Racism & White Privilege


Just read this terrific article written by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, a black woman, responding to a query from a white friend on White Privilege.  (Lori Lakin Hutcherson is a Los Angeles native, Harvard graduate, film and television writer/producer, and founder/editor-in-chief of the award-winning website Good Black News. She is also a wife, mother, vegetarian, crossword puzzle enthusiast, nerd, and avid music lover.) Though the article is a year old, it certainly hasn’t lost it’s importance.

Yesterday I was tagged in a post by an old high school friend, asking me and a few others a very public, direct question about white privilege and racism. I feel compelled not only to publish his query but also my response to it, as it may be a helpful discourse for more than just a handful of folks on Facebook.

Here’s his post:

“To all of my Black or mixed race FB friends, I must profess a blissful ignorance of this ‘White Privilege‘ of which I’m apparently guilty of possessing. By not being able to fully put myself in the shoes of someone from a background/race/religion/gender/nationality/body type that differs from my own makes me part of the problem, according to what I’m now hearing.

“Despite my treating everyone with respect and humor my entire life (as far as I know), I’m somehow complicit in the misfortune of others. I’m not saying I’m colorblind, but whatever racism/sexism/other -ism my life experience has instilled in me stays within me, and is not manifested in the way I treat others (which is not the case with far too many, I know).

“So that I may be enlightened, can you please share with me some examples of institutional racism that have made an indelible mark upon you? If I am to understand this, I need people I know personally to show me how I’m missing what’s going on. Personal examples only. I’m not trying to be insensitive, I only want to understand (but not from the media). I apologize if this comes off as crass or offends anyone.”

Here’s my response:

Hi, Jason. First off, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve quoted your post and made it part of mine. I think the heart of what you’ve asked of your friends of color is extremely important, and I think my response needs much more space than as a reply on your feed. I truly thank you for wanting to understand what you are having a hard time understanding.

Coincidentally, over the last few days I have been thinking about sharing some of the incidents of prejudice/racism I’ve experienced in my lifetime – in fact, I just spoke with my sister Lesa about how to best do this yesterday – because I realized many of my friends (especially the white ones) have no idea what I’ve experienced/dealt with unless they were present (and aware) when it happened.

There are two reasons for this :

1) Because not only as a human being do I suppress the painful and uncomfortable in an effort to make it go away, I was also taught within my community (I was raised in the ‘70s and ‘80s – it’s shifted somewhat now) and by society at large not to make a fuss, speak out, or rock the boat. To just “deal with it,” lest more trouble follow (which sadly, it often does).

2) Fear of being questioned or dismissed with “Are you sure that’s what you heard?” or “Are you sure that’s what they meant?” and being angered and upset all over again by well-meaning-but-hurtful and essentially unsupportive responses.

Please go here to read the complete article.

The author then cites only a few examples of the racism that she has experienced in her life. I think most people of the white persuasion wouldn’t see anything wrong with the actions she describes. I hope some people are dismayed when they recognize themselves.

In an odd comparison I want to relate three of my own early experiences with racism as a white woman.

I lived in a small town, which during the 50s-60s was essentially an All-White community. You won’t find this information anywhere in the history pages of Menomonee Falls, WI , but I recall my mom telling me the town had at one time a policy not to sell to Blacks.  I never saw a living breathing black person until about age 10-12. I didn’t go to school with anyone other than white kids. We didn’t even have many Jewish people living in town.

Fast food restaurants were new in the 60s-70s when I grew up, and we were so excited when the McDonald’s moved in, but it was at the other end of town, so it was not a frequent treat. But when Kentucky Fried Chicken went in on the corner of Main Street, now that was close by. My dad brought me with him to get a bucket of chick to take home. Standing in front of me was a large, very dark man. I remember being somehow stunned. I guess it was a similar reaction to Native tribes coming in contact with their first White men.  I find it very sad that this was my first glimpse into the Black community.

A second even more powerful incident struck me when I was at Girl Scout Camp one summer about age 12. There were girls from all over Wisconsin at this camp and I met and made my first Black friend. I don’t recall her name now, but I remember the look on her face.

We each washed our own dishes at a communal wash bucket as big as a horse trough. I was next in line to wash my dishes, and my Black friend was behind me. I stepped from the “sink” and she stepped up. Behind her I hear someone curse and complain that they hoped the water was still clean enough for her dishes after “black hands” had been in it. I was stunned. I’d never heard anything like that before in my life.  But my friend. The crushed look and suppressed tears told me a lot. I called the racist girl something, and took my friend back to our tent.

Then there was the time my dad took up a petition to prevent a home in our neighborhood from being sold to a Black family. I recall my mother being furious with my father about it. I’m not sure if his efforts were successful, but no Black family moved into that house.

This is what White Privilege looks like to me. But think about it. Slavery may have been outlawed, but most Whites still believed the other colors of people were less civilized and advanced. Blacks weren’t smart enough to do the job of clerk, so let them sweep the floor. When the Reconstruction of the South occurred, it only reconstructed the White south. Very little, if anything was done to help freed slaves figure out what they were supposed to do, now that they were turned out from the only homes they knew. Many were ignorant; unable to read and write. Probably many couldn’t count or add. It was like the North freed a bunch of children and said, “Ok, you go off and make a life for yourself.” “You need help?, I got problems of my own “boy.””  Finding themselves unemployed, it was pretty hard to find a place of their own. The Black experience (at least to my White eyes) has never been easy. I can’t imagine the difficulties they faced. I’m sure there must be books written about that, but I haven’t read one.

Sorry, this was kind of long, but I hope some of you learned something about racism and privilege in the US. There are many times I feel ashamed to be White, although my family didn’t arrive in this country until after the Civil War. White Privilege will continue until we can share these stories and enlighten the ignorant.  We’ve got to undo 200 years of racism. It’s going to take a while.

Meanwhile, to all the people of color: I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the arrogance of White Men. I apologize if I have ever seemed disrespectful to anyone. If I ever do say or do something racist, I do hope you will point it out to me. I don’t want to make the same mistake with someone else.

2 thoughts on “Racism & White Privilege

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