The Pathway to Gender Equity… The Need to Dismantle White Privilege

CC-BY-SA-NC Joe Piette

For the past 30 years, I have dedicated my life to creating a more equitable and just society. Throughout this time, I have worked with some of the most marginalized populations in our country: homeless adults with severe mental illness, men coming out of prison, women fleeing domestic violence situations, and children living in deep poverty. Each of these populations became a “cause” in my pursuit of justice. I worked with highly skilled and educated women and men who were dedicated to improving the lives of others. Together we designed and implemented new programs that educated and empowered those impacted by poverty by improving their knowledge, building their skill sets and strengthening their motivation. We forged partnerships, raised money, engaged thousands of volunteers. Our intentions were grand. Our efforts were strong. But our results were not what we expected or desired.

During these 30 years, our efforts did not lead to significant and long-term change. Many of the adults with mental illness remained on the streets because they were not able to access ongoing health care to manage their mental health problems. In spite of being highly motivated to start a new life, a majority of returning citizens recidivated because they were stuck in a system that routinely denied them access to stable housing and a job. Single mothers who worked 2–3 jobs continued to make decisions between feeding their children or buying them medicine for serious diseases such as diabetes and asthma due to a lack of health insurance. Many of these same women remained with abusive partners because their incomes did not allow them to be financially independent.

So what were we doing wrong? Why did our efforts contribute to so little change? Why did we ultimately fail at creating more equity?

Today, I am the Executive Director of WOMEN’S WAY, an organization dedicated to the advancement of women and girls, and gender equity at large. For the past 42 years, WOMEN’S WAY has worked to promote gender equity through investing in organizations and leaders that address our four core pillars: reproductive health and justice, safety and gender-based violence, economic security and leadership development. Some progress has been made with respect to advancing the rights of, and opportunities for, women and girls, but we are currently in a time when reproductive freedom is threatened, sexual violence is still too often hidden and equal pay for equal work remains an unfulfilled goal.

Since assuming this position, I have been diving deep into understanding what we mean by gender equity and how to achieve it. I focused my research on hearing voices that are too often silenced and engaged in honest and empathic conversations about the rift that exists between white women and women of color. I chose to read articles and books that talked about racism from the perspectives of white denial, white privilege and white fragility. So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin J. DiAngelo, and The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege by Ken Wytsma were especially influential in shifting my mindset. Through this process I learned a critical thing that has helped to explain my unanswered conundrums — “Why did our efforts contribute to so little change? Why are we not moving the needle to attain equity for all women?”

I learned that privilege and equity do not go together.

Equity is the fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. Improving equity involves increasing justice and fairness.

Equity as defined above requires us to examine and dismantle the “barriers” that prevent the full participation of certain groups. In order to dismantle the barriers, we must understand the institutional, historical and structural causes of inequities. Additionally, the different factors that equate to a person’s multiple identities -relating not only to gender, but also to race, ability, age, education, sexuality, class, ethnicity, religion and more — can impact one’s experience of discrimination. These various identities and factors intersect and intertwine, which means gender equity cannot be achieved without all forms of equity. This is what Kimberle Crenshaw meant when she coined the term, “intersectionality,” specifically in regard to the experiences of black women. And we can never achieve gender equity if we do not create more equitable systems and policies.

For example, if we want to eliminate the gender wealth gap that is 10 times greater for women of color than for white women, we must address the historically racist zoning laws that segregated towns and cities with sizeable populations of people of color after World War II. These exclusionary zoning practices evolved from city ordinances to redlining by the Federal Housing Administration that wouldn’t back loans to black people (or those who lived close to black people) to more insidious techniques written into building codes. The result: women of color weren’t allowed to raise their children and invest their money in neighborhoods with “high home values.” This inequitable practice denied many women of color the ability to build and transfer to their children one of the most common assets in our country — home ownership. This one law that is grounded in racism helped to start and sustain intergenerational poverty among families of color.

Historically, women of color have been left out of union jobs, which have been pathways for many white men and women to enter the middle class and sustain a liveable wage for themselves and their families. In addition, the US has traditionally excluded both women and people of color in collective workplace action, making women of color less likely to have a job where the workers hold any negotiating power. These are all practices and policies of a capitalistic system that intentionally denies people of color, and especially women of color, equitable access to wealth-building assets.

If we are to achieve gender equity, we must dismantle all forms of oppression and supremacy. It is not enough to only dismantle male supremacy. We must also address racism and in order to address racism, we must address privilege, specifically white privilege. And to address white privilege, we first must understand white privilege.

Many people define white privilege by what it is not. It is not the suggestion that white people have never struggled. White privilege is not the assumption that everything a white person has accomplished is unearned; most white people who have reached a high level of success worked extremely hard to get there. Instead, white privilege should be viewed as a built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort. Francis E. Kendall, author of Diversity In the Classroom and Understanding White Privilege: Creating pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race, defines white privilege as “having greater access to power and resources than people of color (in the same situation) do.”

