White privilege: Naming past sins and changing behaviors
I began elementary school in the late 1970s when school desegregation was beginning in Raleigh, N.C., and the Wake County Public Schools.
The vision for the reform was to create a system of magnet schools throughout the county that would provide specific emphases and offer alternatives to the neighborhood schools that were segregated by race and class because those neighborhoods were segregated by race and class. There were schools that offered more advanced academic courses and schools that offered a more arts-based curriculum. Most of the high schools in Wake County, because of its affluence, offered music programs, multiples languages for students to study and diverse co-curricular activities.
My neighborhood was one of the white neighborhoods chosen to have the downtown elementary and middle magnet schools as our base schools. As many cities in the South at that time, the downtown neighborhoods were the neighborhoods where African Americans lived, whether renting or buying. Out of a neighborhood overflowing with children, only four of us were kept in public schools; the majority of the parents in our neighborhood enrolled their children in an unaccredited Christian academy. As a fourth grader, the conversations in my home identifying the racism and classism of this dynamic had a profound impact on me. My parents’ commitment to their Christian faith made them believe in the value of community and shared resources. And they demonstrated to me that the children in the neighborhoods where I would be attending school were as valuable as I, because we were all created in God’s image.
Through my work as an educator exploring the root causes of oppression, I have learned most by reflecting on my personal experience and naming where I have had over-advantage because of my race, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, nationality and religion. I am a white person who was born into a family where three of four grandparents graduated from college, whose father’s job provided health insurance (significant because I was diagnosed with epilepsy at 15). The two generations before me were home owners, and having chosen to work within my faith community’s institutions, no one has ever implied that I might be a terrorist. I have worked hard and have had to overcome some cultural and institutional barriers; however, I am aware that I did nothing to earn the place where I started, which has shaped most of my life.
One of the “perfectly logical explanations” that parents gave for not wanting their children to attend the downtown schools was that we had to ride the bus 45 minutes each way. Riding the bus and making up games at the bus stop with my friends are some of my fondest childhood memories.
There was one incident on the bus in the sixth grade, which I did not remember fully until discussing it with a friend a few years ago. For years, I looked back on that day and could see myself on the bus, scared of a girl named “Katherine.” I then vividly remember going into our kitchen and crying to my mother about my fear of her and watching my mother call the school to talk with the principal. Katherine never rode the bus again, and I do not remember ever seeing her at school again.
When I finally unpacked this experience more than 20 years later, these questions remained: What happened to Katherine? Why did the school not talk with me and Katherine together to find out what happened? What was my role in the conflict? Why didn’t anyone ask me what my role was and then ask me to apologize for the harm I had caused?
I called my mother, who is the only person in the story with whom I am still connected. She told me that the school called her and told her that someone had said that I had said some mean things to Katherine. My mother told the school official that she could not believe that I would have said those things. And that was the end of it.
When I told my mother that Katherine never got back on the bus and that I do not remember seeing her at school, there was silence. She had not known the outcome and had been trying to protect me. She named what I had come to believe: that because my mother was white and my father was a faculty member at the university, my family’s side of the story was given more credence than anyone who might have sided with Katherine who was African American.
As a white person, I do not have to convince anyone in society of my value or innocence. I grew up surrounded by positive (which does not equate anti-racist) images of white people, as did the administrators and teachers at my schools. White privilege means having an inherent advantage over people of color who have to prove at every turn that they are valuable, smart, moral and active contributors to our society.
Today, when you look at print and electronic media, notice what the images tell you about who belongs and who is “normal.” Who are the standard bearers of positive, moral behavior in our nation? Who is defining positive, moral behavior? Why is covert racism still accepted in national and international figures recognized for having “good character?”
Peggy McIntosh, author of White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, once said, “I was taught that racism is the meanness and violence of one or more people because of race. I was not taught that racism the permission to dominate.”
Why do we, as white people, sometimes get offended when racism is named as a persistent ill in our society and world, even in the age of Obama? I know that my faith and deep relationships with people of color have led me to the place of confessions – naming past sins and committing myself to increasing my consciousness and changing my behavior. Jesus’ desire for me to live authentically, without soul-deadening shame or guilt, has become my desire. Jesus has given me the strength to form relationships and allow myself to be vulnerable and be changed.
I actively participate in racist institutions and continue to benefit from unearned privilege because I am white and for some of the other reasons mentioned earlier. God is calling me to use my life in every way possible to deconstruct old systems that perpetuate oppression and to construct new systems that promote equity.
Reprinted with permission from a 2010 edition of response: the magazine of women in mission, published by the United Methodist Women.