“The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly.” (Isabel Wilkerson, Caste)
These are discouraging times, yet also illuminating. While the Black Lives Matter movement has brought hope and determination over this last year, it also brings awareness of how very far we are from achieving equality. And the anti-Asian sentiment that became more evident in response to COVID and climaxed in the horrific shooting in Atlanta last month shows us that hate is an equal-opportunity employer. As more of us act to counter the inequities surrounding race, ethnicity, and gender, the backlash by those intent on preserving the status quo becomes more malicious.
I am a white, middle-class, cisgender female. I recognize my privilege and know I will never fully understand what it feels like to be a minority or a member of a marginalized community. Perhaps it is that recognition that makes me eager for the day when whites join our sisters and brothers of color as minorities in America. It can’t come soon enough.
The U.S. Census Bureau has projected that by the year 2044, non-Hispanic white Americans will join all other ethnic groups as minorities. The Bureau states that, “no group will have a majority share of the total and the United States will become a ‘plurality’ of racial and ethnic groups.” In a few states—California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, plus the District of Columbia—this plurality already exists. Georgia and Maryland will soon follow, and many other states will be without a majority population in the next five to fifteen years. I don’t understand why this is so troubling to many white people, but clearly it is.
A few years ago, I was having coffee with several women. All were over fifty, white, well-educated, suburban, and privileged by just about any standards. Our conversation ranged across the usual: family, food, books, politics, aging…. Someone mentioned the Census Bureau projection that before mid-century, Caucasians would be a minority in America. This aroused considerable alarm and generated further conversations about borders, birth rates, and quotas. My comment, “So what?” was dismissed, undoubtedly viewed as flippant.
I tried to listen for what I was missing, but all I heard was fear and a sense of entitlement that puzzled me. These were smart women, kind women, women who would take offense at any suggestion that they were prejudiced. But they were. Of course, they were. In her extraordinary book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson refers to this sort of prejudice as “dominant group status threat.” It may not be the usual prejudice or stereotyping; instead, it reflects the vulnerability one feels regarding their own advantages and position in the hierarchy.
I’ve thought back to that conversation a lot, and my response is still, “So what?” (and—more and more—an impatient, “Get over it, sister.”)
Why shouldn’t whites be a minority in America? No historic right was ever conferred on Caucasians decreeing that we have claim to the majority. Why does it even matter? If all people are equal, then whether any of us has majority or minority status shouldn’t matter.
And that gets to the heart of the problem. As long as one segment of the population believes it has an inherent right to be in the majority, we are not equal. Even if we speak up for immigrants’ rights, even if we support Black Lives Matter, even if we brandish our liberal credentials, if we are in any way resistant to the idea of becoming a minority ourselves, we have some work to do. Because, whether we admit it or not—whether we even realize it—we must be viewing minorities as “less than,” and minority status as undesirable. As long as we are unwilling to become a minority ourselves, we carry an implicit bias that we are somehow better, and deserving of privilege. Instead of denying it, let’s acknowledge it and work to put that bias behind us.
Those who are troubled by the notion of becoming a minority need to examine their beliefs. There will, of course, be those for whom racial prejudice and entrenched white entitlement will continue to hold sway. Those people may never change, and their resistance to the progression of American values will continue to place them on the wrong side of history. For many others—most, I hope—it’s just a matter of examining beliefs, acknowledging privilege, listening to the stories of others, and being willing to see from a new perspective. We’re not losing anything by joining our brothers and sisters of color as minorities in America. We’re gaining something precious: we’re moving closer to making the American Dream a reality.
In her book, Wilkerson raises another provocative question: “if people were given the choice between democracy and whiteness, how many would choose whiteness?” Recent actions in some state legislatures have provided a troubling answer.
Unless white Americans are unreservedly willing to become a minority in this country that we share with so many other minorities, our talk of equality, equal justice, and equal opportunity is hollow. Our reluctance to relinquish majority status attests that we fear the same discrimination we have practiced for centuries, and that we assume an undeserved privilege granted by the color of our skin.
Instead of wringing our hands, let’s join hands and celebrate becoming a nation of minorities united in a common vision.
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” (James Baldwin)