I’m white. I know, shocker, right? The reason I write this is that I have been more aware of it than ever in recent days. Within that awareness is one even keener, and that is that I am not black. Before I explain myself, I want to provide some background.
Although my ethnic heritage is Irish, German, Polish, and Dutch, I most closely identify with my Irish roots. It was the one identity that was clearly celebrated during my childhood. My maternal grandfather, though born in America, spoke with the brogue of his Irish-born parents. We sang. All the time. At parties. Extended family gatherings almost always included drinking, story telling, singing, laughing, crying, along with the occasional verbal or physical fisticuffs. It all plays in my memory like a scene from a novel. There are visceral and idyllic qualities to my Irish-ness that I not only relish, but also share with anyone who will listen. I love being an Irishman, and therefore I don’t usually think of myself as white, but as Irish. The white part just “comes with.”
When I was growing up, there was one black family in my town, and everyone either knew them or knew of them. That’s because the rest of us looked like a casting call for Casper The Friendly Ghost Meets The Pillsbury Dough Boy. We were white. And racist. N-word jokes were commonplace, one halloween three kids dressed up as KKK members (no joke), and racial epithets flowed freely whenever we watched sports on television. To be fair, not everyone was racist, either in my town or my family, but it was the overall milieu. I am not proud of that, but that’s what it was.
Fast forward to my freshman year of college, where a young black man from Linden, NJ named Omar became my roroommate and one of my closest friends. (Sadly, cancer took Omar’s life earlier this year, to the great loss of all who ever knew him.) To know O was to love him. He wore Cliff Huxtable sweaters, had perfect pitch (we were music students), could sweet talk his way out of library fines and video rental surcharges, and he was full of love. I loved him then, and I love him now. O and I would talk a lot about it what it meant to be disappointed by our fathers, or about girls, or what is was like being black or being white. Those “black and white” conversations planted seeds in me that, quite honestly, wouldn’t sprout in fullness for a number of years.
I was adamant that while it was true that I didn’t know what it was like to be black, Omar didn’t know what it was like to be white, and therefore they were separate but equal experiences. I was wrong. They weren’t, and they still aren’t. Being black in America is a person-forming experience, one you don’t have if you are white in America.Whites don’t experience life as white people, but as people. By and large, blacks experience life as black people, not simply as people. Omar most definitely opened my eyes to this. Many voices have joined his in the intervening years.
Ali Barthwell has an insightful post at www.empathyeducates.org entitled, I Don’t Know How to Talk to White People About Ferguson. She communicates so honestly about her experience of racial turbulence as a black woman who travels in a mostly white social circle.
Witnessing racial violence feels more personal when you’re black. I couldn’t watch the video of Eric Garner being strangled by the NYPD because his large frame and dark skin reminded me of my father and my uncle. Trayvon Martin was killed as I was teaching black teens on the west side of Chicago who wore hoodies to class every day. The first time I had seen women with bodies like mine (full soft bellies and pendulous breasts) on screen was in the film “12 Years a Slave” as they bathed to prepare for auction.
The ongoing tragedy of police brutality, media manipulation, and injustice in Ferguson, MO, is unbearable to watch but I can’t tear my eyes away. I’m consuming every piece of news and every editorial that emerges from the tear gas and no-fly zone. Seeing images of black people like me lying dead or injured in the street is creating chaos and turmoil inside me.
But as a black woman in a mostly white social circle, I don’t know who to turn to and how to talk to them.
How do I talk to white people about this!? How can I possibly explain the rage, fear, sadness, and every other emotion I don’t have a name for yet as I watch these events unfold?
My white friends are tagging me in posts and articles about the shootings and subsequent protests forcing me to look at more images of racial violence because I’m their politically conscious black friend.
Will my white friends understand that those images remind me of my younger brother? Will my white friends understand that I’ve been lying awake at night wondering if my younger brother, who is the same build as Mike Brown, will be stopped by the police? Have they ever sat in front of their younger brother at lunch and said “I’m worried that the police might hurt you”? Because I did that this week.
