Seeing My White Privilege

I don’t like the word, “privilege.” It connotes the idea of something better, something earned; and whiteness is neither. But the phrase #whiteprivilege has proved useful in explaining the differences in daily experience between people who are white and people of color. This is an essay I wrote several years ago under the title, “Why I Don’t Want to Be Colorblind.” Perhaps another title could have been, “Why We Don’t Need to Be Chanting, ‘All Lives Matter’ Right Now.” It’s the story of my own blindness, my own naïveté. I publish this with apologies to those whose experiences I did not – and perhaps still do not – know how to see.

It was 2008, the year Obama was first elected president, and I’d just moved for graduate school with my three kids to an apartment on the South Side of Chicago, a few blocks from where Barack took Michelle on their first date. One day, in a rush of desperate inspiration, I ran across the street to do most of the week’s grocery shopping at the local CVS. As I pulled at the small stack of carts reserved for the unusually large pharmacy run, I sensed someone waiting behind me. I struggled, partially blocking the entryway, to balance the toddler in my arms, the preschooler holding my hand, and the second-grader standing guard. After a moment, without checking to see who was there, I turned to say that they could go ahead and pass by.

“Why, I’m here waiting for a shopping cart just like you!” a woman exclaimed, her voice clearly frustrated and pained. As I sensed her resentment boiling up, the situation suddenly shifted for me, taking on a racial dimension I hadn’t noticed before. There I was, a white woman, speaking to a Black woman, much my senior, and my words struck her as condescendingly as if I had just told her to go to the back of the bus.

I wish I could say that this was the only incident of its kind, or at least that it was by far the worst. I wish I could say that I got the point right away. Being fairly non-confrontational, I said nothing at the time. But these moments stuck with me, playing over and again in my mind. Honestly, they took years to process, and every time I feel the need to justify myself, to prove that I am not part of the problem, I realize that I still have more work to go.

My first reactions in those encounters were always defensive. Clearly, I was not being racist, I thought, because race wasn’t even in the equation for me. I had been taught that racism is when we categorize, limit, or harm people based on their race. How could I do that to a person whose color I could not even see? And I am a good person, I reassured myself, rolling out the long list of my liberal credentials. After all, I had given years of my life, time, and resources to working with communities of African and native South American descent in the Ecuadorian rainforest. My own children were biracial. Most of my grandparents’ families had perished in the Holocaust. Other people just didn’t know, I thought; I couldn’t be racist.

Growing up, I prided myself on seeing people as people and not as members of any race or category. At my elementary school, the cool kids were the ones who could make their family backgrounds sound the most exotic and diverse. In high school, I was the only one in my AP US History class – including the teacher – not born outside the United States. Of course, it wasn’t all a rosy picture. There weren’t as many Black and Latinx kids in my advanced classes as there should have been. I heard adults mumbling from time to time about racial issues in the background, and the Rodney King Riots coincided with my debut in the high school musical senior year. But in my mind, South Central was just a faraway place where some of my friends rode the bus home. The riots were a logistical problem blocking their commute, not a stand against racial injustice. If anything came close to true colorblindness, it was those 13 years growing up in Los Angeles public schools, loving that friendship was as much about learning a new way of life – new languages, foods, customs – as it was about getting to know a new person, but not realizing how much the differences in our daily experiences still mattered.

In Chicago, I felt that bright colorblindness and all its idealism washing away.  As experiences like the one in CVS accumulated over time, I began to see race. I began to notice at a very conscious level who was white and who was not, and to anticipate that our interactions might not go well because of racial differences. I began to feel that I needed to go out of my way to show people of color, “Hey I’m not racist; I don’t mean anything bad here.” But that desire itself felt like it got in the way. I couldn’t really be myself, and neither could they. It was uncomfortable. My ability to see all people as uncategorized went away, and I mourned the loss of my racial virginity. 

