I grew up seeing racism as hate in individual hearts, as a toxic attitude that was learned. If only it could be unlearned, if only each person could be shown that racism is bad, that it doesn’t make sense, that we’re more alike than different, then everything would be okay.

The slave traders, the Jim Crow politicians, the white antagonists screaming at black protesters at lunch counters in Greensboro, Bull Connor and the fire hoses, apartheid in South Africa, James Earl Ray—if only we could get that hate out of all those separate hearts, racism would be over.

It’s a cartoon taught by well-meaning parents and teachers and after-school television specials. Even the deep disruption my mind underwent at Berkeley hadn’t really dislodged that simplistic concept of race and racism. It didn’t get me seeing the systemic nature of it. It took one crystal-clear five-page essay to do that.

Peggy McIntosh wrote, “I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was meant to remain oblivious.”

There’s so much in those two sentences—that our own privilege is invisible to us, that it’s unearned, and that it confers daily benefits.

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Dale McGowan is chief content officer of OnlySky, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies, and founder of Foundation Beyond Belief (now GO Humanity). He holds a...