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17 Oct
2017

Learning More About My White Privilege

Eyes and Perception of the Word

I have opposed discrimination and racism beginning when I was in high school at the time of the lunch counter boycotts in the South. I wanted to ask retail and service establishments if they would serve “Negroes” in our very white town in Montana with only three known African American families. I was conducting this survey because I was afraid it might create problems for those families.

Later in my thirties, living in Detroit, I was confronted daily by the impact of racism on the population in this majority black city. I volunteered with an organization that provided anti-racism education workshops to churches, community groups, non-profit organizations and businesses. Through interactive workshops, deep discussions and sometimes painful feedback from black colleagues, I learned about my white privilege, how much prejudice and racism I carried and the many ways our culture has institutionalized racism. I also learned how much I didn’t know about the African American experience in the United States.

I now live in California and find myself learning more and again. Not only is there so much I don’t know about the black experience, I am pretty ignorant about the experience of being brown (Mexican, Hispanic and Latino/a). Although I did have one personal experience…as a high school student when I was asked to leave a restaurant because the staff thought I was Mexican. (I tanned easily and my hair wasn’t gray as it is now.)

I was reminded of that humiliating experience recently when I attended a one-woman show, performed by Irma Herrera, “Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name.”  She taught the audience the correct pronunciation as “Ear-ma.”  Proud of her Mexican and American heritage, Irma recounted experiences from her life requesting nuns, professors and strangers to accept the Spanish pronunciation of her name. Through poignant stories and humor, she told us how pronouncing her own name had often resulted in insults, pain and the denial of her identity. She recounts experiences of rejection and humiliation which brought back the memory of my lone experience of rejection based on an assumption and stereotype. I remember being so embarrassed and mortified in front of my friends. However, I refused to leave and my friends stood up for me. That experience so many years ago certainly increased my sensitivity to discrimination based on color and stereotypes.

I left Irma Herrera’s show with my own emotional tenderness. But most important, I had a clearer understanding of the historical context of the discrimination and racism experienced when growing up brown in this country. With the mirror she offered, I was forced to re-evaluate my thoughts, actions and biases once again.

Latino woman with catrina

Last weekend, I saw the film “Dolores,” a provocative documentary about the civil rights icon and labor leader, Dolores Huerta. The film provides a personal story of Dolores Huerta’s involvement in the founding of the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez in the context of the economic, social and physical violence experienced by the farm workers in California.

From these two recent experiences, I recognize again how my white privilege contributes to my ignorance of what it is like to be brown or black in the United States (or Native American or Asian American). I am grateful to have financial security, respect and a supportive community. I don’t have to worry about the police response to me because of my color. I grew up with a good education. I have been able to purchase homes without redlining. I have not experienced discrimination based on color in my career.

I continue to learn that my life privileges have protected me from the institutionalization of our country’s racial biases. My experience of gender bias, however, is more direct and personal. But that is a different blog.

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13 Comments

  • Hi Bev! A very timely topic! Enjoyed your share and the truth of your message. Keep up your good works! The best! Paul

    • Thanks for your encouragement, Paul.

  • Thank you Bev!

  • Bev, I thought things were getting better where color of your skin was not such a big issue and we were becoming kinder and gentler but think we are losing ground now.

    • Unfortunately, Helen, I think you are right. Very discouraging.

  • Bev
    So well expressed and so sad. It is so disheartening to see so many racists, sexist, anti-semites feel free to spread their venom in the current environment. I may have been naive by thinking that we had made some progress but am now realizing that we have a long way to go to become a society that accepts and celebrates differences.

    • Couldn’t agree more. It is sad and we have a long way to go.

  • With Richard Spencer scheduled to speak here in Gainesville tomorrow, I too am reminded of not only our shared past but of life here in the ’70s. I have a vivid memory of Marion Anderson singing at the university in Missoula, and the poshest hotel would not book her a room. But more than that incident, how the Indians were treated in and around Missoula. Also a vivid memory of driving next to Flathead lake and stopping when we saw an Indian woman at the side of the road, ants crawling all over her and so drunk she couldn’t stand. We gave her a ride for about 20 some miles, to out turn. When I asked her what she was going to do, her reply was, “Lay down by the side of the road again until someone stops.”

    Having adopted a biracial child in 1976 gave us a real look at racism in the south at that time. Not enough room to go on but that little fellow taught us and a lot of others so much.

    We are hoping for a peaceful day tomorrow, some 500 police are to here with National Guard ready. The Governor has declared a state of emergency and urging people to stay home. University will not close but som profs are not holding class. We will see!

    • I think you had more peace than expected. Thanks for your comment. And yes I remember that experience with the Indian woman. Hard life and very sad.

  • Bev! Amazing Blog. You express it so well. Smiled at the grey hair bit. Also read the great comments – you have a friend who heard Marion Anderson! Thanks for writing all this. We are always such a work in progress. We all seem to have experienced situations that show us this uncomfortable part of human nature, but the lightning rods, those profoundly discriminated against, are people of color. (also the poor…) Reading the actions of you and your readers is very heartening. Thanks.

    • Thanks, Lucy. We are all works in progress. And we must keep our hope alive for progress and continuing to move forward.

  • Bev, so touched by your comments and insights. My plan is to do a blog (will reference yours) about how meaningful it is to know that my play imparts new info or allows folks to access new ways of thinking about names and the identity of others, and how they are treated. Thanks.

    For any of Bev’s fans who are in SF Bay Area my last play of 2017 is on Nov. 15, at The SF Marsh, tickets at https://themarsh.org/rising/rising/.

    • Irma, Thanks for your inspiring performance. Gave me lots to reflect on.

So, what do you think?

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