In the tangle of my blessed, white life, I’ve figured out that I have a lot more to figure out than I’ll have time for. So, I depend on the stories of others who lack the luck of my white birth to expand my literacy of white privilege, whether the stories are painful stories, full of reckoning and hard truths, whether I can personally “relate” to them, whether they are rough-rendered.
I want nothing less than fluency before I die.
Credit: Jamie Kapp (check out the whole series of cartoons for a quick and easy primer on privilege.)
Yes. White privilege can be a hard concept for a good-hearted, well-intentioned white woman to grasp. It has taken many years, many experiences, trusting friends and students who are not white, a mind pried by all of these to begin, only begin, to understand what white privilege means, and far longer to act on what it asks of me.
It doesn’t mean, for example, that nothing bad happens to white people. Bad things do. It doesn’t mean that all white people are better off than all Black people. Some aren’t. It doesn’t mean that white people harbor ill will toward Black people, though some do.
What it does mean is that thanks to the color of my skin, if all other things are equal, I get a pass every day in ways that someone who happens to be brown or black, doesn’t. Let me give you a few examples.
I could go to shop at Kohl’s with my teenage daughter without being treated with suspicion. However, one of my bi-racial students from Doane did the same with her mother and encountered several humiliations including another shopper who clutched her purse as if she was at risk of being robbed when my student and her mother (who happens to be Black) passed by. In Kohl’s. Department store. A few years ago, Amy Schumer did a skit on this very topic — satire arises from painful reality.
I’ve stood in line with a Black woman dressed just as I am, with purchases much like my own at my grocery store and listened to a clerk brusquely address her and ask her for additional ID, then greet me with a smile and ask for no ID.
Every non-white student I taught at Doane College in 5 years (there were dozens), could recount multiple stories of being frisked, detained, threatened by police, authorities, or just people on the street. They were some of my best students. They had to be. The mouths of my white students often dropped, followed by comments like, “But I thought those days were past…”
We don’t know what we don’t know. None of us. At some point, I wanted to know and began to pay attention, to ask, to listen, to read, to care just a little about what might be happening to my less fair-skinned neighbors, co-workers, fellow church members.
It isn’t that I don’t want to hear about the good things. In fact, I discovered Good Black News (GBN) less than a year ago in the political scorcher that was July 2016, because I followed a link to one of the sites most-read articles, an editorial by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, the editor-in-chief, titled “What I Said When My White Friend Asked for My Black Opinion on White Privilege.” I admired her patience and candor; sadly, the list she shared in the piece did not shock me. By then, I had availed myself of the “war” stories of Black students in my college courses, those of friends and associates, and I had done some of my own “surveillance and intervention” in public spaces.
I subscribed and now I receive installments on “all the good things Black people do, give and receive all over the world” as their banner announces. At a time when I am honestly desperate to limit my email traffic, I read these and some of them I store to reread.
GBN has become a discipline as regular as meditation for me and almost as altering. I don’t read it to remind myself that everything that happens to Blacks in the U.S. isn’t bad. I read it to remind myself that Blacks are agents for so much good in the world despite the random assignment of skin color and all the undeserved garbage they deal with and to counter the persistent portrayal of Blacks as either criminals or “exceptions” to that “norm”.
Recently, GBN celebrated seven years. It is one of the ripples I attribute to our nation having elected and re-elected a Black president. I do not know if there is a correlation in its arrival on the web, but only a bit longer ago than that, I cried and clutched my daughters on the night of the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. I remember thinking that it was impossible, even as I watched it happen.
Months later, when President Obama spoke at Dr. King’s church, I studied all the faces that the videographer afforded to me. I watched them nod and ponder. I listened to him hold me accountable. And them. Don’t blow this, I thought. Not him. Me. The president of our nation spoke at length and candidly about race. I wanted to be among the sleeping whites who might awaken with his words.
When I went with a white friend (retired first grade teacher of my two daughters) to see the film, “I Am Not Your Negro” at the local art movie house a few weeks ago, I knew less than it seems to me I should know about James Baldwin. Beside Dick Cavett in a 1968 interview, Baldwin is a one-man, verbal wrecking ball. Run Dick, run, I wanted to shout. It is only going to get worse! On March 27, 2017, Rich Benjamin in the New Yorker notes that the movie, in its own way, “mock[s] and cheer[s] the death of white racial innocence.”
Add that to that other lenses through which I work in fits and starts to examine Black life as compared to and as shaped by white life. This is not done with as much urgency as it may merit — after all, I have nothing to lose if I remain ignorant. That’s the way white privilege works. I am trying to get clear on what I have to gain though.
Seven years. Of course, the anniversary means I missed more than 6 years of GBN but if I wanted to go back and review, I could click on any of 18 separate disciplines (things like business, the arts, philanthropy, education, etc.) under which there are multiple sub-topics. As an antidote to the stereotype-reinforcing, Black-arrest faces that appear in my hometown newspaper, it is working its magic.
Today, inspired by re-reading Hutchinson’s piece, I decided to make my own incomplete inventory of privileged conditioning that slowly grew into awareness:
That time as a preschooler when you watched Spanky and His Gang reruns and wondered at the wild, white, rolling eyes of Buckwheat (played by William Thomas) and his use of incomprehensible speech and “Otay!” As a child you did not have language for the fact that after the television was turned off, his speech was the only thing imitated with comic derision in your home.
