege. Guilt and shame can lead to apathy, which is both useless and dangerous. Instead, I would like you to think about how we can turn our privilege into a tool to dismantle racism.

Every day you are given opportunities to make the world better, by making yourself a little uncomfortable and asking “Who doesn’t have this same freedom or opportunity that I’m enjoying now?” These daily interactions are how systems of oppression are maintained, but with awareness, they can be how we tear those systems down.
Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race

Use your privilege to change the rules of the game

So far I talked about racist ideas and racial inequity from my privileged perspective. If we want to dismantle racism, we have to tackle racist policies.

Reading How To Be an Antiracist helped me understand that changing people’s attitudes is not the priority. As a game designer, I know that if I want people to behave differently, I won’t get anywhere by trying to convince them that Chess is not a competitive game, for example, or by asking them to be nice to each other. I have to change the rules of the game they are playing.

Ibram X. Kendi uses a powerful analogy.

Treating ignorance and hate and expecting racism to shrink [is] like treating a cancer patient’s symptoms and expecting the tumors to shrink. The body politic might feel better momentarily from the treatment — from trying to eradicate hate and ignorance — but as long as the underlying cause remains, the tumors grow, the symptoms return, and inequities spread like cancer cells, threatening the life of the body politic.

If racism is like a cancer consuming our society, racist ideas are its symptoms. Its cause are racist policies.

Saturate the body politic with the chemotherapy or immuno-therapy of antiracist policies that shrink the tumors of racial inequities, that kill undetectable cancer cells. Remove any remaining racist policies, the way surgeons remove the tumors. Ensure there are clear margins, meaning no cancer cells of inequity left in the body politic, only the healthy cells of equity. Encourage the consumption of healthy foods for thought and the regular exercising of antiracist ideas, to reduce the likelihood of a recurrence. Monitor the body politic closely, especially where the tumors of racial inequity previously existed. Detect and treat a recurrence early, before it can grow and threaten the body politic.

How can I use my networks, my platforms, my resources to treat the cancer of racism?

Start now

This is just the beginning. I am in the process of learning about racism and my own complicity within a racist society. . But books and podcasts () are my safe space. Yes, we need to read and educate ourselves, but most importantly we must turn our learning into action. We must be willing to be uncomfortable and raise up people of colour.

In this process, I know I will make mistakes, but I also know wilful ignorance is no longer an excuse for inaction. To paraphrase , I will strive to do the best I can until I’ll know better. Then, I’ll do better.

Where are you?

  • What racist ideas have you absorbed?
  • What emotional and material returns has your White privilege afforded you?
  • How could you use your privilege to dismantle racist policies? In your family, organisations, communities, country…

One last thing

Conversations about race are complex. This doesn’t mean we should shy away from them.

But please do not ask for pats on the back from your friends of colour. Don’t expect emotional labour from them. Read and/or and then talk to other White people.

And of course, you can talk to me. If this post sparked ideas or questions, I would love to hear from you. You can leave a response here, or email me at m@tteo.me

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