EFLC • • • • • • • • • • • New York • • • • • • • • On White Privilege

I am a white woman, the wife of a man who is African-American, and the mother of two children who are bi-racial.  I was grateful when President Obama spoke out after the George Zimmerman verdict, sharing his perspective as an African American man having experienced the oppression African American men and women experience in this country.  As a white woman, I also have to ask, where are our white leaders who are speaking openly about white privilege and their experience realizing the benefits we all have due purely to the color of our skin, in this country?

I have had to learn about white privilege, come to realize its pervasiveness in our society and the fact that while I continue to benefit from racial privilege every day, my privilege does not extend to my immediate family.  I am learning about a whole new vocabulary of psychological, emotional, and cultural capacity that my husband, family, and friends of color have had to speak/act/experience to live in this country.  I have only begun my journey with this new knowledge, and have much more learning to do, yet I am reminded in small and large ways that for everything I understood to be true through my viewpoint, there is always at least one (more often many) more ways to view those “truths.”

The verdict of George Zimmerman and the trial of the shooting of Trayvon Martin have put this front and center for me.  I was caught off guard at the verdict—at first thinking this is unbelievable—how can we as a society have laws and a judicial system that allow this to happen, when facts, common sense, and basic humanity all lean another way?  But then, I realized—my response is one from a very protected, privileged viewpoint, and many of my friends of color and family members of color were not surprised, in fact, this was more what they expected.

It has struck me—this is not an African American problem, something to be worked through in the African American community. This is an American problem, one that cannot be solved until white people start to join the conversation—not in empathy for the African American experience, but in self reflection and learning and coming to understand the white experience as well.

This is when we will engage with each other on more even ground.  When we all look at ourselves in this long historical equation and see not just “them,” but us too.  It is a scary, uncertain journey into the unknown.  I have found assumptions and core beliefs that permeated my world view—blown apart—realizing they only applied to a select privileged few and those who chose to leave their own identify at the door and assimilate into the privileged society and play the game.

I call on my white friends and family to take a step—start to ask questions of those who are of a different race than yourself.  Be open to hearing about a world that is different than the one you believe in.  Listen for understanding—to realize we have a lot to learn to understand the complete American experience.

While this will come with feelings of disbelief, loss, and downright resistance, anger, and frustration – it is also the path that will start to open up real lines of understanding, acceptance and equality.  When we start to see our neighbors as ourselves and find the common human elements and desires between us—this is when the American dream becomes real.  This is when true change and progress takes place—when we reach across racial lines in an effort to understand, and when white people are willing to put ourselves out there—to learn about this racial construct that has no basis in science or reality – it is purely a social construct written and designed to put us apart in a hierarchical structure— with light skinned people a the top.  This has been the operating system of our country since the founding fathers—hundreds of years does not get wiped away with a civil rights movement, a powerful speech, or the election of a bi-racial president.  Progress has been made.  Real learning and action toward equality will come when we communicate and listen across racial differences, and differences of all kinds – gender, sexual, spiritual, etc.

When Trayvon was shot, I was transformed as a mother, realizing that I need to raise my son with a whole different awareness and sensibility than I was raised or my brother was raised.  My privilege doesn’t extend to my son, and I NEED TO LEARN about this in order to guide him in this world.  I didn’t know how to do that, and I’m still learning.

The verdict was a whole other awakening—as a mother, wife, woman, and citizen of this country.  How do I communicate to my children about a country that allows this to happen?  An innocent boy walking home from the store is shot and killed by a neighborhood watchman, and that person gets off without any punishment.

Here is one answer: I have to learn about and to teach my children about the institutionalized racism that exists in our country in the profiling of African American men and boys, in the legal system that doesn’t treat everyone equally, and in the media that exploits stereotypes and feeds the subconscious biases we carry.  How do we fight against that?

One day, one step, one conversation at a time.

I challenge all of my white friends and family who have read this far to ask someone of a different race about a time when they felt they were treated differently due to their race.  I am willing to bet, if you ask with an open heart and mind, willing to hear what you don’t want to hear—at least one story will emerge—a person being followed in a store, a taxi passing them by, a feeling of having to “act white” to get a job.  AND, when you hear a story that doesn’t align with how you see the world—don’t question, dismiss or discount their experience—sit with it.  Imagine yourself in their shoes—and maybe then we will start to feel our own privilege and realize some of the differences that exist.

Maybe.  I hope so.  I have to have hope.  I am a white woman, married to an African American man, raising bi-racial children, and we are a family, just like all families in our country—wanting to love and be loved and make the world a better place for our children and our children’s children.