Thursday, September 12, 2013

White People

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, a woman who was sort of in my social circle made an explicitly racist remark.  I don't remember the remark, but I must have looked nonplussed, or disapproving, or something, because she immediately excused herself to me, saying (and this part I remember clearly), "I don't want to be racist, but how can I help it?  A black man stole my purse!"

I asked if the fact that it was a man who stole it also meant she had turned into a lesbian.

That pretty much killed whatever very small chance ever existed that we should become friends.

Once upon a time, when I returned from my first trip to South Africa, a person of my acquaintance tried to ask a question about the people of South Africa using the word 'African.'  "They're all African down there," I said.  "There are white South Africans whose ancestors arrived in the country 500 years ago."

"You know what I mean," she said, "African-Americans."

I knew what she meant, but I didn't feel like letting her off the hook.  "They're none of them American," I said.

"Oh," she said, crossly, "I don't know how to say what I mean."

"Black," I said.  "In South Africa they say Black."

"I can't say that word," the (white) woman replied.

Once upon a time, I sat down and read every single review of my book Jefferson's Sons on GoodReads.  Some readers expressed a strong wish that I'd used dialect, particularly in the speech of the enslaved characters.  Other readers expressed equally strong thanks that I did NOT use dialect, particularly in the speech of the enslaved characters.  As far as could be told by the avatars accompanying their posts, all of the readers who wanted dialect were white.  All of the readers who did not want dialect were black.

I recount these stories because of the response I've been getting to my post, "It's 9:45 on Friday night and I'm feeling annoyed," in which I recounted how a young friend of mine was getting Looks for being Black and riding horses.  A surprising number of people have expressed astonishment that this would happen.  All of the astonished people are white.

This is what white privilege is.  It's the automatic ease you get by being a member of the dominant race in your society.  You don't ask for white privilege.  You just get it.  A lot of white people would like to deny race.  They say things like, "I don't see race, I'm color blind," and they don't get it when this makes people of color annoyed.  To not see race, to deny white privilege, means to not listen to voices and experiences different from your own.  We white people don't have to feel guilty about white privilege--it's not something we signed up for, it doesn't mean we're automatically racist, and it's not something we consciously employ--but we must acknowledge it.  Doing so takes us one step closer to realizing that life might be different for people in our society based color of your skin.  It's more comfortable for us whites to deny this, but if we deny it we will never fix it.  The only path to a more whole, more holy society walks through truth.  The truth is that my white daughter has never had an eyebrow raised at her because she rides a horse, while my black friend says it happens all the time. 

I wish it didn't.  That wish means nothing at all.