I am brave enough to write this but not brave enough to use my real name.
Lately there has been so much discussion about race, racism, white privilege, and I see a lot of anger and discomfort by whites in identifying with any kind of privilege or racism – systematic, personal, other. I completely understand. Racism is an ugly, horrible word, who would willingly acknowledge that as part of their identity? I will.
Racism Is Not Innate
Racism, prejudice, bias, whatever you want to call it, is not innate. It is learned from our environment. I grew up in the South. Growing up, the world that I knew of consisted of 2 races, black and white (and that one Jewish girl in school). I don’t remember anyone ever using the “N” word, but it was clear that there was “us” and “them” and we each kept to our own groups. (Ironic given that on both sides of my family within 2 generations prior were impoverished immigrants, and I was raised in the lower class/ lower-middle class.)
That changed for me in middle school with “Jennifer.” Jennifer was black, and her family moved here from the West Coast. Given that my life-long dream was to move out of the South, a friend from the West Coast was exotic and desirable to me. We became good friends, played over at each other’s houses, went on trips with each other’s families, but one thing we were never allowed to do was go do things in our town together – play in the park, go to the movies, etc. – it was not allowed because it wasn’t “safe” for a white girl and black girl to do things together in our town. Our parents never told us that we couldn’t be friends, but we definitely got the message that most people would think that there was something wrong with it.
The next major milestone that stands out for me is high school. There was a “girls ask boys” dance. I wasn’t dating anyone, and there was a guy in my group of friends who was just about the sweetest guy in the world. He was black; I thought he’d be a great person to ask to go as a friend. When I told my parents about the guy I asked to the dance, they were not pleased. I was told that they would not ask me to dis-invite him; however, I was not to date him or any other black man in the future. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but it was made clear that blacks were inferior as a race and not appropriate romantic partners. Although it didn’t sit right with me, and I didn’t believe it, I feared the estrangement that disobedience might bring from my family and only dated whites from that point forward.
Although We May Desire to Change, It Can Still Be a Challenge
After college, I realized my dream of leaving the South and moved to a large city in the North with several universities. My social racial and ethnic circle widened tremendously – Sikhs, Atheists, Congregationalists (I’m still not entirely sure what those are), Israelis, Brits, people from Eastern Europe, South America, and many others. I loved meeting people from all these different backgrounds and places and learning more about what made them who they were. Everyone I encountered was curious, open, and generous in sharing about themselves.
Professionally it was more of a struggle. I was a young white woman working in social services with people who were mentally ill, homeless, or for some reason involved in the social safety net due to dire personal circumstances. Given what we know about poverty in the US, it’s not surprising that a significant number of our clients were minorities. My social service work is where I first began to feel push-back from people based on how they saw me. I was seen as rich, white, and elite, and I’m sure my youth and lack of experience didn’t help. I was raised that education was the highest priority, and being intelligent was a thing of pride. Add in my Southernness, and my defense mechanism when I feel uncomfortable or threatened is to become distantly polite and use the most proper, formal language possible. This wasn’t helpful with my clients, and my experience of being disliked for how I presented myself made me more uncomfortable and fearful in dealing with people who were different because I assumed that they would dislike me.
This started to change when my I took a job that was closer to community organizing. Our job was to go into the community and ask people what they wanted, and then help create trainings to help them achieve those goals for themselves. I was incredibly lucky to have an amazing mentor in this job. She was also white with an advanced degree, but she had a life-long passion for social and racial justice, and was absolutely fearless when it came to engaging with others. The perspective shift from “we’re the experts, let us tell you what you need” to “you’re the expert, please tell us how we can help you access the tools to achieve your goals” made a huge difference. I saw mentor succeed; I saw her fail. I saw her good intentions lead to a complaint filed with the local human rights commission, but she never let that stop her. She introduced me to the concept of white privilege, and it is due to her that I really started looking within myself at how I thought about race.
My supervisor was a big believer in training for staff and our many volunteers. I will never forget the training exercise that helped me acknowledge and come to terms with the racism that exists within me. Our agency partnered with an amazing woman who is the best trainer I have ever worked with. When we asked her to create a training around prejudice, bias and privilege, she used many exercises, including this one: She divided us into groups of 5 or 6 people. She gave each group a type of person/ stereotype (Hispanic male, lesbian, Christian, etc.). She gave each group 2 or 3 minutes to come up with as many descriptive terms about people in this group as possible. She wanted to know everything that we had thought or heard others say about this group (especially what we’ve heard others say).
It was fascinating. Anytime a negative term came up, people in the group were uncomfortable even acknowledging it – to a point the let us know that they didn’t think this, but they’d heard others say it. We all came up with our lists that contained, positive, negative, and neutral terms. The trainer had us review our lists as one big group, ask if people could think of any other terms, and discuss the lists. The trainer asked if people believed all the negative terms on the lists. Of course, everyone responded with a resounding, “No!”
The trainer then asked, where these negative terms came from. The trainees responded that they had heard other people say them. The trainer noted that this is what happens when see people or are with people who we identify as coming from these groups. Not only is our own voice inside our head, but we hear the voices of others saying these terms, positive and negative. These are the words that come into our heads when we see these groups. We may not believe these ideas, but they are there in our minds when we see these people.
So many times in my work, I had seen colleagues and volunteers vehemently declare that they were not biased and were completely open minded yet discuss clients judgmentally behind their backs (or even make comments to their face). There is no way that they would self-identify as prejudiced, but I can see all the baggage of all their previous experience coming into play, whether they are aware or not.
Realizing There Is Always Work to Be Done
I have come to believe that it is better to be aware of these rogue ideas fighting for space within my mind. When I drive through a part of town with more check cashing stores and bars on the windows, see someone, and the words “addict” or “unemployed” or “lazy” come into my mind (and worse words that I don’t want to include here. It causes me pain to acknowledge that these terms pop more easily into my mind if this person is a person of color). Because I want to fight this racism within myself, I now acknowledge that these words come into my mind. I didn’t used to, I used to squash them down as fast as I could, so I could pretend that they were never there in the first place.
Instead, now I ask them where they came from. I challenge myself, “Do I really believe that?” If the answer is yes, I ask myself, “why do I believe that?” If the answer is no, I ask myself “why did that word come into my mind?” I know that I will never be without these words in my mind. I know that I will never be without judging others based on how they look or act; however, I hope that I will always challenge myself anytime I identify a belief as coming from anything other than personal experience with that individual person.
However, there’s more work to do than this. I don’t live in a tremendously diverse town, and I am not brave about seeking out groups where I create a community where people look and live differently.
First, I’m a super-introvert, so going into a group of strangers (even in similar-to-me groups) is anxiety provoking enough.
Second, what will these different groups think of me? Will I put my foot in my mouth and offend someone horribly? Will they see me as inauthentic, stuck-up, elite?
I know that this is a barrier that I need to cross at some point. If not for myself, then for my children. It’s great to have all these wonderful thoughts and ideas, but I want to pass along the best of this openness and acceptance to my children and help them realize how much of an advantage that they have just because of their skin color and American accent. I want them to be aware of and fight injustice when they see it. It feels like a very heavy burden, especially when I’m still trying to figure out my own.
If you have also begun to think about this or make efforts to talk about race with your family, I would love to hear your story!
A great link to test your implicit biases (you have more than you think).
This is a video describing what white privilege is.
Here’s a post on privilege vs. guilt.