Thursday, May 29, 2014

Realizing the Comforts of My Color {Thoughts on White Privilege}

She came from nowhere, it seemed, and slipped away in the same smooth and silent way.

We were at the donut shop's counter, being treated to coffee by one of the people we were visiting.  His wallet was out, and suddenly she was there, at his side, all creased chocolate skin and curls spiraling with gray and -- this is what has stayed with me -- dark and haunted eyes.

"Do you have a dollar?" she asked the one of our group who was paying.  "Could you get me a coffee?"

His reply was sharp, a matter of course.  He tossed it at her as if it was nothing, as if she was nothing -- which, of course, to him, she was.

"No," he said, jerking a hand her way as if he was flicking off a fly, dismissively, almost flippantly.  I don't think he even looked at her.  I don't think he saw her at all.

But I saw her.  My eyes met hers, those nearly-black depths, and we looked at each other.  My stomach twisted, and our souls met, perhaps, in that moment.  I can't say she felt that or anything other than non-surprise -- another white man with his white companions and their sure, unseeing caucasian eyes -- but I was rocked to the core of my core of my core.

I felt shocked.  Shocked at her boldness to come right into the store and ask for that coffee, shocked at the "no," shocked at how I winced in pain at that matter-of-fact reply and the woman did not.

I didn't buy her a coffee either.  I didn't have cash, but that's no excuse, and before I could think or fish for a credit card, she was gone, a breath of smoke wafting back out into the sea of urban humanity that churned passed the shop's windows.

But the churning in my gut did not leave with her.

* * *

Recently, we traveled to Philadelphia, a city close in culture and geography to where I grew up.  A month or so back, we went to Austin, Texas.  And on both trips, I was confronted with my whiteness.

I've forgotten, living in this mountainous city, how homogenous we are here.  How very white we are.  Yes, we have Native American folks, and poor folks, too, but the overall impression of the community is white white white.  

Then we leave home, and all of a sudden my child is meeting his first black person, his first brown person, his first not-white people.  And I can't stop wondering if such a racially homogenous town is the best place to raise him.  If it's the best place for us, for me, for anyone.

We've (I've) gotten so comfortable with sameness.

* * *

In Austin, I was delighted by our dip into racial diversity.  In Philadelphia, I was disturbed by it.

In Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, our hotel was located in the business district.  We arrived on a weekend day, and as we walked the area I was pleasantly surprised by how few white people there were out with us.  I relished cacophany of skin colors.  

But the morning, a workday, told a different story.  Suddenly, there were white people everywhere, striding in crisp suits and barking importantly on phones and sitting in meetings over lunch.  Not only white people, of course -- but the difference from the night before was unsettling.  

I noticed, too, that we did not meet a single white person employed in a service position.  Not one.  

I'd forgotten that.  I'd grown up in a culture where every McDonald's employee was black as a rule -- a rule that was never broken.  I'd forgotten how comfortable I was as a child and teen with this reality -- that white people were never, never, never taxi drivers or gas station attendants or fast food clerks or convenience store cashiers or custodians.

But now, after my sojourn in the Rocky Mountains, I found my skin crawling at this actuality.

* * *

My grandmother is an old, old woman.  We journeyed to Philadelphia to see her, probably for the last time in this life.  And while she is feisty and strong, she needs help now.  

When we visited her, we ended up visiting with her caregivers, too, because they are always with her.  They are a good match for my grandma, for they are just as fiery and fierce as she is, and so deliciously sassy to boot.  

They are also black.  

Every caregiver and custodian at my grandmother's facility was black.  And every resident was white.  Every one.  That we saw, anyway.  This makes me uncomfortable. 

My grandmother's caregivers call her "Miss Mary," and that makes me uncomfortable, too.  When they'd say it, the words would conjure up unbidden images of racial crimes in the South during the civil rights era, and of plantations and masters and cracking whips and the flesh of the other bought and sold as if the soul it spread over wasn't listening, loving, aching wondering.

* * *

That woman in the donut shop, she did not expect to be seen, to be given coffee or kindness.  She was accustomed to being invisible.

But I saw her.  I saw you, woman with the haunting eyes.  I don't know you or your story, I don't know why you were begging for coffee, for a single dollar.  I don't know how life has wounded you.  I don't know why you love, what makes you weep.  

But I saw you.  

