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A Conversation About Racism and White Privilege

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Because there just hasn’t been enough about politics in the news recently, I’ve been reading up on potential Democratic presidential candidates for 2020. I wondered why people identified Senator Kamala Harris as African American, since her heritage is Jamaican and Indian. Although I had a feeling this was a really stupid question, I nevertheless sent my query to the African American Registry.

File:Kamala Harris Delivers Remarks on 50th Anniversary of the Signing of the Civil Rights Act 11.jpg

Sure enough, a guy named Ben wrote back simply, “Follow the middle passage.” Too late, I remembered my trip to the Museum of African American History and Culture last year and all I had learned (and forgotten) about the early slave trade: the maps outlining slave ship routes from the African continent to the islands, the pictures of the sugar cane plantations, the whips and shackles and chains. In fact, by the time of the American Revolution, there were close to 200,000 African slaves in Jamaica.

Feeling sheepish and frustrated with myself, I wrote back thanking Ben and asking him to forgive “my ignorant white self.” I am always aware and grateful to people of color who take the time to educate me.

Much to my surprise, Ben wrote back and asked if he could interview me. Turns out he is the director of the Registry, and an important part of his work is educating white people. He said he hoped I could help him “understand whiteness.” I told him I certainly couldn’t speak for all white people, but I’d be happy to help if I could.

Understanding Whiteness

Ben has two main questions:

  1. How much does guilt propel whites to try to step outside their comfort zone in the professional world?
  2. What does it look like to consistently give up one’s racial privilege for a lifetime?

These questions have got me thinking, and I’m looking forward to our interview. Understanding my own history of family racism and privilege has been an important part of my personal and spiritual growth, and was also key to my professional development when I worked on cultural competency and dismantling racism at the Sierra Club. Getting beyond my guilt and shame was essential. 

What really interests me, though, is his second question. I’m not sure that white people *can* give up their privilege. It just is. It is a fact. You can’t take off your skin color. I did nothing to get it, it’s just the way other people and society as a whole view me.

I am aware of it now, and do small things like always letting a person of color walk through a door first or get in line ahead of me or speak first in a meeting. Just to purposely step out of my unwarranted position of privilege. And I work towards racial justice and reconciliation and try to make sure that the groups I work with are not led by white people. But I just don’t think that a person can “give it up.” The trick is to become increasingly conscious of it and to decline it or bring it to light whenever possible.

What do you think? I’d be really interested in your thoughts on either of these questions. These are such important conversations as our nation struggles to confront the resurgence of white supremacy in America today.

I wish you a blessed, just, inclusive, and compassionate new year!

— Image of Senator Kamala Harris from Wikimedia Commons

Wake Up, White People

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“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

— Benjamin Franklin

It is time, white people. It is well past time. We can pretend that we are “unaffected” by police violence against people of color in America, or we can be outraged. Those are the only two options I see. Because you can’t watch the video of the police swarming all over Eric Garner in Staten Island and see it as anything other than homicide.

There are no questions, no conflicting accounts as there were in Ferguson; it’s all on video. As is the aftermath where six or seven officers, presumably trained in CPR, stand around watching Eric die on the sidewalk. One goes through his pockets. Another pats his shoulder and gives him the encouraging advice to “Breathe in, breathe out.” How sweet.

Parallel Universe

When I heard that the Staten Island grand jury would bring no charges, I felt as if I’d had the wind knocked out of me — like I was the one pleading, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” And I don’t have brown or black kids. I have a lot of friends who do, though, and I can’t imagine how they must feel every time their child walks out the door.

Meanwhile, my white Facebook friends are “outraged” at the latest changes in Facebook privacy policies, or else super-excited because Safeway has whole shopping carts full of candy bars for only a buck. I look around to see if I’ve crossed into a parallel universe. Haven’t they heard the news? I don’t even have a TV, and I heard the news.

But no, life in the white world goes on as before.

But not entirely.

Signs of Humanity

One white girlfriend calls in tears, partly hopeful because there are people demonstrating in the streets all over the country, and partly distraught because of “what has happened to our country.” She has made a sign for her window that says simply, ERIC.

Another white friend who teaches at an elite private school struggles “to justify teaching the structure of a sonnet when there seems to be no structure in the world —or when it seems that the structures that do exist appall and offend you.” I wish more people had his soft heart, where “simply falling asleep in secure comfort feels viciously calloused, knowing there are people dying wrongfully at the hands of others while the world looks on and declares No harm, No foul.”

A Facebook friend asks, “Where is the fierce urgency of now among my fellow white liberal base? The cultural state of the country feels more dire than at any time in my lifetime.” (I might add, where is the conservative base that’s supposed to care about individual rights? Oh, that’s right, they are too busy creating cartoons of our black president’s head coming out of a dog’s butt to notice people being gunned down and strangled in the streets.)

So, Mr. Benjamin Franklin, white Americans may be slow to wake up and slow to outrage. I know that I feel powerless over all this, and it’s easier to be in denial. But there are signs of an awakening. And this is a democracy — or at least it used to be. I think it’s possible that perhaps, just perhaps, these African-American men and boys will not have died completely in vain. Perhaps justice will one day be served in this country when White America recognizes that there is no one “unaffected” by racial oppression.

DSCN4409

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Martin Niemoller

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Unfriending a Facebook OOPS

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Although I doubt I’m going to my upcoming high school reunion, perusing the Facebook page has been a blast. Lots of old familiar faces, with an emphasis on the “old.”

