Friday, May 1, 2015

The Stuff That's So Hard for White People to Understand

"...I wish I had an idea but I don't. I don't understand the fear, or the anger that might consume you to the point that you would destroy your own things in a rage..."

A friend of mine sent me a private message yesterday, asking me to help her understand the riots, the mess in Baltimore, what black people are upset about and whether she herself, who did not come from an affluent background and who tries hard to be fair to everyone, could possibly be considered someone with "white privilege."

It's touching to me that she thinks I could explain. I do think I understand a few things, so I'm going to try.

First, does she take part in "white privilege"? Yes. Because she's white.

I've said before that white privilege isn't something we white people are asking for. It's something we simply have, by virtue of being the dominant race in our society. White privilege means if we want to buy our daughter a doll, we can go into any store that sells dolls and find one in our skin color. It means that most of the books we read feature white people--we writers are working to change this--and that the faces on our currency are white. We don't get pulled over for Driving While Black--we're white.

Here's a bit more from this article: "• My skin color does not work against me in terms of how people perceive my financial responsibility, style of dress, public speaking skills, or job performance.
• People do not assume that I got where I am professionally because of my race (or because of affirmative action programs). "

I'm not usually asked how "white people" feel about a certain issue. I'm not considered a representative of my race. I'm the default value. I didn't ask for this, but it's still true.

Meanwhile, how does anyone understand the riots? They're worse than senseless, to be sure--they're harming an already damaged and impoverished community, and drawing attention away from the real issues at hand. But I do get it, just a little. Several years ago I had what would once have been called a nervous breakdown. I refer to it as the time I fell to pieces. It had nothing to do with today's topic, except that I won't forget what it felt like to be completely unable to cope with the memories and emotions coursing through my mind. I lashed out. I didn't set a CVS on fire--but I get how it happens, how sometimes people just break. 

Eventually my breakdown softened me in ways I didn't know I needed to be softened. We don't know where other people are on their journeys. We don't know how much they've already had to bear, how close they are to being unable to handle one little thing more.

The injustice of our society bothers me. Yesterday I came across a set of statistics from the United States Department of Education. It said, among other things, that black students were suspended at roughly three times the rate of white students, starting in preschool.  That black students were more than three times as likely as white students to attend schools where the teachers did not meet certification requirements (Latino students were twice as likely.). That of the high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students, one-fourth did not offer Algebra II and one-third did not offer chemistry.

(By comparison, the public high school my children attended, in a small town in Appalachia, offers 3 years of math beyond Algebra II, and two years of chemistry.)

This is not a just world. It's not a just country, either, which is harder to accept. We want America to be a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps kind of place. We want to think our success was predicated only by our hard work. But it starts with an accident of birth--how would I have done, born in a neighborhood with no grocery stores, no transportation, only minimum-wage jobs, bad schools and no hope of ever leaving? Not well, I suspect.

I'm not trying to preach. I still don't know how we fix this. Ideas?