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Tagged with " white privilege"
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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17 Sep
2013

I Have a Dream, Trayvon Martin and the Voting Rights Act

 

I Have A Dream - 1This month we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and the Reverend Martin Luther King’s inspirational “I Have a Dream Speech.”   In that speech, Dr. King called for our country to meet the “promissory note” written in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence….the promise that all men are guaranteed inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  He reproached America for defaulting on that “promissory note”.  Yet he optimistically refused to believe that “the bank of justice” was bankrupt.  Fifty years later, we still have not fulfilled the promise.  Recent happenings emphasize that as a country we are still behind on our promise.  Is it any wonder that some worry that the “bank of justice” is bankrupt?

The verdict in the Trayvon Martin case brought forth healthy dialogue in the spirit that would make King proud.  It also, sadly brought forth vicious racist diatribe.  The jury in the case determined that according to Florida law, George Zimmerman did not murder Trayvon Martin.  Many in the white community argue that justice was served, agree with the verdict and don’t understand the angry reactions from the black community.   One of the reasons that many in the white community don’t understand is that as whites we haven’t lived our lives facing the suspicion of authorities that we are a punk, a criminal or involved with drugs. Yes, our hearts might race momentarily when we are pulled over by the police, anxious about getting a speeding

I Have A Dream - 2

ticket. But we do not live with the common experience of suspicion simply because of the color of our skin.  We are not stopped as we drive through our own middle class neighborhood as an excuse to search our cars for drugs, nor are we arrested and thrown in jail on the suspicion that we committed a burglary because we happen to be the same skin color as the burglar, nor are we roughed up, frisked or shot because we look like we don’t belong in the neighborhood.

 

As a college student in 1963, I remember listening to King’s speech and being inspired by his dream.  That inspiration led me as a young white woman to become an activist in support of civil rights, to work in the “War on Poverty” and to become involved in anti-racism education.  When I first heard King’s speech, I thought the problem was rooted in the South and in big urban areas.  I wanted to change the voting rights laws and remove “Whites Only” privileges.  I wanted to increase opportunity for the poor and disenfranchised.  But I learned from my experience that the problem was not only in discriminatory laws and practices but that the problem was also lodged inside me and each one of us who are complicit often in blissful unconsciousness of how our white privilege serves us.  It is the ignorance of what white privilege means that many of us in the white community don’t understand and it is the knowledge and experience of what white privilege means that angers the black community.   Because of white privilege, If Trayvon had been white, he would still be alive.

I wrote recently about the excitement and celebration for the Supreme Court decision striking down DOMA and allowing the lower court ruling against Proposition 8 in California to stand.  These decisions are great leaps forward in support of the civil rights of gays and lesbians.  Yet that same week, the Supreme Court delivered another decision which also highlights our current default on the “promissory note” of equality for all.  That decision I Have A Dream - 3struck at the heart of the 1965 Voting Rights Act allowing states with histories of voter discrimination to change election laws without federal approval.  Some states moved almost immediately to require voter identification and to begin re-districting as this Supreme Court decision allows without federal oversight on the potential impact of disenfranchisement.

The Court seems to believe that we are beyond discrimination at the ballot box almost fifty years later.  Do they believe the “promissory note” been paid off? The moves by these states demonstrate that it has not.  To counter the moves by these states to enact so called “anti-fraud” and other laws of potential disenfranchisement, civil rights leaders are now acting in defense.   They recently announced a campaign called “American Values First” which will fight for legislation and will offer templates to expand voting rights in all 50 states.

Dr. King said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  The arc is not complete.  We still must bend it toward justice when it veers off,  take a stand to pay off the “promissory note” of freedom and liberty and fulfill King’s dream, “that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

 

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