I saw something in my self, too, something old and hard and small, and something new unfurling crimson wings toward the sun.  I saw something of our culture's illnesses.  

I can't unsee this, or you, woman with the haunting eyes.  I don't want to.

* * *

While we were in Philadelphia, I had a hard time finding the right words to define the growing discomfort and unsettled feelings in my heart in response to these racial observations. How do describe, to discuss my churning thoughts?

But at last, I landed on the phrase -- white privilege.

I have never been more aware of the fact that white privilege exists in our culture, in our world.  That it exists in my world.  That I enjoy it daily, hourly, with every pulsing shudder of my heart.  

And -- that with that privilege comes responsibility.  Responsibility to use the privilege of my skin color well.  I didn't ask for that privilege or do anything to earn it.  And yet I have it.  

But how to use it?  How to use that unasked for power and the financial and social privileges that I enjoy?  How do I wield my white privilege as an actually helpful (not a perceived-by-me, make-my-self-feel-better, offensive sort of "helpful") force?

Also, what does all this tell me about how to live in my homogenous home town -- because while we don't have a lot of non-white folks, there are certainly many homeless and underprivileged people that I largely have not seen and/or avoid seeing.

I don't have answers.  I don't know what to do.

But I have seen.  A layer of social blindness has fallen from my eyes, and I cannot call this anything but good.

Edited to add: Please know that I am not trying to say that only black/non-white people work in service or are poor and/or disadvantaged.  Nor am I saying that black/non-white people can only work in service types of positions.  I am also not trying to insinuate that white privilege is the only kind of privilege out there.  I am merely stating my observations during this one trip and pondering their potential meanings, both for society and for what it says about myself.  Thanks for your grace as we walk into this sensitive topic together.

Want to read more about white privilege?  Here are a few items I found helpful . . .
Over to you -- what are your thoughts on race and privilege?  What are we to do with our privilege, white or otherwise, to make things better for all people?  How do we all, of every color and status, work for needed change?  Or should we be "using" our privilege at all?  Do you have any recommended books/websites/etc.?  I want to learn. 


  1. This is really, really excellent - both writing and content. I lived in Austin TX for the past 4 years (or so) and before that in Chicago. I have had to learn to let myself see. I'm not responsible for fixing, reacting in fear or guilt, but I am responsible for seeing them, and acknowledging them. I now always at least wave to the guy on the corner asking for a hand out. I try to say hi and make eye contact. If anything it is good to see my heart reflected back to me.

    1. Thanks, e. I love what you wrote here, so much:

      "I'm not responsible for fixing, reacting in fear or guilt, but I am responsible for seeing them, and acknowledging them."

      I think that's the crux of it. Seeing. If there's a next step, it will flow out of the seeing, I hope.

  2. The waking up was huge for me. The fact is that I do not in actuality have much leverage in terms of finance or influence, but I can share what I learn and pass the awareness to my children. And purpose to live awake, telling the truth about injustice. It never feels like enough. It is a small offering. But it's all I have. I'm in the questions right along with you. I want to learn and I want to be teachable.

    1. yes to living awake. yes to teaching our children. yes to offering what we can, as we can, even when it is small. thank you, Jamie. thank you.

  3. About 20 years ago I taught American history at a community college in San Antonio, Texas. One morning I was teaching was the day after the O.J. Simpson verdict had been reached--and the newspapers said something like the majority of black Americans thought he was innocent and the majority of white Americans thought he was guilty. I felt very, very white standing before my very racially diverse class. I felt the same things and asked similar questions--what can I do? Awareness and active seeking to learn were two things that came to my mind, and for several years I made a point of reading black authors (Toni Morrison--all-time fave) and I even got a grant and did some historical research on black settlements in territorial Montana. I don't know what else we can do but educate ourselves. It used to be that blacks saw education as a way to elevate themselves into the majority society and now I think we can also use education as a tool for our own integration.

  4. Congratulations?
    I've never commented on your blog before but there are too many red flags to ignore.

    Please stop conflating White Privilege with White Guilt. While the two can co-exist, they are not the same.Specifically, White Guilt involves the perception, as opposed to actualized, inequality, a lack of understanding on how to navigate those feelings with aplomb, and a projecting of those feelings onto the (perceived) marginalized persons. In your recounting of the lovely women who care for your grandmother you perceive them as loyal and subservient service workers, The "Mammy" trope, if you will. I see trained healthcare professionals who were raised with some manners and have respect enough for their elders to address them in the honorary.

