I have a problem. I know there’s white privilege, but I don’t easily recognize it within myself. So, help a sister out, will ya? You can’t tell me that I just don’t get it because I’m so steeped in my white privilege and then fold your arms and refuse to say anything more. Do you want me to get it or not? Or maybe you don’t know how to describe it any better than I can…what’s inside of me. It’s risky, after all, to tell us white people anything, even with those of us who want more than anything to be open. I’m not being snippy. I know that it really is risky.
I suppose I understand that I shouldn’t burden you to define my white privilege. But it feels stuck. Black Lives Matter. The progress. I’m not feeling any progress. And I want progress to be made. By me, with you. So, perhaps it lies in mutual efforts in attempting to understand, communicate. My story isn’t very interesting and its one shared by a bazillion white people.
When I was very young, maybe four or five, and mom and I were getting on a bus to go downtown. It was very exciting to be going someplace so far from home. I’d never been on a bus before. And I had never seen a black person except Sidney Poitier in the movies. Suddenly, I needed to know, “Mommy, do colored people’s hairs turn gray when they get old?”
“Shhhshhh,” she replied, pointing to the seat across from us. There sat the first really real colored person I’d ever seen, and he had some gray in his hair. I must have had such a look of wonder on my face, like I was meeting a movie star. He was looking right at me, and we both smiled, broadly. His eyes twinkled with barely contained amusement. Then he turned his face toward the window, and, when he turned again to face forward, his face bore no expression at all.
My mother was afraid of black people because that’s how she was raised. She was born in 1922 and raised in a country where everything was segregated. It’s easy to see how a person could form the idea in childhood that, if black people are kept separate, back of the bus, separate entrance, whites only places, if that is what you see everywhere growing up, it’s easy to understand why the fear was so nameless. I don’t think she ever questioned it. Did she ever wonder what would happen if a black person were allowed to come through the same door, drink from the same fountain, sit next to her at the lunch counter in Woolworth’s. She had drawn conclusions not based on experience. Like, she would say to me, “I don’t have anything against colored people. But I wouldn’t want one living next door to me.” When I asked her why, she explained, “They don’t keep up their property.” How would she know that, I wondered. And I remember her feeling slightly ashamed when she told me how she was afraid to hold hands with a little black girl who was in her kindergarten Sunday school class because she was sure the color would come off on her hands. “Not very Christian of me,” she murmured.
So, that’s who raised me. Even at four, I didn’t buy it. The man on the bus, he looked so different, and that’s why I liked him so much. Even at four, I knew that it’s the differences that make the world such an adventure. I wanted to talk with him, but he had extinguished himself just as quickly as he had ignited. And I knew that our interaction was over.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that he was likely more afraid than my mother was. I didn’t understand the danger, the potential consequences which could have occurred as a result of his interacting with a little white girl in 1961.
I still don’t understand it. But I know it exists now just as it did in 1961 in all its immutable horror.
So, I’m calling bullshit. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater of white folks, and just sit back and watch us twirl around like we’re inside of a salad spinner. Because, if I’m too marinated in white privilege to see when I’m commanding it, and you refuse to say anything more, then we’re at a stalemate.
I invite your comments.