Privilege & Partnership: The Beginning of a Conversation
Every summer, our vacation at the cabin by the lake is my reading week. I take a stack of books that I’ve accumulated over the year and try to knock out as many as I possibly can. This year I started my vacation with Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of the book, it focuses on an African-American nurse who is being sued by a white supremacist for the death of their baby while she was on the clock (it’s a lot more complex than that, but that’s the gist). It wasn’t necessarily an easy book to digest, but I enjoyed reading it.
Once I finished it, it was back to my stack to pick the next book (I always bring more than necessary so I can have options). As I was sorting through my pile, I lingered on The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I’ve been meaning to read this book since I saw the movie (because the book is always better than the movie, right?). But I put it back down as I thought “…nah, I don’t want to read another book about race right now.”
I then had an immediate gut check. I have the privilege of deciding when I think about race. As a white woman, it doesn’t cross my mind very much. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that it’s only really on my mind when I choose to engage in material (literature, movies, news, politics, etc.) or discussions that steer my mind in that direction. The fact that I don’t have to think about it is a perfect example of privilege.
Privilege can come in many shapes and sizes, but white privilege is at the heart of a lot of issues in our country today. It can include not being scared of contacting the cops when something happens, the color of cosmetics and bandages made readily available, or even the idea of not being defined by the color of your skin. In many situations, I’ve had students express that because they are the only person of color in a group, they are expected to speak for all, whereas we don’t ask white students to do that.
Back in my English teaching days, I had the honor of teaching our Multicultural Literature class. One of the first lessons I taught introduced the concept of privilege. In one of my first semesters, a student approached me the day after the lesson and said “I loved what you taught us yesterday. I didn’t realize how much of an upper-hand I had over a lot of my peers. But what do I do about it? Now I just feel guilty.”
The purpose of educating oneself is not just to make you feel guilty. It’s important to be aware of the advantages you have so you can advocate for equity. But my student asked a great question. What DO I do about it? I still wrestle with this. I want to advocate and partner with people, but the last thing I want to be is a White Savior (a white person who acts to help non-white people in a self-serving way).
I’m sure you would get a variety of answers depending on who you turned to, as we all hope for different things, but I wanted to hear a voice I trusted and value deeply. I asked my friend and mentor Latrice to weigh in on the matter, as she is someone who is passionate about education, and has always approached these conversations with eloquence and grace. I would never expect her to speak for the entire population of African-Americans, but I knew her perspective would help ground me and encourage me to be better.
“Why are your children are always so nicely dressed? Do you always dress them up, even on school days and days you are just running errands? We usually just wear our pajamas or whatever they feel like throwing on!”
The white, fellow homeschooling mom was simply paying my well-dressed family a compliment as my kids ran around with other homeschooled students at a park- my boys dressed in polo shorts and khaki shorts and my girls in their uniform school dresses. She didn’t know the can of worms she could have been opening.
I wanted to answer honestly. I wanted to say, “My kids are black kids. We are a black family. We are viewed differently from you. We get less looks and less inquiries as to why we are out during school hours when they are dressed in uniforms.” I wanted to say that last fall, when I took my homeschooled black kids on a walk around our neighborhood to observe the different varieties of trees, while they were wearing just jeans and t-shirts, an administrator from the public school behind our house came RUNNING out of the building as we walked by and questioned my kids in front of me about why they weren’t in school and what they were doing outside right now. Then after my curt reply about being homeschoolers she backpedaled and apologized, clearly embarrassed. I wanted to say that most likely that wouldn’t have happened to a white family.
But...I didn’t say those things. Instead I told the half-truth which is that we wear uniforms because I believe it teaches my children to take their schooling seriously. I answered that way because I didn’t want to be marked as “the black woman who ALWAYS talks about race issues”. I didn’t want to make this white mom feel awkward by bringing up race and I certainly didn’t want to put a damper on our nice day at the park by bringing up what would most likely be an uncomfortable topic.