    Second, please stop conflating race privilege with economic privilege. There are many, many, many persons of color who experience hundreds of micro and macroaggressions daily. The only time you notice that someone is Black is when they're begging for something? Race/Ethnicity and Economic Status may run parallel but make no mistake, they are wholly different spectrums and should be analyzed as such.

    When asked to recount the time I spent with you in Montana I always recount one moment in particular: Outside the art museum, I was sitting on a bench. You, B, and A were standing. A caucasian man walked past and stopped between us, staring at me. I smiled politely and said hello;I did not receive a response. He turned and greeted you,then made his way down the street. THAT is White Privilege. To not be rendered invisible simply in the act of being.To not be a spectacle. To not have the whole of you discounted because of the color of your skin. I have told that story many, many times. Welcome to Montana.

    This incident happened in your town, in your presence, and went unacknowledged. So while I support your journey to awareness, there seems to have been a willful ignorance. This understanding of your own inherent advantages seems miles too little and years too late.

    I suggest taking Harvard's Unconscious Bias testing as a starting point for self-awareness. Then continue on to examine your religious, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual, non-veteran privileges as well. Maybe then you'll stop thinking in the "them" and start thinking in the "we".

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Kelle. I agree with you that I was...and likely am...ignorant and unaware of many things - racial privilege, economic privilege, gender privilege, and much more. I'm sorry that I didn't acknowledge that incident. I didn't know that it even happened. Which likely reflects my privilege.

      I have felt for several years now that I spent the majority of my life asleep, and that I am just waking up. Having gotten a taste of loving awake, I want all of it that I can get. It's my goal to live with my heart and eyes wide open. And I know I'm going to get stuff wrong, or do things awkwardly. Trusting that there's grace for that as we join hands.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I had to think hard about if I wanted to respond further. I sense your earnestness but think it's misdirected. Specifically: "How do I wield my white privilege as an actually helpful (not a perceived-by-me, make-my-self-feel-better, offensive sort of "helpful") force? "

      The answer is, you do not. You acknowledge your privilege and engage with people with a sense of social consciousness, but your "whiteness" should not be the context in which you set out to save the world. The media portrays the White Savior / White Man's Burden trope over and over again ( eg. People who are marginalized don't want to have someone fight their fights for them, they want the tools, resources, and opportunities to fight for themselves, on a level battlefield.

    4. Yes yes yes! I am with you! Thank you for putting words to the things I could not find words for. to help create tools, resources, opportunities, and a level field without going into the white savior zone? And how do I do that in a place like Montana?

  5. For issues of white privilege and transracial parenting, check out John Raible's blog and resources. Also he hosts/leads summer programs for kids and adults. We are caucasian parents of an african/african-american daughter. We chose to live in a 90% African American, lower/middle class neighborhood and mixed church. Her preschool has students of many races, whites are a minority there. We did this because we were concerned that living in an all or mostly caucasian neighborhood, school, church, etc., would mean she'd be protected too much from the racial injustice issues that she'd need to deal with later. (We'd read and heard from many kids adopted transracially about that friend stated it as: one or two cute black kids in a comfy white suburb is considered cute, noble, not a threat, but when I later entered school and work worlds, I became a Black Man, a threat, and that was a shock! My parents never talked about it with me, they just said what's inside is what counts, which is true but wasn't much help.) Also, we thought that we'd find it easier to develop the strong relationships we'd need with the black community as a whole, and with individual african american and african immigrants. We wanted our daughter to have role models and mentors of her race as well as ours. It takes work, and conscious reaching out, and reaching out some more - but it's worth it.

    For me, the only cure is learning, staying open, and making the conscious choice to build relationships. To be prepared to accept one's ignorance,and listen, and listen again, to what persons of color tell you about their listen more than you talk. Eventually, you will not accept the status of "awake and aware" as enough, you will want to do something about what you see,not just for you, but so that your son can see what you do.

  6. Beth, Thank you for bringing this issue into our Spirit of the Poor dialogue. It is hard. There are many injustices in the world and we (I, at any rate) benefit from most of them. That's why it's hard.


"I am glad you are here with me."
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King