What Selma Taught This Southern Boy about the Mind of White Privilege

Over the weekend, I went on a date with my girlfriend to see the movie Selma. It was a powerful story about the struggle for equality that touched me in a surprising way, the movie revealed to me how white privilege effects our minds everyday.

Growing Up White in the South

I grew up in a nouveau riche suburb of Nashville, a place where any privilege I experienced felt only theoretical. Of the families I knew, our house the smallest, our cars the simplest, and our vacations the least extravagant.

To me privilege meant money and though my family wasn’t poor, we had less than the people I went to school with. There were certainly occasions where I spent time around those who had less and I knew that there was crushing poverty in the world, but that all felt very far away.

Like privilege, racism was something else that was merely a theoretical. My friends and I certainly made jokes that weren’t appropriate, but at the time we justified them by telling ourselves that we laughed only for shock value and not because we actually believed people of color were less intelligent, honest, or as good as us. But despite these examples of ignorance, I never considered myself part of the problem.

After all, I had never avoided hiring a person of color, stopped anyone for driving while black, or given someone a harsher sentence because of their race. And so, the idea of white privilege always seemed like someone else’s problem.

And thought I’ve became more aware and tolerant as an adult, white privilege wasn’t something I considered deeply, until this past weekend when I was sitting in the theater.

A Movie

There was something about watching the scenes of violence that struck me. It was like I was feeling the pain of it for the first time. And for the first time I didn’t just feel bad, I felt responsible.

I realized that a big part white privilege exists in my mind, because on most days, I don’t have to think about Selma or even about race. And while this may not seem like a big deal, I know from my work how much advantage a little bit of mental space actually offers.

Everyday I work with men and women who’ve struggled with same worries for years. I’ve seen them use mindfulness to put these worries aside. And I’ve seen how these small changes in headspace yield amazing results: their relationships improve, their work becomes more focused, and they smile more easily.

Not because they make more money, or find a better partner, but because their minds are free from the mental clutter that was holding them back.

The Mind of White Privilege

As I watched Selma, I realized how much mental space I’d never have to dedicate to the subject of race in America.

  • I’ll never have to worry about whether I’ll be pulled over because of the color of my skin.
  • I’ll never have to worry about whether I didn’t get a job because of my ethnic sounding name.
  • I’ll never have to think about whether or not I should have children, because of the problems they may have to face because of their race.
  • I’ll never have to think about these or a 1000 other things because I’m white.

Worst of all unless I go out of my way I’ll never have to think about how racism hurt people in the past. Or how it continues to hurt people today.

It’s true that I’ve never overtly consciously discriminated against anyone, but it’s still just as true that I’ve benefited from a system that oppressed and continues to oppress people of color to this very day.

And while I’m glad that scenes like those in the Selma are from the past. I feel sad that people of color still have to use the space between their ears to reflect on it’s consequences, while I muse over a new I-phone app.

A Challenge

So today on Martin Luther King’s birthday, I offer you this simple thought and challenge.

Take a few moments today and consider all the things you don’t have to think about because of the privilege you experience.

Then promise yourself to make awareness of this privilege part of your life in the future.

  • Promise yourself that you won’t just avoid the controversial because it’s difficult to solve or the suffering of others because it’s difficult to bear.
  • Promise yourself that you will do your best to notice, to acknowledge, and to feel the difficulties that we have around race.

Because change isn’t just about what you do with your body, change first and last is about what you do with your mind.


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