I am a beneficiary of systemic racism.
In fact, if the system wasn’t racist, I would have had a very different one to the life I’ve had.
My father grew up during the Great Depression. He was the only child of a single mother, his father having walked out when he was a small child. My father and grandmother were poor.
I mean, dirt poor.
So, when my father turned 15, he left school to help bring some money into the household. He was already a tall, strapping boy so he got work in laboring jobs like delivering huge blocks of ice to people’s ice chests before the advent of refrigerators.
The war in the Pacific was raging on Australia’s doorstep and every young man was hankering for adventure. Against my grandmother’s wishes and without her permission, my 17-year-old father enlisted and was deployed for basic training. However, his army career was to be shortlived. In a horrible accident at a training base in Queensland, my father sustained terrible injuries. His right arm was amputated and he was in a convalescent hospital for months before being discharged into his mother’s care.
All that to say, my father ended up right back where he was — a poor, unskilled teenager, but now with only one arm.
But these were the 1940s and Australia was grateful for the service of our armed forces, including young men who didn’t get through basic training. He was supplied with a bridging pension until he got back on his feet. He was given a medical gold card, which meant all his healthcare was supplied free of charge. For life! The Australian government also paid all for university tuition, and provided no-deposit, low-interest housing loans.
My father was elevated from being an unskilled working class laborer right into the middle class almost overnight.
He got a clerical job in a shipping firm and began working his way up the ladder, eventually becoming part of the management team. He married, had kids (including me), and bought a house in a nice beachside neighborhood. Later, he put an extension on his house and had a pool installed.
He sent me to a good school, from which I went to university, and onto a white collar career. I’m a middle class white man because I was born into privilege and opportunity.
I tell you all this because, black Australians were not afforded these same privileges. Poor black kids who enlisted at the same time as my father did not receive the same loans, benefits, or tuition that he did. If my father had been a black, unskilled laborer from a single parent houseld in a hardscrabble neighborhood, that’s exactly the situation he would have returned to. He might have remained poor. He might have rented for the rest of his life.
And I would have had a very different life.
In other words, the system was rigged in my favor because of the color of my father’s skin.
But it wasn’t only the oversight of black ex-servicemen that makes our system racist. The Australian government has enacted overtly racist policies, including the White Australia policy and The Stolen Generations. And the ridiculously high rates of Aboriginal deaths in police custody and incarceration rates of Aboriginal young people demonstrate how institutionalised racism can have long-lasting effects.
Furthermore, racism is also baked into housing, education, employment and healthcare systems.
For example, the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people from black and ethnic minority (BAME) backgrounds has revealed how much societal inequalities affect vulnerability to disease. Black Americans have been dying at about 2.4 times the rate of white Americans.
Black people are more likely than white people to die from cancer. They are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, diabetes, and depression. Black children report higher levels of stress. Black mothers are more likely to die in childbirth.
My own experience of white privilege, and my father’s opportunity to vault into the middle class after the war, has led me to often refer to our society as a broken system. But that phrase assumes the system is basically okay, it just got broken at some point and needs repair. Then I saw this sign during the George Floyd demonstrations in the US in 2020:
It was built this way?
My privilege wasn’t the quirk of a racist post-war policy of benefits. It was guaranteed from the beginning.
I live on stolen land. Our economy was secured by the soil taken from the original custodians of this continent.
I benefit from a system that was designed to elevate people like me.
Yes, it was built this way.
Racism isn’t just the internalized beliefs and feelings of individuals who fear or hate people of color. And it isn’t only acts of discrimination, violence and bigotry directed at people of color by those individuals. Racism also operates at an institutional level, in discriminatory policies and practices within organizations and institutions. And in turn, institutional racism can foster ongoing racial inequalities mainained by society at large. That’s systemic racism.
So what are privileged white people to do about systemic racism? Here are a few suggestions. I’d welcome your thoughts on this in the comments section below.
1. Check your privilege.
Learning to recognize and understand your own privilege isn’t easy. We swim in a rigged system like fish do in water. It can be difficult for us to try to step outside our world to see how we’ve benefited from a racist system. We need to do the work of learning to understand how racial privilege plays out across social, political, economic, and cultural environments. Using our privileges to empower others requires first being aware of those privileges and acknowledging their implications.
This includes examining your own biases and thinking about where they may have originated. Examining our own biases can help us work to ensure equality for all. Here is a racism scale to see where you might fall:
Also, try to read about the history of oppressed peoples in your nation. Personally, I have found books like John Harris’ One Blood and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu invaluable resources for understanding racism in Australia. And every Aussie should watch the documentary series First Australians.
2. Validate the experiences and feelings of people of color.
Another way to address bias and recognize privilege is to challenge the “color-blind” ideology. When white privileged people like me say we don’t see color it might be intended to suggest we see all people the same, as equal. You’ll hear white people say they want a color-blind society, and then we quote the words of Martin Luther King about a society that judges people not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. But color-blindness totally invalidates the experiences and feelings of people of color who live with racism and discrimation every day. And quoting Dr King to support color-blindness is a misappropriation of his words.
When Dr King described his hope for living in a colorblind world, he did not mean that we should ignore race. In fact, it is impossible to eliminate racism without first acknowledging race.
3. Find out what your organization is doing to combat racism.
It’s called systemic racism because the system has in-built barriers — including wealth disparities, criminal justice bias, and education and housing discrimination – that stack the deck against people of color in the workplace or at school.
Schools, universities, government departments and some businesses are working to evaluate what foundational changes are necessary to address systemic inequities and barriers to inclusion in their systems. This could include things like training on allyship to equip employees to be more effective at calling attention to bias in the workplace. Related to that is unconscious bias training to help give people the skills for reducing the role of bias in their everyday decisions and interactions.
Make sure your organization is creating opportunities for people of color and doing everything it can to create a more equitable system.
4. Take a stand with your wallet.
Use your finances to promote change. Donate to causes and organizations that support those who suffer from systemic racism. Find out about the practices of the companies you invest in and the charities that you donate to. Make an effort to shop at small, local businesses and give your money back to the people living in the community. Try to find a directory of local, minority-owned businesses in your area.
5. Listen to and pray with people of color.
Every year on January 26, Australians celebrate their national day. It’s like our 4th of July. But the date for our celebration wasn’t chosen because we became an independent nation on January 26. That was the date the British colonizing force known as the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbor. For this reason, Indigenous Australian peoples have called January 26 “invasion day” and have called for the date of our national day to be changed.
I’m in sympathy with those calls and would be happy if we changed the date.
At the same time, one Aboriginal leader, Aunty Jean Phillips started hosting prayer meetings across the country every January using the hashtag #ChangeTheHeart
According to Aunty Jean, the only way to challenge systemic racism is to change the hearts of privileged white Australians. Every January in the lead up to Australia Day, she invites us to attend her prayer meetings in halls, schools and churches across the country, to be led by Aboriginal men and women praying for our hearts and minds to be renewed.
Aunty Jean is an elderly woman, but she travels the length and breadth of our huge country to lead these meetings, supported by another extraordinary Aboriginal leader, Brooke Prentis, the CEO of Common Grace. This year, Aunty Jean has gone digital! The Change the Heart prayer service will be simulcast on tv, online, and on radio on the evening of Monday, 25 January 2021. Follow the link to join us.