The Color Blind Myth
Smacked in the Face with My White Privilege
BY AUTUMN LUBIN
“Privileged? Oh, hell, no. I grew up doing without many tangible things that “privileged” people have. I lived in subsidized housing, ate dinners paid for with food stamps, was eligible for a governmental summer work program that taught teenagers work skills, went to college on grants and loans. I grew up with a mother that had mental health and alcoholism issues that shadowed hope. There was no solid ground in my childhood. There was nothing privileged about my earliest years.”
Yes I did. I said that.
Another day. I’m having dinner with several of my colleagues, in an out-of-town restaurant and the conversation turned to parenting. “I’m getting ready to have ‘the talk’ with my son,” one woman said. There were murmurs and nods of support. I tried to not show my shock. Her son was 6. What would cause her to talk to a kindergartner about sex?
Yep, I thought that.
The conversation continued. It was animated. Frustration that bordered anger tinged the words. It became clear that they weren’t talking about the birds and bees. I finally interrupted because I have learned in my aging that asking a question, even if it sounds stupid, is better than being stupid. “What is the ‘talk’?
I said it out loud.
The table went quiet. I watched many thoughts flash across faces. In the end, the genuine affection we have for one other won the day. Without a sigh or any indication of weariness of teaching yet another white person, the woman who started the conversation answered my question. The talk is one black American parents have with their children, particularly their male children. It is designed to teach their children how to respond to authority in our world in a way that will allow them to come home safely each day.
I had no words.
This was a conversation I had never even considered having with my son. I taught him to be respectful – not to keep him alive but to prevent sending another brat out into the universe. I had met my friend’s adorable, extremely polite and funny little guy. Pieces of my heart silently and permanently shattered at that table in some unforgotten restaurant. I instantly sunk into my friend’s heart and felt the heavy everyday terror that resided there. There is no greater loss than that of a child. To have to consider this as a real possibility each time your young child leaves your protected sight is shattering. Every day.
I quit talking. Started listening closer.
My vocabulary grew. White privilege. White fragility. The color blind myth. The powerful juxtaposition of never giving thought to my whiteness and the blackness of my friends that required near constant attention. I have the luxury of being considered a mom, a wife, a business owner, a neighbor. The adjective describing my skin tone or race was never enjoined with my identity. In our world, my friends and colleagues will nearly always be identified as black before anything else. The more I learned, the more I came to know the raw nakedness of my ignorance. Humility wrapped me in its sheer cape.
I shook in my incredulity that I had made it to middle age not knowing this.
I walked my days in a watchful silence, recalibrating all I thought I knew. I had worked in racially mixed communities for a long time. My friends span the color continuum and the globe. I have an open mind, a caring heart and I’ve sought out knowledge about all people. I’m thoughtful about my word choices and respect the cultural norms of other ethnicities. I truly thought I had a good idea of what it meant to be something other than white in our racially charged world.
I knew nothing.
All I had learned, all I had experienced, all I could discern, was from a place of whiteness. My judgments, my perspectives, my way of helping, all came from walking in a world where my own skin tone was never a thought. Until I removed the protective gear of my whiteness, I remained part of the problem even while sincerely believing I was working toward the solution. I had to really get it, all the way to my soul, that walking black in a white world was nothing I could experience and therefore, never fully comprehend.
I was sat down on my humble white ass.
I began to understand that just standing with black people wasn’t enough. Shaking my head at the racist atrocities that occur in black and brown and every color but white communities wasn’t near enough. Changing my profile picture on Facebook to this week’s dead child wasn’t nearly enough. Signing petitions wasn’t nearly enough. Empathizing with the broken hearts of moms, dads, sisters and brothers, even whole communities, wasn’t nearly enough. While I didn’t personally perpetuate any hate acts, if I sat back quietly, I was a co-conspirator.
Still sitting, trying to absorb the enormity of it all, I breathed.
A black colleague told me that racism wasn’t a black person’s problem to solve. Only white people could fix it. It took me quite some time, thinking, reading, researching and listening for her words to resonate. I believe there is a continuum of understanding racism and I was in the beginning phases. I believed initially that I was further along than I was because I was missing an essential piece. Vocabulary. I thought I knew what a lot of words meant. I was wrong. I didn’t know the sub-categories of racism. I am certain I used racism, bigotry and prejudice interchangeably, not understanding the nuances of each. The whole concept of white privilege was not in my deck of words. The list is long. The work is hard.
I began to learn how much I didn’t know.
Humility is quite a teacher. All true learning starts with the essential declaration of I don’t know, but I want to understand. Once I accepted my vast lack of knowing, once I created the void, understanding crept in. Claiming knowledge I didn’t have, was a do not enter sign to real knowing. I had to sit down, open my arms, my head and my heart and be receptive to all that entered. The blinding flashes of the obvious that brought clarity, the words that made me chafe and especially that which created discomfort. All of this is a needed companion to my white privilege. I can’t give up my privilege but I can own it and marry it to genuine understanding, authentic conversations and a willingness to keep talking about it until it resonates with every soul I can reach. I will agree to stand in the messiness these conversations create and maintain your dignity and mine. I will make a sacred vow to keep learning. I will no longer stay silent.
White people, we need to talk.
Autumn Lubin’s essay is part of the recently-released Why Black Lives Matter (Too), an anthology that emerged from Voices for Equality, a Facebook group designed to create a dialogue-into-action community against social injustice and inequality. All proceeds from the book go to The Sentencing Project, an organization that works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.
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