White privilege is both structural and psychological –a subconscious advantage perpetuated by white people’s lack of awareness that they hold this power. It is both on the surface and deeply embedded into American Life. For example, in stores, the first aid kit has flesh-colored band-aids that only match the skin tone of white people. The products white people need for their hair is in the aisle labeled “hair care” rather than in the smaller, separate section of “ethnic hair products.” These privileges are symbolic of what we call “the power of normal.”

In Cory Collins’ article, What is White Privilege, Really? he states that white privilege is also the “power of the benefit of the doubt. White people are more likely to be treated as individuals, rather than as representatives of (or exceptions to) a stereotyped racial identity. White people are less likely to be followed, interrogated or searched by law enforcement because they look “suspicious.” White people’s skin tone will not be a reason people hesitate to trust their credit or financial responsibility. In other words, they are more often humanized and granted the benefit of the doubt. The “power of normal” and the “power of the benefit of the doubt” are not just subconscious remnants of historical discrimination. They are purposeful results of racism, and they allow for the continuous re-creation of inequality.

Working through the lens of white privilege shapes our decisions on what is important, how to address social programs and what we should measure. In Sally Lederman’s article, Doing Evaluation Differently, she explains,“White privilege and access to power influences the questions we choose to ask, the information we trust, which findings we decide are important or unimportant, and how we make meaning out of results.” For example, evaluation tends to measure goals rather than the elimination of white privilege. Programs and services predominantly focus on promoting individual changes- change in knowledge, change in skills and change in motivation. While these are important to empowering individuals to achieve a better life, they do not address the core structural causes of the gross inequities that women and primarily women of color are facing every day.

So where do we go from here?

As the executive director of an organization committed to the advancement of all women, I must live what I want to achieve — the equal and fair treatment of all women. This requires that I work harder and go deeper with examining and understanding my own privilege. Have I always had good mental health? Did I grow up middle class? Am I white? Am I non disabled? Am I healthy? Am I straight? Am I a documented citizen in our country? Do I have stable housing? The answers to all of these questions, is yes. I must practice identifying the advantages I have that others may not.

Once I gain a deeper understanding of my own privilege and how it impacts my thinking and approaches at work, home and in different communities, then I must take active steps to dismantle it. In Ijeoma Oluo’s book, So You Want To Talk About Race, she states, “when we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression, we’ll find our opportunities to make real change.”

At WOMEN’S WAY I am using my privilege to lead the Women’s Economic Security Initiative, a systems-level collaborative effort to improve the economic security of all women and their families in the Philadelphia region. Central to our work is operationalizing equity — the process by which we embed equity into the daily practices of our collective work. This means including women with the lived experience of economic insecurity at the table as equals and co-creators of strategies and solutions for the issues that directly impact their economic well-being. This means redefining who the experts are in the room from people with white privilege to women with lived experience. This means taking more time to listen to those experts so I can learn more about the structural and racist barriers these women face every day to achieve economic well-being. This means continually examining my own biases and assumptions and how they influence the way I communicate with those in more vulnerable situations. This means scheduling meetings at times when working women can attend. This means providing honorariums for women with lived experience when they present at meetings and conferences. This means giving up some of my own power and making sure that power is equitably distributed and shared. This means dismantling my white privilege.

A Call to Action

The possibilities of where each of us can leverage our privilege to make real measurable change toward a better and more equitable world are endless. Join me in the fight to dismantle white privilege and create more equity in our homes, workplaces, and communities.

Educate

There are many great books and articles that will deepen your understanding of white privilege and how to dismantle it. Below are some articles and books that have been useful resources to me.

  • Cory Collins’ article, What is White Privilege, Really?
  • Sally Lederman’s article, Doing Evaluation Differently
  • Ijeoma Oluo’s book, So You Want To Talk About Race?
  • Francis E. Kendall’s book, Diversity In the Classroom and Understanding White Privilege: Creating pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race
  • Robin J. DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism
  • Ken Wytsma’s book, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege

Donate

Donate to organizations who are working on the ground and are taking an intersectional approach to advancing gender equity in the region. Part of being white means we are more likely to have accumulated wealth over generations, or even through the everyday benefits of white privilege. Below are a few organizations in the Philadelphia region that WOMEN’S WAY partners with and recommends supporting.

Speak Up

Use your voice to acknowledge and point out when white privilege is being used to advance the interests and needs of white individuals over the interests and needs of people of color. Ask candidates running for public office and those currently in public office how they will and how they are currently addressing the gross racial and gender disparities in our region and country. In your workplace, ask HR if their hiring, retention and promotion practices are promoting equity. Share your visions for creating safe, healthy and sustainable communities for all people.