Dear White People: The Chicago police have shot another black man — and killed a black mother about my age. Pre-Christmas protests at the Mall of America and the Twin Cities airport were staged to remind me — us — of the unearned privileges we enjoy daily.
Since the Black Lives Matter movement has come into public consciousness, I have felt blamed but largely blameless as a liberal white American. I believe in social equality. I strive to treat all people with kindness and compassion, whatever their race or ethnicity. I recognized the significance of President Obama’s swift rise to power.
I even thought my critique of him as an “acceptable black” — a cool, well-spoken and sophisticated man whom white America could embrace in a way we never would have the more militant Rev. Jesse Jackson — showed a level of cultural awareness.
It’s not enough. My cries of innocence, my position on the sidelines, my watching of the Black Lives Matter protests from the safe distance of my laptop, amount to nothing more than good intentions. In fact, they make me part of the problem.
I began to recognize my complicity in our country’s stratified social code even before African American philosopher George Yancy challenged me and all white people in a New York Times blog post on Christmas Eve to “accept the racism within yourself, accept all of the truth about what it means for you to be white in a society that was created for you.”
As a white American — a person of inherent privilege — I am being called upon to wake up, stand up and speak up at an age when I thought I’d earned the relative comfort for which I’ve worked so hard.
I am a middle-aged Minnesotan, born and bred, who grew up in a small community with people who looked like me. With all white people.
I’m neither proud nor ashamed of that fact. It simply is. What matters, I am coming to see, is what I do with it.
My awareness of my white privilege has come haltingly, unbidden, in baby steps over the course of years. It may have begun during my years living in liberal, largely white Northfield, Minnesota. A black woman from one of the few African American families in town failed to show up at my house one night to work on a volunteer project for the public schools.
I was polite when she told me later that she’d gotten lost and that “a black person can’t be seen wandering aimlessly through this community.” But internally I scoffed. I judged her to be making excuses. I told myself that no one in that two-college town would regard a black person with such suspicion. Except I did.
The window to my awareness cracked open another inch when someone pointed out the assumptions I took for granted in my middle-class upbringing:
- Of course I would go to college.
- Of course Dad would pay for it.
- Of course I would delay pregnancy till I was married through my access to high-quality health care and reliable birth control.
- Of course, given the (white) feminist movement of the times, I would pursue not just a job but a career.
Each of those decisions, those options — those privileges — has kept me rooted in the middle class. That I did nothing to earn my station in life, and that I saw a safe neighborhood, good schools and economic opportunity not as a birthright but as the norm, did not occur to me till I was well into adulthood.
The clincher came weeks before Christmas, when I invited a young man onto my porch and then into my living room. He was looking for his smartphone in the snow by my house on a Sunday morning wearing only a lightweight jacket and shorts. He’d been drunk the night before — he conceded it, and I could smell it — but he was driving an SUV (a sure clue to social class), and he looked about the same age as my college junior.
I told myself I wanted to be a good neighbor. But I recognized the reality of my bias as the young man drove away. Would I have been so welcoming or felt so safe had his skin been black or brown? No need to pose it as a question. I know the answer.
Listen and learn
By 2019 the majority of children in the United States will be people of color. When my older son, a fair-skinned blond, turns 60 in 2050, the country will have no ethnic majority.
I learned those facts recently at a managers’ forum about unconscious bias sponsored by the University of St. Thomas, where I work. Our discussion leader, Dr. Artika Tyner, asked the audience of primarily white people to examine two questions:
- What are the biases I grew up with, that I hold to be true?
- What efforts have I made to make awareness of my privilege a “lived reality”?
Dr. Tyner is an attorney, a professor, an author and the university’s interim chief diversity officer. She also is African American. Among the concepts she discussed that day — most of them new to me, a college graduate who’s worked in higher education for 13 years — was the notion of cultural taxation.
The academic term was coined in 1994 on behalf of non-white (or non-male or non-straight) professors. Dr Tyner defined it as the “under-represented team member who assumes additional responsibility for cultural awareness.”
Instead of us whites looking to her to tell us how to embrace or understand diversity, we could just start doing it. Like so:
- “Begin with your humanity,” she said. “Say hello” to a person who doesn’t look like you.
- Practice “radical hospitality” — making efforts to welcome and interact with people from different backgrounds.
- Seek out readings about diversity. Dr. Tyner recommended a recent New York Times piece called “Diversity Makes You Brighter.” Or set a Google alert, she suggested, with the word “diversity” and another keyword related to your discipline or interests.
- And this, of course: “Get out of your comfort zone.”
I’ve been practicing. Stepping onto a moderately crowded city bus recently, I deliberately sat next to a young black man and exchanged pleasantries with him as he got off at his stop.
Instead of grabbing for the usual chick lit for easy reading over Christmas break, I chose the 2010 memoir by National Public Radio correspondent Michele Norris, The Grace of Silence. Norris, whose parents integrated a neighborhood in south Minneapolis after World War II, leads “The Race Card Project” for NPR.
I Googled “yoga and diversity” and came upon articles about yoga and skin color, body shape and sexual identity. I noticed this morning, finally, that I rarely see people of color at my favorite yoga studio.
None of these is a particularly courageous step, but it’s a start. “Be willing to be vulnerable,” Dr. Tyner said, “and to give people the benefit of the doubt.” One person, one interaction, one observation at a time.