I am a white American woman who has for most of her life been oblivious to my white privilege—those benefits that accrue to me simply because of my pale skin. I have dismissed this privilege, arguing, “My family never ever owned slaves.” Racism? Not my fault.
I was raised in a blue-collar family, yet my parents were homeowners, never renters. We always had more than one car, and we had excellent health care, thanks to my dad’s government job. We were solidly lower middle class, neither wealthy nor privileged. We worked hard, I said, we didn’t take handouts.
How naïve I have been. My parents’ generation benefited from the G.I. Bill, subsidized mortgages, union membership—keys to acquiring wealth: education and property. These were denied to every Black man, even men who served our country. I learned this only recently.
I never worried about being stopped by the police. I have never been followed around in a store or asked what I was doing there. I have never been denied service or asked for proof I own the car I’m driving.
In a recent podcast, the writer Hilton Als described an encounter with two elderly white women. He was wearing a face mask, as we all do now, and one of the women flinched when she saw him. She was making an effort not to be afraid, he said. But still, in that effort, he felt great sadness because “I wouldn’t be afraid if she came up to me.” He asked “What is it in the white body that produces that response?”
Listening to Als, I met my own racism. How many times have I first, if even for a split second, flinched before I caught myself. Yes, I have. A Black man walked through my neighborhood. And I flinched—for that crucial lizard-brain half-second, before I relaxed and recognized him. He’s my neighbor!
I was raised to be racist. I can still hear the childish taunts I uttered, hear my long-ago laughter at a racist remark—learned at my father’s knee. Am I past this? Can I ever overcome my training?
One day I shared a subway platform in Atlanta, a lone white woman, with a group of Black men who were arguing. Other than the men and me, the station was deserted, and it was late at night. In my mind’s eye that night, I saw a white woman clutch her purse to her chest and back away, moving far down the platform. Am I that woman? I instead shook off that flinch, relaxed my body language and swung my shoulder bag loosely across one shoulder. I edged closer. When I could hear what they were arguing about, I heard them talking sports. They were comparing players, and they were really funny. When they realized I was eavesdropping, they began to perform for their audience of one. I laughed along with them.
We white people cannot overcome racism without first seeing that we are all infected. It’s the other pandemic in us.
White people of Corvallis, learn with me. Read with me. Let’s start a virtual book club to read Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi. Contact me here at the “contact us” button on this website: https://linnbenton.local.bahai.us/. And also join me in studying this website: https://tinyurl.com/y9u85dcj. We can learn to stop flinching and become true allies. Together, we can forge a path to racial justice.
Sandra J. Bean has lived in the Azores, Israel, and China, and traveled during her professional career as a writer to more than 20 countries, where she was able to meet local Bahá’ís and participate in community activities. She served at the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, Israel, in the late 1980s. She has been a Bahá’í since 1971 and a student of religion all her life.
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