I haven’t spent much time in my life thinking about white privilege.
My parents grew up during segregation and the civil rights movement, but my generation, Generation X, was the first to grow up in post-civil rights America. Ours is an awkward generation.
I’ve lived in a large metropolitan area all of my life, with the exception of my college years, and I’ve known people of color. I’ve attended school with them, worked with them, gone to church with them. I’m a bleeding-heart liberal living in the big red state of Texas, so for all intents and purposes that would seem to make me more aware of division and injustice than most.
I voted for Obama. Twice.
And yet, I live in a world of privilege. Not just because I am a middle class American, which makes me rich by the world’s standards. But because I’m white.
As white people, we like to pretend that racism is over.
We like to think that here in the 21st century, post-civil rights movement, we’ve put all the ugly history behind us. That’s the rhetoric we’re fed by newscasters and politicians. And we tend to buy it, because, let’s face it, it makes us look better.
But it’s an illusion.
Maybe we’ve come a long way in America toward unity. But we have not arrived.
Why do Osheta’s words haunt me?
Because I haven’t started this conversation before now. I haven’t spoken up and said that I am well aware that racism is still alive in this country. That I’m tired of hearing well-intentioned and well-bred people–people who ought to know better–make inferences and bigoted remarks about people of other races.
I want to be able to talk about white and black and brown and not be stifled or shut down.
I grew up timid about race. I’ve had several friends and colleagues who were black, but never, not once, did I talk to them about race. About what it is like for them. About the undercurrent still running below the surface that makes life harder for them, not because of anything they’ve done but simply because they were born with dark skin.
I’ve spent my whole life afraid to even say the word “black,” because I wasn’t sure if it was offensive or not. I wanted to be politically correct, so I pretended to be color-blind.
That’s what white people do. Most of us try to be polite, to smile and speak pleasantries. We teach our children not to use derogatory terms for people of other races. We are civil and accommodating and we pride ourselves for being inclusive and fair.
But we ignore the elephant in the room–the fact that racism and white privilege do indeed exist.
We don’t want to accept the possibility that because we are white, we have luxuries and advantages in life that — whether we acknowledge them or not — were made possible because of the lightness of our skin.
Racism and White Privilege
- I can shop in any store in any mall in America and not worry whether the store clerks will be suspicious of me.
- When I turn on my television, I will, by and large, see people who look like me, in the entertainment world, but even more revealing, in powerful positions of government and the corporate world.
- I can choose to live in any neighborhood I desire without fear of my neighbors’ protest or discomfort.
- I can open any history textbook and easily find people of my race represented.
- I can go into Walmart and find an assortment of white Barbie dolls and action figures available for purchase.
- When I accomplish something great, I won’t be commended as a “credit to my race.”
- I can make a mistake in public without it being attributed to the color of my skin.
- My 14-year old son can walk through our neighborhood wearing a hoodie without looking suspicious.
- I can use the local vernacular of southern speech and be considered cute and quaint, rather than ignorant.
- No one will automatically assume that I am athletic; or illegal; or a whiz at math — simply because of my race.
I could go on.
We hear white privileged people in this country complain about being harassed and persecuted because their favorite reality TV character got canned. Or because they don’t want the minimum wage increased. They gripe that people on welfare are lazy freeloaders who should pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They argue that there is no need for affirmative action because we live in a different world now.
They grumble under their breath because Martin Luther King gets a holiday named after him and where is the white man’s holiday?
They lament that the moral state of America is in such decline and wish we could just return to the “good ol’ days.”
All of it makes me want to vomit in my mouth a little.
Because the “good ol’ days” to which they refer, the iconic hometown-America 1950s, well, those were the days of segregation. And a whole lot of other junk that got swept under the rug.
That’s the era to which so many white Americans seem intent upon returning?
People say it’s not racism that makes them disagree with Obama and his policies.
That may be true.
But I know white people. I am one.
And I know there are plenty who, while they may say they don’t mind having a black president, secretly it makes them uncomfortable. Because it means things are slowly changing and people don’t like change.
Especially when they’ve historically been the ones with all the privilege.
I don’t know what it’s like to be judged unfairly or mistreated because of my skin color.
My son was born with white skin. But he was also born with autism, and his being judged unfairly and excluded is the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced.
It’s just a sliver of what black people have endured for generations.
For what it’s worth, I for one, am sorry.
- I’m sorry for burying my head in the sand and thinking that just being nice would make hundreds of years of persecution and injustice go away.
- I’m sorry for mistakenly assuming that since it wasn’t my generation who inflicted the pain, that I am free to ignore the past.
- I’m sorry for blindly and glibly assuming that my successes and advantages in life had nothing to do with society’s assessment and expectations of me based upon my skin color.
I want to understand. I want to listen. I want to notice and to have conversations and to live the truth, especially in front of my children, that there is no “us” and “them.” There is only “we.”
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
We live in a racially diverse area, and I love that my children, since the beginning of their school days, have referred to their Latino and African-American friends as simply “having brown skin.”
Because isn’t that it, really? It’s just a difference in skin color.
And yet it makes all the difference in the world.
We still have miles to go. Acknowledging it is the first step. Today, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream, will you join me on the journey?
Can we talk about race?
Because I’m ready.