That time in second grade when you watched Sammy Davis Jr. on TV and felt sad rather than entertained because his medallion necklace seemed like an albatross against his skinny frame and he had one bad eye and one sad eye but he laughed broad-toothed and crookedly at everything Johnny Carson said.
That time in third grade when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated except you don’t remember that happening in your lifetime though you were eight years old, plenty old enough to remember. And the only way you can imagine not remembering such a social, political and cultural crater is that school must not have stopped to register the tragedy and nobody and nothing at home did.
That time in fourth grade when you watched Arthur Duncan (the first African American to appear in a variety show on U.S. television) tap dance on Lawrence Welk and failed to notice that during group numbers that required hand-holding, he retreated to the background to make clear he was not “with” any of the white women.
That time in seventh grade when Sandra Pree sat beside you in class, and she had a full-on afro that was so long it almost covered her eyes and she could not stop laughing at your comically overblown white-person imitation of James Brown’s, “Papa Don’t Take No Mess.” And you noticed that she and you both had a wide gap between your front teeth.
That time in eighth grade when you were on a family vacation in Florida and Dad didn’t look both ways before crossing a divided highway and was broadsided by a VW bug, literally scaring the pee out of you but what scared you more was when three lanky Black men impossibly emerged from that small car somehow unharmed but understandably unhappy, because all the racist things Dad just said seemed visible in the air around his custom Fleetwood Cadillac.
That time in ninth grade when you went over to Debbie Bowie’s house whose dad was in the Air Force and had a British bride who did not drive a car and kept an utterly spotless house and you were stopped dead when her mom crooned how “hot” Michael Jackson was in the way only a Brit can and you could not imagine an American mom saying that.
That time in tenth grade when the star of the football team, Tony Smith, kissed you behind the bleachers and his lips were so full that yours felt invisible and you went to the donut shop after games for weeks to feel those lips and his scandalous and talented hands gentle at your waist, never asking for anything more than to hold you.
That time when you went to Washington, DC in your early 20’s and it took way too long for you to realize that the majority of riders on the metro were, like you, hoping they wouldn’t get mugged at any point between home and work and that skin color was a very poor indicator of criminal intent.
Like Hutcherson’s, mine isn’t a complete list but it is sobering to me to see the trajectory of my limited understanding of Black “experiences” and especially to recognize that I thought it was pretty complete.
Hearing hard stories clarifies, sobers and balances. Receiving them exercises my flabby compassion and wimpy humility. Passed heart to heart, shared stories prevent what we learn in life from being hoarded, segregated, minimized and marginalized. Without each other’s stories, we live in a sort of poverty it seems to me and force others to do so.
Decades ago, I attended a performance of Junebug/Jack (30 years running) at the Johnny Carson Theatre . One thing stuck.
“Y’all make sure you collect the hard stories,” Junebug counseled. “Those are the ones that show you what you are made of, what your people have triumphed over in spite of all the obstacles. Soft stories — they are good too, but you don’t need those the way you need the hard ones to make it in this world.”
When the lights came up in the dark theatre after the show, Junebug (a mythic African American folk hero paired with an Appalachian “Jack” in the production) offered it in response to my question during Q and A . I couldn’t decide whether his answer was a warning or a bestowal. Maybe both. Since then, I try to embrace hard stories, mine or anyone else’s. I want to be that strong. That tempered. That ready.
Is it wildly hopeful to believe that sharing our collective past and present invites us to care and grow wise enough to shape our collective future?
It is wildly hopeful. No apology offered.
Thanks to the Race: Are We So Different? exhibit experienced during my oldest daughter’s college visit to Kalamazoo, Michigan, my radar later picked up Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. The thick spine should have discouraged me — a 622-page whopper. It was a much-honored book, and the poetic title borrowed a line from the novelist Richard Wright. Suns was a debut for the author who had won a Pulitzer though not for that book. Suns was about THE epic migration that in nearly 40 educated years I had never heard of. Great Migration? What Great Migration?
Ripples from a stone thrown years earlier in Kalamazoo.
After the paradigm shift that Race required of me, things had already begun to unravel in my white-washed world. Race as a social construct? What’s a social construct? I had a lot to learn and that exhibit helped me begin. It was Wilkerson’s book though that shattered my naive (and frankly arrogant) belief that I had a pretty good understanding of the arc of Black experience in the U.S.
I have come to call this veneer of mine the white person’s thin volume of Black history: first came slavery, then Martin Luther King, Jr. then Barack Obama. Along the way Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver figured in. Thurgood Marshall and Rosa Parks were immortalized and Ruby Bridges. I had a vague flinching response if Emmett Till’s name ever surfaced and Malcolm X’s.
In Wilkerson’s book, the lived history of millions of my fellow citizens was just barely but poignantly scratched and as I read, as I imagined Black families who must know this history well, in just the way I know of the trials and tribulations of my immigrant progenitors, I wondered what it must feel like to have a history and struggle that invisible to a nation, as non-existent as microbes were before the advent of the microscope — teeming, but not discernible to Black-blind, white eyes, parallel to the history I knew, but never touching it.
Of course, as Brown v. Board of Education codified, separate is never equal. Never. When our stories are kept apart, we are kept apart. I am determined, as often as possible, not to separate myself. There are many ways to learn about the lives of Blacks in the U.S. Late better than never, I am taking up my part, listening, and putting what I learn into constructive advocacy and action.
Sometimes it is uncomfortable. That is good. I am ready to bear my share of that load.