I understand “white fragility” and now understand I have it. Because of my “white privilege” I did not even know I had it. I know other people who refuse to recognize their “white privilege” or that white privilege actually exists. I guess they, like me, have an excuse although not a good one. You see for sixty-five years I have been white and have no desire to change who I am. I just want to change the way I think about certain issues such as race. I do not apologize for the fact I am white or that I view the world through white eyes. I just want to learn and understand…and be a better person because of it. For the first twenty-three years of my life I swam in a culture awash with “whiteness.” Schools, textbooks and what little media there was, were all presented from a white viewpoint. In most cases I “feel” little has changed. Back then, in the fog of my youth, African-Americans were on the fringe of my peripheral vision or in some distant city, seen only through the screen of my black and white television. It would be impossible for me to view the world any other way. But…I do have a brain and a desire to change the way that I look at the world.
I grew up in an area and in a family neither racist nor prejudiced…overtly. Now I realize there were covert lessons to be learned and I learned them well…even though I didn’t realize it at the time. When I went off to an all-white college the lessons became more overt. The fight song was officially “Hail to the Redskins,” racist in its own way, but we played “Dixie,” much more. I hate to admit that the de facto anthem of the Confederacy still causes chills to run up my arm. I CAN admit it because it is my “Southern white privilege” to do so. My first collegiate history course was taught by a disciple of the “Lost Cause” history of the Civil War although I would not realize this fact until I heard him speak at a “Sons of Confederate Veterans” meeting…the only one I ever attended. I decided, on my own, that despite their claims to the contrary, they were, in fact, racist…as am I. It was the only class I took under Dr. “White Supremacist” and I was fortunate to have a “damn Yankee” husband and wife team for most of my American History courses. They did not believe in the “Lost Cause.” As I have been too slow to realize, I don’t either.
The first time I came into contact with large groups of non-white races was in the teaching setting…students, players and teaching peers. I studied all of my new black friends and students…and Asian or Hispanics. I also studied my white friends and I had an impossible time reconciling what I was hearing about groups of people with the people I knew. The group “stereotypes” did not fit with the individuals I had gotten to know. The stereotypes could not be correct. For me this was an epiphany, not caused by a lightning strike on the Damascus Road, but rather a realization that occurred over time. Much like Job, I attempted to avoid being called to a cause and admit to having been a “closet non-racist” racist for too many years. I also admit to continuing to think of the “stereotypes” when I looked at groups of people I don’t really know. I believe many of us, of all races, continue to express this view and can’t seem to admit to the creation of a “system” which, in itself, is racist.
We sit back in our “Ivory Towers” declaring how non-racist we are and wring our hands over what is happening in cities like Chicago. We rail about how the “liberals” or “thugs” have destroyed the city and make jokes about turning the presidential “rallies” into “job fairs” to keep the protestors away. We are blinded by our own “whiteness” and refuse to admit that those of us at the top of the racial strata have caused the problems not only in Chicago but in cities throughout the country, despite the money we believe has been thrown at the problem.
After the “Great Migration” of Southern blacks to Northern and Western industrial centers to escape Southern Jim Crow, “we non-Southerners” defended our “birthright” with violence, intimidation and legal maneuvering that included mortgage discrimination and restrictive covenants in order to restrict where people of color could live, work and chase the “American Dream.” Later, in the Seventies, cities underwent what was called “White Flight” as whites with means fled to the “burbs” and a better life “away from those people.” So why didn’t the people of color just leave the decaying inner cities for better opportunities? I am reminded of a Chris Rock standup routine bringing attention to starvation in Sub-Saharan Africa: “Why don’t you just take them to the food?” I posed that question to a group of ninth graders in a geography class and was not surprised to find their answers to be quite mature. “Lack of resources to move, unfamiliarity with the new area, not wanting to leave families behind, fear of the unknown, civil and religious wars, and people did not want to accept them.” I would say most of those statements are true about Oakland, Atlanta, Baltimore, or any of the other areas “we white folk” proclaim to be bastions of free loading and democratic liberalism, along with the thought “Why should they have to leave.” More to the point “These people” are right where “the system” wants them and “these people” are angry about it…something we racist can’t see or understand.
I have been fortunate to make contact, through social media, with many former students. Some are very conservative, others very liberal and they represent a broad spectrum of races and religions. I read some of their post and am shocked and appalled at their thinking. Recently I made contact with Dr. Mary Ann Canty Merrill. I remember her as a pretty little black girl with a big smile who sat very quietly in a ninth grade class many years ago. She went by the name Mary Canty back then. Today she is a beautiful and capable woman who is anything but quiet. Among her titles, which includes psychologist, teacher, life strategist, author and humanitarian, are the descriptors warrior and provocateur. I would add activist. She is ACTIVELY involved in a WAR over the way people view and think about race. The term provocateur is defined as someone who provokes and she has certainly provoked me into thinking differently about my past life and what I want to do with the years I have left. She has also provoked me to re-edit a dozen or so “essays” I had written about “Heritage and Hate” as it relates my home state and the Confederate flag issue. Oh well, it’s just time.
Mary is not a “thug” looking for a “handout” as many of “these” people are being “wrongfully” portrayed. She is actually a “white bigots” worst nightmare. A successful, intelligent black woman who is not going to sit quietly on her hands. That sure goes against the stereotype presented by “certain” people. All of my friends of color go against the stereotype I see advertised by “certain” people. My friends and acquaintances are educated, black home owners, with families, who go to work every day and pay their taxes…just like me. Despite their successes and their hard work to realize them, they too are pissed off at the “system” that I believe “we white folk” have created and maintained for the past one hundred and fifty years. I cannot imagine how people who have spent decades without resources are feeling.
This former student has certainly become the teacher and the new student has become a rapt and uncomfortable learner. After being allowed to join Mary’s website “Voices for Equality,” I have found myself shocked, appalled and quite uncomfortable with the anger I found. I also find myself being “educated” as to why there is anger. Like Saul on the Damascus Roads, the scales have fallen from my eyes but the landscape, bathed in bright sunlight, causes me to squint and cock my head to the side in wonder. “How did we get ourselves in this hot mess?” My conclusion is that the “system” has always been a hot mess, now suddenly uncovered and stinky. Because of my comfortable “white privilege” I had been able to ignore it.
I say these things because I am still learning, still evolving as a person, an “old dog” attempting to learn new tricks…something I wish the rest of my generation might emulate instead of sitting back and being comfortable looking through their “white eyes.” I have been told repeatedly that people are flocking to a certain presidential candidate because they are unhappy. Shouldn’t we also recognize that the unhappiness spans all races and our history? Shouldn’t we ask the question “Why?” There is an answer somewhere if you are willing to allow yourself the opportunity to find it. You might start by asking a black friend…or making a black friend.
I salute you Dr. Merrill. This is Women’s History Month and you are carrying forward the same traditions of women who have passed before you. Thank you for carrying on with the standard.
From your racist student.
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