White Privilege, Part 4: Constructing Our Realities

We construct our social realities.

We construct them by the stories we tell and the actions we perform.

I recently read about a thought experiment conducted by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their work, The Social Construction of Reality.  In the experiment, they suggest what would occur if two people, one male and one female, survive an ecological disaster and have to begin a new society.  In that first generation, those two survivors will make decisions understanding they may need to change their minds based on what occurs in their lives.

When their children grow and begin to make decisions, they will say things such as, “This is how our elders do it.”  The third generation will say, “This is how it is done.”

The fourth generation will say, “This is how the world is.”  In this thought experiment, it takes less than four generations to move from possibilities to certainties.


Not too long ago, the first African-American student of my alma mater was on campus to speak about his experience.  One of the stories he shared was that as a young child growing up, he knew his behavior needed to be different.  He needed to be better than everyone else.  When white people were present, especially authority figures like police officers, he had to make sure all of his actions went above and beyond the accepted definitions of “polite” and “proper.”  He did not share this with bitterness, but with an acceptance of his realization, “This is how the world is.”


Many changes have been and still are occurring in our country.  We are making great strides at overcoming privilege.

But we must still do more.

In the history of country, African-Americans have only been counted as full people since 1865.  Think about that:  because of the Three-Fifths Compromise, only 60% of slaves were considered as people for census and tax purposes.  Although that changed after the Civil War, that means that non-whites have only been fully considered humans for less than 150 years.

The Civil Rights movement has done a lot to shift our thinking and policies, yet we are still barely more than 50 years removed from its inception.

We have a lot of history that needs to be overcome.


What would life look like if white privilege did not exist?  Can you imagine a society where Dr. King’s dream finally comes true:  people are judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin?

Start to imagine it:

Imagine neighborhoods that are not afraid to invite in families who look different.

Imagine a business culture that hires, promotes, and bases wages on job performance instead of appearance.

Imagine a church environment that promotes integration and togetherness in worship instead of worship being a time of dividing into our “groups.”

Imagine an education system where the best resources are available in all places.

It’s not so hard to picture, is it?


I cannot say this enough:  we must listen to people’s stories.  We must hear them describe their experience and stop telling them they are mistaken, paranoid, bitter, or just flat out ignorant.  We must accept that the story they tell us is their understanding:  “This is how the world is.”  Just as my story is my understanding of how the world is.

The stories that have been passed down from one generation to the next have created in part the stories we are living today.

Once we learn others’ stories and share our own, we can begin to envision a world where our stories can be lived together.

We construct our social realities.  The history of this country created an environment of privilege for one particular race.  As we accept that, we can work to change it.  Many people have already started to bring about change.  How can we join them?

I long for a generation to come about that views equal opportunity as a certainty.  I must live as if it is important to me.  I must behave as if it is important to me.

It starts with relationships.  It starts with stories.  I want to hear yours.

Will you share it with me?

3 thoughts on “White Privilege, Part 4: Constructing Our Realities

  1. Actually, the 3/5ths compromise only applied to people of pure African heritage. People of mixed race, like the vast majority of “African Americans” today have always been considered full persons and were always free.
    The reason I mention this is that many people justify their own racism based on a fictional history that someone made up. Inequality and racism are far more complex and pervasive than can be explained by cultural differences. People need to stop playing the blame game and start following the will of the Creator.
    Those of us that have more power or resources are responsible to God himself to use it wisely. We are commanded over and over to use it to help anyone with less than us, especially, the poor, the struggling, the widow, the orphan and the alien among us. To not do so is to bring down the wrath of Jehovah on our heads, as he is the protector of the weak.

    John Mark McDonald
    PS Being a history nut is a pain.

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