If you have ever driven along an Interstate, searching for the hotel where you have reservations, seeing it seemingly VERY CLOSE but realizing you have to figure out how to get off the interstate, get onto a service road, and find the entrance to your hotel, you know that things are not at all as easy as they first appear. White privilege is like a service road.
I have been wanting to write about intersectionality (and, related, white privilege) ever since I heard the word (yes, it’s been less than a year), but I have hesitated for a variety of reasons. The first reasons that come to mind are:
- I don’t understand the topics well enough
- I am afraid I will lose friends
- I alone can change no minds
- I am, as all of us are, so imperfect in my attempts to live life fairly
But those barriers are just going to have to co-exist with my attempt to say my piece on this. In my own home, in conversations with my closest family members, in multiple other environments, it’s time to talk about white privilege even if the attempt is grossly imperfect, if relationships unravel, if no minds are changed.
Because, whether it is a problem for us personally or not, our inability or unwillingness to put our privilege in context and figure out how to be in community with all our fellow people hurts us all in the long run.
One Book That Changed My Understanding About White Privilege
I wrote earlier that it has been within the last twelve months that I have heard the term “intersectionality.” I heard it at the We Won’t Wait 2016 gathering, as presenters explained the inequities faced by women of color. When I got home, I told my husband, “I felt guilty about being white.”
Sitting around feeling guilty about something I clearly can’t change about myself is not exactly constructive, so I set about trying to figure out what those speakers meant and what I could do.
I participated in an online book club about the book Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. Although I never ended up being able to join the group via Facebook live, the experience got me to read the book, and the comments in the Facebook group itself enlightened me.
Here are a few takeaways:
- The distribution of VA benefits after World War II, for example, led to inequities for African American returning soldiers. Many African American soldiers did not get access to the same educational or housing benefits that white soldiers received. (More here and here.)
- “Hide and seek” has a different meaning for inner city black kids than suburban white kids. Okay, this one could be vulnerable to being a HUGE generalization. But I believe Debby Irving when she says that many black kids are taught not to play hide-and-go-seek because they don’t want to associate being hidden with “fun” — because of the ramifications down the road for their interactions with law enforcement officers.
- “Helping” …….. isn’t always. Debby Irving talks a lot about how we as middle- and upper-class white people are brought up to help, to be optimistic (believe me, since me alter ego is the Optimism Light this one got my full attention). I get the irony of the fact that I am raising the issue, lover of causes that I am. But I have to look at myself in the mirror and ask about the lens through which I see my helping choices. Am I being a “white savior” or a “fellow human sharing my resources”? Author Nate Regier, Ph.D., writes, “Non-consensual helping is a personal violation.” Hmmm.
- Taking kids out of their environments to expose them to culture doesn’t always have the downstream effects we imagine it will have. One of Debby Irving’s first jobs was being the coordinator for an arts program in Boston. The program would bus children in from disadvantaged areas of the city in order to help them “get culture.” Irving writes convincingly of why that plan did not have the effects organizers hoped — these children didn’t necessarily understand the environment — the imposing buildings, the etiquette expected of them as arts consumers, the very “foreign-ness” of it all.
As a White Person, I Take Ease of Access Totally For Granted
Typically, we would think of interstate highways as helpful to reaching our destination faster. Limited exits so that no one slows down, the ability to drive at relatively higher rates of speed, uniform signage and format. The problem is, if the gas, food, shelter or other services we need are off of a service road, we have to get off.
White privilege is akin to being on the service road, doing whatever we need to do, easily. For people who do not have white privilege, they are speeding along, on a road defined for them by someone who presumed what they wanted, with limited ability to get the basics and extras they need and want in order to live a life equitable to ours because someone blocked the exits.
Things I Still Haven’t Made Peace With
- Reparations. Slavery was wrong. What’s a stronger word for wrong? Let’s go with reprehensible. Slavery created the foundation of the inequities toward black people that still ripple through our society today, in ways big and small. My challenge with reparations is two-fold: I don’t understand how they would work and I am not sure what positive difference they would make. The United Nations thinks they are a good idea, though, so that carries some substantial weight with me. (More about the recommendation from the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent in this Washington Post article.)
- Decisions Like the One Bill Proctor Made. Bill Proctor is an African-American county commissioner here in Leon County. He boycotted a commission retreat last December because slaves had been used on the property in the 1800s. While I am sensitive to the issues slavery poses to him, I guess this is one of those things that, taken to an extreme, could mean none of us could meet (or live) anywhere. Taking the example further, I should surrender the deed to my house and the property I live on to the Native Americans. It never really was mine to begin with and it probably was not handed over by them willingly or without sacrifice on the part of an entire people.
- Statues/Historical Monuments. It is a good thing that we are all so much more sensitive to the impact of monuments glorifying people who perpetuated racism. I struggle with the fact that removing the tangible evidence that these people were once celebrated doesn’t remove the fact that these people were once celebrated or the lessons we should learn from that. One article with more on the topic here.
- Language Hypersensitivity. Have you looked at any house plans lately? Notice anything different? Some designers are re-naming the master bedroom the “owner’s suite” or “mastre bedroom,” believing the term “master bedroom” carries too many negative connotations from a historical and gender perspective. Words evolve. Did you know the word “bully” started out with a positive connotation, meaning “sweetheart”? The word “sarcasm” has as one of its root meanings “stripping off of flesh” (ouch …. sarcasm can feel that way sometimes). Language hypersensitivity could render us all mute.
What Can One Person Do?
I ask that question multiple times every day. I think Farther Tim Holeda’s Awareness-Understanding-Action model may be a good guide.
To increase your awareness, start with an open mind then read things and talk to people who will help you expand your perspective. Here are some recommendations.
Book: Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving
Site: Being Black at School (personal note: this site and its mission are the brainchild of my friend Kelly. Feel free to fast forward past the other 1700 words in this post and donate to BBAS. It’s that relevant and necessary.)
Blog Post: I Don’t Discuss Racism With White People
Blog Post: Othering
Blog Post: Why I’m Absolutely an Angry Black Woman
Reality: Really watch what is going on in your family, your office, your community, our nation. Sometime there is book, blog post, or article more informative than real life
To increase your understanding, all I can say is that understanding often follows from awareness. Try step one, and I’m pretty sure you’ll make progress.
Regarding action, most of the links under “awareness” also have suggested actions. For me, much of the past year has been about opening my mouth when it would be easier to be silent. I was being shuttled from home to Enterprise Rental Car a few months ago by a driver who decided to pontificate on “Muslims lying in roads” and why white people will never get along with “them” (black people). I think his words to me, I suppose born out of the fact that I was younger than him, were “just wait and see.” UMMMMM. Short of jumping out of the moving car, I wasn’t sure what to say to indicate that absolutely nothing he was saying was appropriate, EVER. I managed something like “everyone has the right to express their opinion” (about the Muslims) and “that hasn’t been my experience” (about black/white relations). I am sure I didn’t change his mind, but I had to speak up.(I also shared the conversation’s content in my feedback email to Enterprise. I never received a response.)
I love a line in Korbett Mosesly’s piece (linked to above).
I realize that institutional racism may not be your goal or intention. You may not even be aware of the complexities of racism at your organization. I hope this post moves you from unintentional racism to intentional allyship.
I, for one, intend not to intentionally block any more of the “interstate exits” and do my part to help everyone have access to the things they need, especially, and the things they want, as an intentional ally.
(This post is a response to two Mama’s Losin It Prompts: “book review” and “share a quote you love.”)