At the recent symposium, I attended a number of workshops to learn and interact with others. For some of the participants, it was overwhelming and disturbing to become aware of the history and extent of systemic racism. But for me, I was eager to talk to others on this journey I’d been on without the history and language to truly understand it. From my earlier life experiences, including interactions with people of color, I knew something was wrong. There was a dissonance between the ideas of democracy, justice, meritocracy and pursuit of the American dream and what I had observed myself, that I could not explain. I had experienced white privilege, saw how it worked: pulled over in a car with my Hispanic boyfriend, when there was no violation; going out to clubs in NYC with friends of color, who always wanted me to hail the cab; witnessing a Puerto Rican co-worker followed around in a shoe shop. There was something going on.
Later, in grad school, I heard Peggy McIntosh describe the “Invisible Backpack of White Privilege,” so I found there was a name for it. Also in grad school, I had a smack to the head experience reading “Narrative of a Slave” by Frederick Douglass. Earlier, I’d spent a year in Easton, MD, site of Douglass’s birth and early enslavement, without a clue that he had ever been there. No tribute, no plaque - hidden away. I felt duped. And then of course, I began to realize if this erasure of true history was going on in one place, why not others?
What I have found out, since piecing things together about the true history of this nation is not a pretty picture. But I’d rather have the truth. The true story will help credit the survival of blacks, Hispanics and indigenous peoples in spite of laws and violence that held white supremacy in place. The true story will help white people see more clearly the cost of advantages that accrue from competition that has been unfairly narrowed and which really only rewards those at the top who must isolate themselves from the masses and their own humanity.
It’s hard for whites to talk about race because it’s a hard history to face, and because it challenges our sense of identity, and the way to prosperity, if we come to realize that the pillars of our democracy were built on the stolen land of Indians and the stolen labor of black people. No matter how hard our white immigrant ancestors worked, it doesn’t change that reality. But blame and shame are not helpful ways for white people today to respond to past history. We do need ways to talk, to share experiences, and to make changes in history books, in language, and in economic and social policies. The truth will out. It’s coming out already, in genetics, in family history research, in new discoveries in history and archeology. We can’t force change, but we can’t deny what is increasingly real. No putting the genie back in the bottle.
I can’t say I love talking about race – it’s awkward, mistake-prone, and sometimes hurts my stomach. It was hard to hear a black man say he wished that white people in the north would put a sign on their house or wear a tee shirt that said, “I don’t want to deal with black people.” It would be easier for him to know what to expect. But I’m trying, I’m learning, I’m questioning and speaking up. It’s easy to lose trust in our institutions – education, politics, the church; but addressing white supremacy has given a sense of reality and major purpose to my life. And I’m glad I’m not alone.