Part of white-privilege that non-people of color perhaps don’t even know exists is this exact scenario: the privilege of avoiding even simple conversations about race. People of color make these kinds of choices in conversation with their white friends, co-workers, and acquaintances every day. It is absolutely a privilege to not even talk about race, and not one that people of color have ever enjoyed.
My parents were born into a Jim Crow world. My dad remembers the “Whites Only” signs on the drinking fountain near the park where he and his friends played basketball after school. If they wanted to go out for ice-cream on hot summer days, they couldn’t walk into the parlor and take a seat with their family, they had to be served behind the building from a window labeled “Colored”. My parents grew up in a time where the color of the skin made them different and inferior in the eyes of all the people that called the shots. They did not have the privilege of avoiding topics about race and they raised their children with this same awareness. As such, I am acutely aware of the privilege of avoiding conversations about race and even of the privilege of avoiding thinking about race, as Kelsey referenced, that all of my white friends enjoy.
So, if you are not a person a color: what do you DO about your privilege? That’s the question being posed today, right? What do you do?
Here is my well thought out and deeply moving answer: I don’t really know.
I don’t really know because I haven’t ever experienced the privilege of not thinking about race. I don’t really know because there are an infinite amount of scenarios that we could look at individually and many people of color would have differing opinions on who should have done or said what. I don’t really know because we all filter things differently, engage our world differently, and see the world through our own different perceptions. I don’t really know what you should DO.
However, as an educator, I believe in being well informed. If you don’t know what to do about your white privilege, start with learning more about your white privilege, and then learn more about the people who don’t have it. True information births awareness and awareness moves us to action. Because we are different people, we each get to pick our own action relevant to our own spheres of influence. You get to choose what you DO.
Two years ago a white friend brought me breakfast on Martin Luther King day to remind me that she loved me and was aware of the struggle African Americans face in our country. Last year a white friend called after watching a racially charged movie and asked when we could get together to talk about race issues and what I’ve experienced in my life just because she wanted to open those lines of communication that she felt were previously closed. And this week, Kelsey shared her revelation with me and asked me to be a part of this conversation. Those were the actions they chose. So my advice is to read the hard books, watch the hard movies, get informed, and then choose your own “DO”.
I’ve recently chosen some new actions as well. Here’s one: I decided to stop giving my white friends “an out” like I did at the park that day when my white friend asked why my kids were so nicely dressed. I no longer shy away from topics concerning race in an effort to protect my white friends or my own reputation. I write openly about race, talk openly about race and engage in meaningful although often unsolicited dialogue about race. Why? Because I’ve found that being upfront and honest about my experiences and thoughts as a Black American almost always opens a door, not closes one. It gives my white friends “permission” to engage in a taboo topic with me and sometimes forces them to consider their privilege, if even for a moment.
I’ve decided that I’m done protecting my white friends’ privilege, and if you are white, that’s a very good place for you to start, too.
I am forever thankful for Latrice’s wisdom, and the way she graciously helped with my request. Her eloquent writing made my heart pound as I remembered that although we have come far, we still have far to go. Latrice brought up a very good point-- My privilege keeps me from understanding what it’s like to be her, and because she doesn’t have my privilege, she doesn’t fully know how to advise someone. I feel the best thing we can do is to continue these conversations. We can continue to shine light on our differences, but instead of alienating each other, we can use them to bring us closer together, and help us understand one another on a deeper level.
It would be easy to put on a facade that I am “woke,” as my students would say. That I have it all together. That I’m a social justice warrior and I have it all figured out. But I don’t. In the story I shared at the beginning of my revelation, I’m still ignorant. My privilege still gets the best of me. It would be arrogant of me to pretend that I’m not above mistakes, or forgetting others’. So in the same way that Latrice is choosing to not give her white friends outs, I am deciding to stop shying away from racial topics because they’re too “heavy” or I’m tired of it. Others don’t have that privilege, so I refuse to exercise mine.
If you want to read more from Latrice, you can visit her blog.
If you want to read more about white privilege, I would highly recommend Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh, the article that started it all for me.