Posted on January 31, 2012

It Can Be Hard to See Racism If You’re White

Naomi Yaeger-Bischoff, Duluth News Tribune, January 27, 2012

I work very hard. My parents worked hard. Everything I have is because we all worked for it, right?

I was raised to believe that. And I do believe it. But about six years ago I saw a video that opened my eyes to the possibility there may be other ingredients to success.

It was after worship services at First United Methodist Church one Sunday. A bunch of us — all white, educated, and, I daresay, comfortable — watched a video. In it, people of all races stood in a line in the middle of a room. The leader of the group asked several questions, telling people to respond by moving forward or stepping back. She said step back if you had ever been followed around a store. Step forward if you expect to inherit at least a little money when your parents die. Step back if you’ve ever been denied housing because of your race. Step back if you worried that your hairstyle was too “ethnic” for an employer or if you’ve ever been stopped for driving your car in the wrong neighborhood.


As I watched the video, I realized that even though I have worked hard most of my life, I’ve never had to put up with problems like that. I’ve felt accepted no matter where I went, and if I didn’t, it wasn’t because of my race.

I realized that even though my father had literally put blood, sweat and tears into farming land in southwestern Minnesota, that had he been Native American or African American his parents probably wouldn’t have even owned land in the first place. And my life would have been much different.

I’ve never really felt that I had special privileges. I thought I just had what was fair. Life hasn’t always been easy for me. I’ve had a brush of life in poverty and other negative things to knock me down. While I was living in poverty, I thought I’d never dig myself out of the hole, but I did. And the truth is, if I had been born African American or Native American and worked just as hard as I have worked, I may not have had the same opportunities to do so. This is white privilege.

On Tuesday, I attended a press conference in the Mayor’s Reception Room at Duluth City Hall for the announcement of the Unfair Campaign. Some 15 organizations have come together to show that it’s hard to see racism when you are white and that people of color in Duluth experience incidents of racism every day.


I took my talk to the kitchen to my husband. It was difficult. We talked about the things we were raised to believe, not just by our parents, but by osmosis by just living as whites. Some of it is ugly.

My husband told me about some of the feelings that go through his mind even though he knows they are wrong. And I had to admit to myself that while driving at night and coming to a stop sign and seeing black men standing at the corner, I’ve clicked the power switch to lock the doors. Was I racist? Was I just being careful? Would I have done it if the men had been white? {snip}

Over the next few months, you will be seeing billboards and posters in Duluth to help you ask those questions. {snip}

Naomi Yaeger is editor of the Budgeteer News. Learn more by attending events including Cracking the Shell of Whiteness at Peace Church, 1111 N. 11th Ave. E., Tuesdays from Feb. 7 through March 6 from 6:15 to 8:45 p.m. Also see the Budgeteer calendar for more events and log onto

What individuals can do to further their understanding of white privilege and structural racism

The following is from the website:

“Doing the work” is about understanding structural racism and analyzing the systems we work and live in to look for the characteristic of structural racism. It also entails developing the willingness to continuously evaluate our own actions and seeing that they align with our intents, e.g.: “I don’t intend to take advantage of my white privilege, but I don’t address it or attempt to change it when I identify it.”

It also means dedicating ourselves to being in authentic relationships with people of different races and ethnicities.

The following are a few things to keep in mind in doing our personal work:

  • A willingness to ask questions and face the answers;
  • A willingness to be uncomfortable yet stay focused;
  • An understanding of the importance of aligning our impact with our intent (walking the walk);
  • An awareness of the possible consequences and risks of the journey;
  • A commitment to remain on the journey and intentionally and consistently act to address racial inequities