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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

On Confessing My White Privilege

I grew up in rural Mechanicsville, Virginia. Just outside of Richmond: the former capitol of the Civl War's Confederacy.

There's a high school in my county named for Robert E. Lee and Jeff Davis. Their mascot? The Confederates.

It's a small town known for an iconic windmill and its tomato exports. Lots of open space. Lots of cows and horses. A place of safety and assurance. A place where lot of people who look, act, talk and dress just like me.

Where the crime reports in the local paper are Jay Leno-level comical. Where you can submit pictures of you reading it in cities faraway and they'll print it.

I remember learning about the Civil Rights movement in that small town, in my second-grade class with my teacher, Mrs. Valleys. We watched humans, humans with real souls, real dreams, real talents and gifts, get bludgeoned with sticks like animals. We watched them tumble over from the force of a fire hose. The same water pressurized and sprayed to defeat literal fire was used to defeat the force of the fire in sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers.

It was unreal to me. It made my young stomach turn over and over. It made me ashamed. It made me feel guilty. To the point where one night at church there was an older man standing behind me in line waiting for dinner. His skin was a different color than mine. I knew him because I was friends with his daughter.

I bashfully asked him if he'd like to get in line in front of me.

His brow furrowed and he spoke from the back of his throat. "Why?"

I still remember how my cheeks flushed bright red from his tone. I was embarrassed: it was because I was just learning about my skin-toned safety net. No one in my family ever had to worry about being bludgeoned with a stick or shot over with a hose. His did.

My elementary school logic told me the least I could do was let him cut in front of me in the dinner line.

Those fuzzy black and white images from my second grade class are burned into my brain. Perhaps because I was so struck with the pure meanness of it all.

"But this was a very, very long time ago," I assured myself in that classroom with a white teacher and my white best friends. "People aren't actually like that anymore. No one here ACTUALLY feels that way. No one would ever judge someone based on the color of their skin."

And because I didn't see anyone drinking out of a separate water fountain or having to use a separate bathroom I carried that false narrative with me until, honestly, graduate school. I dated a boy (the nicest word I can manage to call him) who, (aside from repeatedly assaulting me physically and emotionally) used the N-word repeatedly.

Much worse, he believed in all of the ideals behind the word. He had an incredibly high opinion of himself. Worshiped himself. Used the Bible as a weapon to put himself ahead.

I couldn't believe it: a real-life bigot. Someone who actually thought he was better. Because he was white.

When I confronted him about his (twisted) beliefs he shrugged me off. Called me naive. I have no idea where he is in his life or what he's doing now. All I know is that he was in school to study counseling and I shudder to think of what sort of backwards guidance he's giving vulnerable clients now.

When I learned this about him, my eyes blossomed like the day they were in the second grade. These people exist. They're real. Disguised in clean-cut khakis and collared shirts. In policies. In historical figures we choose to exalt.

My privilege was to learn about racism second-hand. My privilege was never asking the question, "is it because I'm white?" My privilege was being so far removed from hatred that I could believe that it wasn't real. My privilege was to never feel threatened because of my appearance.

My privilege was to, by default and DNA, grow up on the wrong side of history.

The first step to changing is admitting you have a problem. But these privileges are not just my problem. They're my generation's problem. And the one before ours. And theirs. And theirs. And theirs.

Charlottesville. Virginia. United States of America: open, open, open your eyes. It's real. It's here. It's among us. Always has been. 

The images I've seen in the news lately haven't been fuzzy. Or black and white. Or in a second-grade classroom. They're crisp. They're in high definition. They're now and they're everywhere.


1 comment

Hannah Oliver said...

Thank you for your openness and honesty. Indeed, it is time to open our eyes.

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