I’ve never thought things like this. I’ve never had to. It’s not part of my experience. To be painfully honest, the only time I am ever really aware of the color of my skin, forget my experience as a white person, is when there is a social situation in which I am in the racial minority. I feel it and see it, and yet I have the privilege of stepping back into a setting where I am surrounded by people who look like me. Black people in America do not have that privilege, because they carry inside themselves the individual and collective experience of being the oppressed, unwanted minority.
So, I said privilege. That word, when it follows the word, white, stirs up defensiveness in many white people. It sounds derogatory, and while it can be used that way, it is a reasonably undeniable fact. When the president of a company has the corner office, with a private bathroom, and a secretary to manage his schedule and guard his time, he has privilege. He is not better than others — he does not possess greater intrinsic worth. He is simply afforded things that others in the company are not. White privilege is similar, and it plays out in not having to think about your world the way that Ali Barthwell does. I’m grateful I don’t have to think that way, because wrestling through that type of fear seems so incredibly difficult. Benefitting from the privilege of my race, though, has implications for me if I want to live well in a racially charged culture.
The biggest implication is coming to grips with the truth that being a black person in America must be seen through the eyes of black people. To understand, to truly understand someone whose personal history is different than mine, requires stepping into their world. And, the only way to do that with any integrity is to listen and trust. There’s the real rub. It is not so much that black people don’t trust white people, though of course that mistrust exists, but rather that white people, in general, are afraid to trust black people enough to learn from them in life-changing ways.
If you are white, what do you feel when you read the following words from Jonathan Capehart’s piece in the Washington Post, The Michael Brown shooting, the ‘war on whites’ and me?
I…wrote about the lessons my mother taught me growing up. How I shouldn’t run in public, lest I arouse undue suspicion. How I most definitely should not run with anything in my hands, lest anyone think I stole something. The lesson included not talking back to the police, lest you give them a reason to take you to jail — or worse. And I was taught to never, ever leave home without identification. The reason was not only a precaution in case something happened, such as an accident, but also in case I’m stopped by police for whatever reason. To this day, whether I’m going on a run or just running to get something out of my car nearby, I never step out of my home without my driver’s license, insurance card and my Washington Post business card with my partner’s cellphone number written on it.
When you’re black and especially male — in the United States — you have to go to these seemingly overboard, extra lengths in the off-chance they might save your life.
Seriously, what do you feel? I read them over and over and over again, and all I could say was, “My God, how can anyone live like that? What does that do to you, to walk around each and every day with that weight on your shoulders?” I don’t know, and so I have to enter into the lives of those who do. I must listen, and learn, and do what I can to help them lift that burden off of their backs, to afford them the privilege to simply be a person in my presence.
Please, don’t accuse me of white guilt, because that’s not what I am talking about. I am not responsible for being born into the family and community I was born into. I am not pandering to people of color as some sort of penance, either. And please understand that I know that I am not talking about every white person or every black person. I am speaking in generalities because I believe they apply, in general. There must be a new level of understanding on the part of the privileged, in order to show empathy to those outside of that privilege. In that way, the privileged invite the non-privileged to become instructors and leaders in the dialogue between black and white.
I am a person of Christian faith. One of the most comforting central doctrines within that faith is what is called the Incarnation. It is the belief that God came down as a man in order to experience what we experience, to know first hand what it feels like in all ways to be human. Whether you believe the Christian story or not, the concept is profoundly beautiful. Jesus left his place of glorious privilege to fully participate in humanity, from birth to death, with everything from joyous laughter and terrible betrayal in between. If we are ever — ever — going to surmount the disjointing of race in America, then those in the position of privilege are going to need to leave that privilege behind, literally or figuratively, and delve fully into the experience of those outside of that privilege. God help me to do just that.