Commentary: Reflecting On My White Privilege

John K. Murphy

I reflect upon my privileged status as a white male born in America enjoying the rights and privileges afforded to me by my status. I have not been discriminated against, as far as I know: I did not have to sit at the back of the bus, sit at a different part of a restaurant, drink from a different fountain or been denied entry into any country of the world including re-entry into my own country. I have not been persecuted for my religious or political beliefs.

My ancestor’s immigrated from Ireland, Canada and Germany. I guess I am a mutt with at least three ancestral origins. My privilege originates from my birthright of being born to a middle class couple right after WWII as a baby boomer. A two parent family living in upstate New York essentially insulated me from the strife affecting the United States during the 50’s and 60’s where I worked on the farms, had a paper route, played sports in high school, was on the prom court and dated. I went to Mass on Sunday and was an altar boy – the pride of my family and friends. My life has been especially blessed with a loving family, good health, fortune and opportunity.

I served our nation during Vietnam and after leaving the service, continued to serve my country as a firefighter for 32 years, essentially providing service to my country for over 36 years. I was equally fortunate to take advantage of America’s educational system quenching my thirst for knowledge and provided with the ability to practice both medicine and the law as a Physician’s Assistant and Attorney.

My privilege insulated me from the racial strife, bigotry and overt racial prejudice and discrimination that affects our country today and my chosen profession as a firefighter and human being.

Was I ignorant or chose not to look or become involved?

How can I as a white male, stand idly by as my fellow Americans, men, women, people of color and immigrants are discriminated against on a daily basis by my fellow Americans.

My awakening to the issues of the world started after high school, living in an insulated cocoon of tranquility, attending a college where I mingled with many talented individuals of color with different concepts of what it was like to live in a society that was suspicious of their every move and motive. This awareness was acutely sensitized in the military where all members originated from different parts of the country where the privilege I enjoyed were not available to them. This period of time was rife with civil unrest – civil rights movement, protests against the war in Vietnam, the assassinations of our great leaders, the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evars, Malcom X: truly great leaders whose untimely death shocked the consciousness of many Americans. Even on the Navy ship where I was assigned suffered civil unrest among the sailors in the form of a race riot while at sea. It scared the hell out of me and made me more aware it is a big conflicted world out there. In spite of the obstacles placed in the way of the civil rights movement of the 60’s, laws were put into place to prevent the discrimination of the past hopefully not to be repeated in the future

After military service and entry into my chosen profession as a firefighter, I became aware of how firefighters who did not look like me were treated differently than me. Women, African Americans, Asians, gay and lesbian and transgender are being discriminated against right now in spite of the law.

Yes there are pockets of tolerance and acceptance due to the proactive commitment on the part of the leadership. However, there are many more departments that do not enjoy this model leadership and do not equally represent the unrepresented or minority members in the department.

This discrimination is largely being committed by people who look like me, who are generally married, originate from good families, have mothers, daughters or sisters, have a religious belief system, who are educated, who live in neighborhoods probably reflecting the “salad bowl” of America with people from all over the world. Possibly, these individuals may also live in closed neighborhoods that had a belief system that is intolerant of the different races, dress, immigration status, religious beliefs, relationships and other factors that make them intolerant. This intolerance is brought into the workplace making it miserable for all individuals in that station and for the department. Not only is the target of this intolerance affected, but the entire core belief system of our fire service is affected. It is called collateral damage destroying the fiber of society under which we exist.

What do we do about this intolerance and discrimination affecting our service and nation at this time? 

Personally, I become more tolerant, protective and proactive. I teach and write, I educate those less tolerant, I become politically active at the local and national level, and I donate my time and money to causes I believe that will increase the tolerance of Americans towards other Americans.

What do the collective “we” do to create a safe workplace for all of our firefighters?

  • We must educate ourselves as to the current issues creating this intolerant and discriminatory behavior – what is the source of your own prejudices and biases?
  • Leadership needs to understand the culture of their fire departments and the various personalities you lead and command.
  • Leadership must take a proactive and strong stance against discrimination and prejudice. You must walk the talk.
  • Departments must have strong and enforceable policies training all of your firefighters to those standards, practices, behaviors and tolerances. Also what to do to prevent bad behavior.
  • As a firefighter, if you see discriminatory activity occurring in your department, you must stand up to those individuals protecting those that may feel disempowered
  • Your responsibility as a firefighter is to self and others. Do not tolerate intolerance.

Your privilege must not overshadow your respect towards your brother and sister firefighters, your community and neighbors regardless of their belief system, race, national origin or sexual preference. We are not all white like me and because you don’t look like me, I have no right to treat you disrespectfully.  As firefighters, we all depend on each other to go home at the end of the day, creating a safe workplace preventing discrimination, harassment, bullying and violating the laws and policies in place to protect the firefighters, your department and your community. That is all of our responsibilities and that responsibility starts with you.

This commentary reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fire Engineering. It has not undergone Fire Engineering‘s peer-review process.

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