Waking up to white privilege

By Carol / April 24, 2018 /

The recent arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks raised again the issue of how people of different races are treated in the United States. It’s highly unlikely two white men sitting in that same coffeehouse would not have drawn the attention of store management. They would not have been asked to leave nor would the police have been called. That’s how white privilege works.

As a person born with white skin, someone who grew up and has lived most of my life in a largely white state, I’ve been slow to come to grips with the reality of white privilege. Because I walk freely in the world, shopping, dining, relaxing in hotel lobbies and coffee shops without anyone ever telling me I can’t, it’s easy to think everyone else does the same. But they don’t.

I began waking up to the reality of white privilege some years ago when I participated in a house party hosted to raise scholarship money for students of color. In the course of the evening, I joined a group of professionals – all with brown or black skin – who were discussing their experiences as people of color in Iowa. Every single one of these people – business professionals all of them – related encounters that happened simply because their skin was other than white. They were followed around stores. They were stopped by police while driving for no apparent reason. One was nearly arrested in his own driveway.

I listened to their experiences in silence. I have lived my entire life without ever interacting with police unless I asked for their assistance or unless I’d violated a driving law.

At the time, I thought the injustices that group encountered surely must be anomalies. At least in Iowa. Now I know what happened to them is all too common. In Iowa and around the country.

This week’s New York Times Race/Related e-newsletter reported that there are a multitude of ways that people of color must – or feel they must – adapt their behavior simply to exist peacefully in our society.

“As a defense mechanism, people of color abide by a code of conduct, an unspoken set of rules that white people can disregard.”- New York Times

Some of the protective actions the people interviewed for the article undertake:

  • not carrying oversized purses or bags into a store;
  • never putting their hands in their pockets,
  • not wearing sunglasses in stores.

There are also things those interviewed would NOT expect to be able to do:

  • sit for a while in the lobby of a nice hotel,
  • walk in a store without being followed around,
  • leave a store without having all bags checked.

Recently I met a friend at a local coffee shop. He’s a black man who grew up in Arkansas and came to Iowa for college. I took the opportunity to ask him about his experiences. Sadly, he could recount many overt and micro-aggressive encounters. A white female student shouted down at him from a dorm window, “Go away! You don’t belong here!”, as he walked across the campus where he was also a student. White men heckled him and his friends with the “N” word as they walked through a popular entertainment district.

I asked him if the white people he was with said anything. “Of course not,” he said. His response made me uncomfortable. Because I know I may not have spoken up either.

Incidences such as these – and the ability to live-stream them on social media – are raising awareness of the racial divide that exists in our country, in our state, in our town. Now that my eyes are open to these injustices, now I must also speak up. I’m doing that with friends of all skin colors. I’d like to include you in that discussion.

When did you become aware of white privilege? How have you benefited or been disadvantaged by white privilege? Does this phenomenon exist in other countries?

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Simple Truth – An excerpt

The main character in my new novel SIMPLE TRUTH confronts her own sense of race and self following an argument with a Latino friend. Here’s an excerpt of her internal dialogue:

“… he made her doubt. How much of her life – of her success – was a result of the accident of birth? Her gender was the challenge she focused on. Breaking the glass ceiling. Overcoming the wage gap. Leaning in to squeeze even more out of her personal and professional life …

… She did not think specifically about being white. When Alvaro looked in a mirror, did he ever think consciously about being Latino? Or was that forced on him because his dark skin stood out in white Iowa and white Iowans made assumptions about him without waiting to learn the reality? As she had done. As she continued to do …

… Alvaro was successful and people judged him, expected negative things of him, because of his color. Angela was successful and people like Gordon judged her, expected her to do less, be less, because of her gender. Was her success simply a result of being white? She didn’t believe it, yet her time in Hammond had shown her perhaps otherwise.”

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  1. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on April 25, 2018 at 11:58 am

    Carol, I had an interesting experience in South Africa in 1983, a few years before Apartheid was dissolved. I walked into a hair dressing salon to ask if I could get my hair done. The receptionist told me, “sorry, this shop is for blacks only.” I felt excluded and as if I had done something wrong. That same morning my three girls and I spent time in a park close to our hotel in Johannesburg. We were invited for supper to the home of a white Christian businessman. When he found out where we were staying he said, “don’t ever go into the park close to that hotel. It’s very dangerous for white people.” We had played there all morning and encountered only a few black women with white babies in strollers. A black taxi driver agreed to take us to a black township where he lived but told us it was actually illegal to do so. We were only allowed to do it with an official tour group!
    In Congo we were the minority and we were groped and stared at and laughed at (not out of meanness, but out of curiosity. We were called “Mundele” which means “white”. Our girls heard that a lot and called them “mundele” back, not knowing what it meant. That caused gales of laughter! So I know a little how that feels. The difference is that we were still the privileged ones because of our white skin and our country of origin.
    I wonder if that deep, systemic racism will always be with us or will there come a time when we accept each other as equals in every sense of the word?

    • Carol on April 25, 2018 at 2:13 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Elfrieda. Spending time as the minority helps develop empathy, at least to an extent. There’s so much I don’t know about Apartheid, but I think I understand correctly that the restrictions were placed on black South Africans by white South Africans. So the laws governing the salon, the park, and the tour of the driver’s township were established by whites to keep blacks in their place. The blacks in those situations were likely in more danger than you and your girls because they were breaking laws by interacting with you. Yes? And as you point out, even in those situations we know we are privileged because we can walk away.

      To your question about the durability of deep, systemic racism, recently I read a book you might appreciate. “Stamped From the Beginning: A definitive history of racism in America” by Ibrim X. Kendi. This could easily be a text book. I will blog about it soon, but it was a real eye-opener to me about just how deep racism goes.

  2. Merril Smith on April 26, 2018 at 12:43 pm

    Thank you for sharing, Carol. This is an important issue, and I think there are many white people who do not understand. In addition, those with power control the narrative of history and what is considered appropriate, relevant, interesting, or whatever in culture, so that for so long, history was about white men and the arts mainly featured the work of white men.

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