One guy, who will remain nameless because I’m about to cast aspersions, especially caught my attention. We were in school together all the way through, twelve years. I had a crush on him in fifth grade. Course, I had a crush on a lot of guys in the fifth grade.

Anyway, there was his smiling face and without thinking, I clicked the Friend button. A few minutes later, I was confirmed and decided to visit his page.

You can tell a lot from the places someone visits. He lives in Florida now. Let’s see – Sand Trap Bar, Roo’s Pub, Party Central, Sail Inn Bar, Heads and Tails Lounge . . . all over a twenty hour period. Hmmm. Either this guy is a busy peanut salesman or we may have an issue here. It’s not even a weekend.

Lots of baseball and beer posts. Yawn.

Uh-oh.

Strike one: Posting a photo of a typical traffic tie-up on the D.C. Beltway (which is actually from 2008) and claiming that the Truckers for the Constitution have shut down the city and the liberal media is hushing it up. Well, I don’t know, I guess there are worse things than conservative conspiracy theorists. I have a few other Facebook Friends like that.

Traffic in 2008 that has nothing to do with the fact that only a couple of truckers showed up to “shut down D.C.” last weekend.

Strike two: A photo of a red and white Obama urinal-target poster with an additional comment, “Let’s impeach the Kenyan!” Don’t tell me he’s one of these guys who thinks Obama isn’t an American . . . oh, it gets even better: “Get the Taliban out of the White House!” Oh wow – here’s a photo of a dog taking a crap and the President of the United States is coming out of its rear end. Thanks for that. Seriously, this guy has retained his scatological fifth grade humor.

I’m kind of fascinated by people like this. I consider staying “friends” with him just to keep an eye on the breeding grounds for future Tea Party nut cases. But then:

A big strike three: He posts a photo of two young black guys in the VFW where he had gone to have a few quiet drinks with “people like him.” He leaves the VFW after protesting that they aren’t enforcing the veterans-only rule and should not welcome “self-entitled persons” like those pictured. He muses that the reason these guys don’t have a job is because they couldn’t pass drug tests. It apparently doesn’t occur to my ex-friend that the guys might be military. Or even employed.

African-American Soldier

I’m sorry to share this unpleasant story. Maybe you see a lot of this; I don’t, thank God. I just wanted  to remind my white friends that racism is far from dead. People of color already know this. I won’t even go into the comments from this guy’s other “friends.” Suffice to say, the N Word is alive and unashamed in Florida.

Unfriend.

African-American President: Get Over It

African-American President: Get Over It

Official White House Obama photo by Pete Souza

Colin Powell photo in public domain

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There’s No Such Thing as Quiet Racism

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English: Statue of Liberty Gaeilge: Dealbh na ...

Statue of Liberty (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

I remember prancing around on stage in some fifth grade extravaganza, singing “Aaaaamerica is a melting pot…” I think I was wearing a cardboard Statue of Liberty headpiece and stars and stripes of some sort.

Anyway, the song’s been stuck in my head since the election, and I’ve been wondering if maybe — just maybe — our nation might be entertaining the notion of pursuing its promise – strength through diversity.

Old White Guys’ Last Hoorah

I’ve been feeling hopeful about race relations. I mean, our African-American president has been elected twice. While conspiracy crazies and FOX News will no doubt find imaginative ways to insinuate, or say outright, that he didn’t *really* win, reasonable people know that this was no fluke.

Our president is a black guy, and I still think this is incredibly awesome. True, the white vote went for Romney in most states, but exit polls tell us that’s largely due to old white guys, which isn’t surprising.

They are seeing the America they used to know – the one where they were in charge – slipping away.

As Senator Lindsey Graham told the Washington Post, “We are not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long-term.” I guess Mr. Limbaugh isn’t doing his job.

God love them, but good riddance to those good old days.

Rush with his buddies

And Now For Something Completely Different…Or Not

How about we try something different? Let’s even go beyond “tolerance” and try for genuine relationships with people of different backgrounds than ourselves. How about that?

That’s where my hopeful head was when my friends and I arrived at a local Chinese restaurant this weekend. There were five of us, and I was the token white chick.

Here’s what happened: my friends were in front of me, waiting to order. I reiterate — I was in line BEHIND them.

The woman behind the counter pointed to me and said, “Let me help her first.”

We all looked at each other, puzzled, and then I said, “I’m with them.”

“Oh, sorry, sorry,” she said.

The first sad thing here is that it didn’t occur to her that we might be together. But what’s worse is that I’m fairly certain that if four white folks had been in line in front of an African-American, it would not have occurred to the server to take that last person out of order.  My friends teased me, calling me “the special person,” and we all laughed about it. But it was not funny.

“Welcome to America, Melanie,” one of them said.

Calling Out Racism

This isn’t on a scale with the Colored drinking fountains and washrooms I remember in Florida when I was a little girl.

And it wasn’t as egregious as the time a guy at a Maryland Christmas tree lot tried to sell me a tree marked SOLD because the purchaser was “only a negro lady.”

But it sure feels the same.

Sign for

We have a long way to go, but we can all help. Prayers are good.

And I just want to make a plea to my fellow Caucasians: keep your eyes and ears open. Speak up.

Don’t let people get away with this kind of “quiet racism.”

There’s no such thing as quiet racism.

It all screams, and we should all call it out.

Thanks for listening, and for hoping with me.

God bless our melting pot.

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