Waking up to white privilege
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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