All of us, to an extent, reflect where and when we were young and what we learned from the people around us. The adults I grew up around were not in the business of telling me what I could not do. This wasn’t always a good thing—I could have used more personal boundaries—but it afforded me the freedom to see my limits in life as equal to the limits of my dreams. No one was going to hand me anything, but if I wanted to go somewhere, do something, be someone, I simply had to figure out how it was done. And then do it.
This idealistic perspective was not limited to how I saw myself. When I looked at the other people in my little world, I saw equal value. I wasn’t just like everyone else. Most of the other kids I knew lived in one house their whole lives with both their parents and by the time I was ten I’d experienced my parents divorce, my first step-mother’s suicide, and more than a dozen moves between both parents. I went to a couple of different elementary schools in Minneapolis where half the kids in my class were black, a third were Mung, and a handful were white. Looking back, I didn’t see myself as particularly exceptional and I wasn’t upset about it. I knew I was different, but it never occurred to me to think I was better than or not as good as anyone else.
I was however quite naïve. Because I thought everybody thought this way. I learned in school about how terribly people had treated each other throughout history, even in the not so distant past, but I didn’t see it in my present. At least not very often. Coming of age in the MidWest in the late 80s and early 90s, the one slice of bigotry I saw was homophobia. And even then Minneapolis had the second highest per capita gay population in the country, so mostly I saw it on the news. My dad moved us out to the suburbs before I was in high school and while I found it socially and culturally claustrophobic, I went to a very liberal school where none of my teachers treated me differently for being a girl. In fact, a few of them surprised me by telling me I was smart and challenging me to show it. So as a young woman going off to college I didn’t identify as a feminist because I didn’t think I needed to be one—I didn’t think anyone did. I knew racism was alive and well in the world, thanks to Do the Right Thing I even knew it was still a problem in our country, but I had no idea I was playing a role in sustaining it. Luckily when I went off to college I moved to New York City and my little world blew up big time.
I made a lot of different of friends from all over the country and all over the world. I had more interaction with the police in my first few months at NYU than in my previous 18 years combined. I encountered homelessness and real poverty for the first time. I was constantly sexually harassed on the street by strange men. I quickly learned to be acutely aware of my surroundings and the people around me wherever I went; and I learned where not to go when I was alone. I figured out that appearance was as important as articulation, if not more so, when you want people to hear you—especially for a woman. I finally understood prejudice to be an immediate concern in my world, but I still wasn’t aware how I was contributing to it.
I was bright enough, but I wasn’t looking for inconsistencies or problems that didn’t come to find me. I remember having dinner one night with the father of a family I had adopted as my own. They were Jewish and he had served in WWII before graduating from college. When he was first at Yale, he told me, he unwittingly passed as just another WASP, but when he saw how his new friends were treating the other Jews he outed himself. He told me such painful stories of discrimination and I was astounded. “That makes no sense,” I said, “the country had just gone to war to save the Jews.” He had to explain to me that stopping Hitler and ending the holocaust were two different things, the latter being a consequence of the former, and Anti-Semitism was largely undiminished in postwar America. I was 30 years old by the time this conversation happened and I wasn’t stupid, I just hadn’t asked the question before. I hadn’t thought far enough to connect the dots…because it hadn’t occurred to me to do so
I am 40 now and over the last several years it has occurred to me to ask a lot more questions, most of them to do with the economy, but I changed my mind about feminism and a lot of other things. I find as I get older I’m more interested in history. I worry about what the future has in store for humanity and vice versa. I’m much more tuned in politically and I think voting matters. But what I find most discouraging is how many people out there, when their perspectives on the world are challenged, refuse to engage in a sensible debate, internally or with others. Gay marriage? Equal pay? Income inequality? Social Security? Healthcare? Citizen’s United? The USWNT’s World Cup purse? Black Lives Matter! They know what they think before they even think about it and can’t wait to be congratulated by their peers for coming to this preconceived conclusion, which is inevitable because they’ve long since unfriended anyone who disagrees with them. Trending! #thisdrivesmenuts
Even now, as I progress from narrative to rant, I’m constantly asking myself what parts of what I’m saying are relevant to other people. I’m challenging myself to communicate my perspective in a manner that can be embraced and reflected upon rather than dismissed out of hand for being other. I’m trying on a lot of other shoes here and walking around in them, not just because I want you (as many yous as possible) to hear me but because I see equal value in other people’s experience. I just wish you saw it in each other.
Fellow white people, in case I’ve been too vague, I’m talking to you. I don’t want to fight, but I have to say this out loud and in a permanent place because trying to talk to you one-on-one whenever this comes up is exhausting. So here it is.
Please don’t assume that because you have not encountered it personally, there is no problem. You will never recognize white privilege until you start looking at the world from someone else’s point of view. You don’t notice not being stopped by police. You don’t notice when your résumé floats to the top of the pile. You don’t notice when your right to vote isn’t challenged. You don’t notice when people don’t automatically become afraid when you’re walking behind them on the street. You don’t notice when no one assumes you’ve stolen your nice new car or you’re breaking into your own house when you’re putting the key in your door. You don’t notice when you call the police to report a disturbance on your street and they don’t arrest you for being nearby. You don’t notice when no one gets arrested if some kids from school crash your pool party. You don’t notice when a kid in your neighborhood doesn’t get shot by police five seconds after they see him playing with a toy gun. You don’t notice when your sister doesn’t get arrested for no reason and doesn’t die under suspicious circumstances while in police custody.
Please understand that if you are not being mindful and critical of racial disparities in how people are treated socially, economically, and under the law, you are supporting the status quo. I had to be reminded of this recently myself. Sitting idly in recognition of a problem is not the same as actively recognizing it. Being actively aware means factoring this societal ill into your decision making process when it comes to voting and spending money. Again, it means asking questions that don’t come to find you. And it means speaking up when shutting up might feel like the polite thing, the easier thing to do. You can be polite and sensitive and stand up for what’s right.
Please understand that you are not being wronged by more and more people realizing these disparities and calling you out on behavior that supports them. All Lives Matter is not any way to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement; it is a dismissal of a concerted effort to spread recognition of a social crisis. If you still don’t understand why, read this. If someone has a problem with how you are expressing yourself, try treating the exchange as an opportunity to broaden your perspective. Again, even if you don’t wind up agreeing with the other person, the conversation is worth having. And remember, “Why am I a racist?” is how you start a fight, not a conversation.
Please remember that progress doesn’t happen by itself and it isn’t always speedy. You may be inconvenienced by protestors. You may not see the point of rioting. You might get sick of hearing about problems and not solutions. Ask yourself what you are doing to help. Because the truth is your inconvenience is insignificant and your influence is disproportionate.
We are all on a journey of understanding and all I’m saying is double check that your foot isn’t firmly on the breaks. You might not have even noticed. For my part, I still don’t see myself as particularly exceptional, but these are some pretty basic lessons I have learned that plenty of people don’t seem to understand. Again, you don’t have to agree with me, but I do appreciate you hearing me out. And if you think I’m getting it wrong, I’m all ears.