In truth, this loss was a great gift. But I simply could not appreciate it until my own life shifted, until I grew enough to understand how to use and honor the gift of sight. At the beginning of my first teaching job after grad school, I was literally hit over the head (by accident, with the car trunk).  In the struggle to heal from the concussion and to cope with what was even before the accident an incredibly overwhelming life, I began practicing meditation. As I learned to face my own pain and to manifest compassion for myself, I discovered a much greater ability to bear witness to other people’s pain and to be present for them. During this time, I saw that our new town was not easy for my brown children. “It must be so hard for you to find a Halloween costume,” the girls at dance class said, “because they only look good on white girls.” “Don’t worry,” an adult reassured my oldest, “if Trump gets elected, I’ll make sure you don’t get deported. A pretty little lady like you doesn’t deserve that.” As I watched their self-esteem crumble, I understood the true weight of microaggressions, the small interactions that intrude on the lives of people of color and of other discriminated groups. We all have at some point in our lives the experience of being unfairly categorized, but for some the experience can be so recurrent and pervasive that it can impact every aspect of their lives. Anyone can get caught in a hailstorm and survive, but it is a different experience altogether when you feel that any time you walk outside it might just hail.  

As I understood these truths more deeply, I began to teach even my first-year general education students about feminism and philosophy of race. But it was that look certain days on the face of my student who identified as both transgender and African-American, that indescribable mixture of wisdom, hope, and pain, which taught me more than anything else. I learned, finally, to see a simple truth that I had missed in those experiences as a grad student in Chicago. For many people of color, there is no such thing as what I imagined that trip to CVS had been for me: a public exchange where race lies entirely out of the equation. They cannot choose whether to see color because it is an aspect of experience they take with them everywhere they go; it is part of their physicality and embodiment. They cannot choose whether to feel the injustice of our nation’s history because they live it daily; it is woven into their family histories and contemporary experiences. They cannot choose to escape the discomfort I felt in our exchanges because it is a burden that society constantly forces them to bear. 

And yet that discomfort is not theirs alone. At its core, it is just the feeling of a world where power and privilege are distributed inequitably. In a world that we share, this feeling should belong to us all. It should signal to all of us a deep problem in our society and move us powerfully to heal and transform it. The difficulty is, we miss the message as a society when half of us are forced to bear nearly all of the discomfort and half of us are coddled by the questionable privilege of being able to choose to ignore it. The move to colorblindness, the white cry, “Can’t we all just love each other and get along?” is a refusal to face this discomfort. It is an attempt to reinstate that feeling of standing at the top of a hierarchy – that everything is in order, under control, pure, natural, just as it should be. It is an expression of white privilege and a rejection of the real injustice and suffering that plague our world.

The injustice in our society is systemic; it lies in our history and our institutions, in our habits and our beliefs. What makes it difficult to heal is our lack of connection. We experience each other as fundamentally separate. Our exchanges with each other are mostly as objects and data, not as fellow beings capable of experiencing love and pain. Our relations with each other are mostly about imposing power over each other, not co-creating and sharing power together. This creates divisions between us, hierarchies, imbalances of both knowledge and power. Our society is alienating to all of us, but division means that one side is oppressed while the other is numbed. When we look at the Black child who is shot by a police officer on the street and the white child shooting his classmates at school, it is the same sickness manifesting in different ways. One side feels all of the pain; the other feels nothing at all – just emptiness, meaninglessness. The slave trade, colonization, the massive consumption of Earth’s resources, the loss of cultural and biological diversity – these are historical events that affect us all. But the way our world is set up, some beings bear that pain directly, in their family histories and on their skin, while others carry on, feeling empty and stressed, but perfectly blind to the root causes of their unhappiness. 

When those of us with privilege shut out the pain of the oppressed, we close ourselves off from the deep seeing that itself brings healing and transformation. We fail to see ourselves clearly, disconnecting ourselves from our human family, and from our global family. The more I understand this truth, the more I believe that racism is not simply about bias. It is about a deep failure of compassion for ourselves and for others. And although it was unintentional, I now accept that there was something deeply racist about those exchanges in Chicago. If there is structural racism – rooted in our histories, communities, businesses, and institutions, then we can also be structural racists – because we occupy a position of privilege over others that blinds us to their pain and to the complexity of the world we share. Racism is not simply when we categorize, limit, or harm people based on their race; it is when we fail to fully acknowledge their experiences because of race. It is, above all, a failure of compassion, of being fully present with another. Sometimes this failure is conscious; most times it is situational, structural – merely an effect of who we are and what we are doing in this great big society. 

To be sure, there is something noble in the dream of colorblindness, a desire that each being on this planet flourish for who they are and how we are together. But I have come to accept that is the act of seeing, very deeply seeing ourselves and those around us, that transforms us toward such a world.

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