Essays

Report from the Land of White Privilege

gloria handcuffsBy Susan Lilley

Last evening as I was leaving the local supermarket with a million things on my mind, I managed to miss my own car and walked a few cars down to a small SUV of similar color and size. I put my hand on the hatchback handle and when it wouldn’t open, I actually looked at the car. Not mine! Similar style, but not even the same make. Embarrassed, I wheeled around and started back to my own car just as the man in the other car emerged with a surprised look on his face. A woman putting groceries in her trunk between us looked at me quizzically.

“You know you’re distracted when you walk past your own car,” I remarked.

She smiled in total it’s-so-hectic-this-time-of-year solidarity. “I wondered why you were walking back!”

The man was walking past by now, also smiling. “I was about to call the cops!” he called, laughing.

It occurred to me as it often does, especially over the last few months, that this story would have likely turned out differently if I were a black male. A black male of about any age past kindergarten. What saved me from misunderstanding, suspicion, fear from people around me, and a possible encounter with law enforcement was my whiteness. Middle-aged lady whiteness, probably the most innocuous kind.

As a high school teacher, I know some of my students suffer disturbing levels of negative attention from the world’s authority figures solely because of their color. And I also know that some of their white classmates don’t get it. Some never will. In classroom discussions about the Michael Brown travesty, some white students are eager to point to Brown’s actions before his death as “stupid” or “asking for trouble.” Justifying a senseless death with the victim’s shortcomings is an easy out—problem solved, no white guilt necessary. Some, even if they agree that the Trayvon Martin tragedy (which occurred just up the highway from us in central Florida) was a miscarriage of justice, don’t feel like it has much to do with them. Yet others are able to see a painful pattern of inequality that has no easy answers and says difficult things about our history and our status quo. Why is that?

Why are some white people prone to a kneejerk reaction denying the problem and others able to empathize with the struggles and frustrations of people who don’t look exactly like them? Is it just racism, or something more? None of my students think they are racist. But some deny even hard data that shows the racial inequality rife in our culture. When I ask them if two kids busted for the same amount of pot, one a wealthy white student at the local swanky liberal arts college and the other a poor black teenager with no adult support, will have the same legal experience, they look at me blankly. Even with hard evidence about which one will spend at least ten days in jail and many other punishing consequences and which one will not see a day of incarceration and go back to their lives almost as if nothing had happened, they still try to insist that the system is “basically” equal. Some white students don’t want to admit that money, privilege, and race have everything to do with the outcome of this scenario. They exist in a realm of privilege so taken for granted that is it invisible to them. And too often the attitude seems to be “if it hasn’t happened to me, it doesn’t exist.”

It’s worth noting that racial injustice is not limited to the poor and it’s not just in the South. Today Melissa Harris-Perry‘s talk show reminded me that celebrated Harvard professor and media personality Henry Louis Gates was arrested a few years ago in Boston for breaking into a house—his own home! Do you think I’d be handcuffed and hauled away for losing my key and trying to find a way into my house? Why is there such a disconnect in understanding?

As a teacher, I would like to engage students more about these divisive and difficult issues, but the shameful truth is that I often just don’t have the strength. I don’t have the strength to see the pain on the faces of my students of color when some of their white classmates, often very politely, will not or cannot try to understand, who may even dismiss other points of view out of hand, because it doesn’t reflect white experience. I don’t have the strength to see my students of color emotionally fend off white opinions so blind and insensitive that they could have their concentration destroyed for the rest of the school day. Imagine how heavy the world feels when a lively discussion on Ferguson ends, and most white students go back to chatting about weekend plans or laughing about something on YouTube. Many of them mean well but make the error of believing that mere proximity with their black friends is enough to make everything copacetic, that they can appropriate and interpret their black friends’ experience with impunity. Many of us, myself included, have made that mistake from time to time. But we must learn and we must do better. As we saw with the recent unfortunate watermelon joke made at the expense of author Jacqueline Woodson as she accepted one of literature’s highest honors, the National Book Award, a white friend can never make light of a painful racial joke because of their closeness with a black friend. Ever.

On the rare occasions when I hear blatantly offensive remarks that target gender, race, or sexual orientation, I do step in, of course. They know I won’t have it. But we need a deeper discussion, well beyond the now-useless and antiquated concept of “political correctness,” whatever that was. And maybe school is as good a place as any, especially in a literature class, where the truth found in stories and poems can transform hearts and minds better than any medium I know. I am heartened by the white faces I see in protest rallies and other demonstrations around the country against systemic racial injustice. However we do it, the moment has come for white allies to go further in, to call injustice when we see it, to add our voices strongly to our suffering brothers and sisters’. I may still be fumbling in the dark, but I am looking for ways.

8 replies »

  1. Nice posting, Susan.

    I do think that empathy is one of the toughest things (abilities? skills? traits?) to really grasp and practice well. On a daily basis, I struggle with it, have to remind myself to do it, and to do it better. Often, even when I think I’m empathizing, it takes awhile to really immerse myself in a life, in a point-of-view.

    When it comes to young people (especially students), it can be maddening to have “empathy” as a goal (i.e. I want everyone to empathize with X by the end of the class), just because it’s such hard work. It’s like teaching someone to master a sport in a single semester or single year. For years, when I was teaching fiction writing, I’d get frustrated when I couldn’t make students love a particular story or author whose effectiveness was based largely upon the degree of empathy exhibited in that story. I think now that, whenever I fail, it’s because I’m trying too hard. You can’t force someone to empathize. Some people require baby steps.

    As I’ve been thinking about these ideas lately, I’m paying close attention to whenever someone mentions “white privilege” (or some similar concept) in a status update or blog post. One of the best that I recently read came from Lesley Silvia. Many of the ineffective updates/ postings/ etc., though (or at least the ones that I don’t particularly like), fail because of their tone. They have that same “forced” quality as my old class discussions. Lesley’s posting was something to the effect of “I understand the privilege I have, and I’m thankful for it.” But many postings sound like, “We have white privilege! Why can’t you understand it, you morons?!” And when the tone becomes irritated, or frustrated, or judgmental, or downright mean, then it actually hurts the cause of empathy…because now you’re no longer trying to understand the person you’re talking to (i.e. the person who doesn’t understand or believe in white privilege) and only trying to hammer home your own viewpoint.

    Consequently, I’ve found that my best class discussions lately (including one that I had on that “catcalling” video that was circulating) come about because I try to be sincere in asking students what they think, rather than arguing my own viewpoint. Or, if I offer my own viewpoint, I try to do so in a way that allows them a chance to tell me what they think of it, if I’m wrong, if I haven’t considered something…

    I don’t know. Maybe this all feels obvious. Empathy is tough. But I do feel like it’d be easier if we weren’t always so hellbent on asserting our own worldview, as if we’re the enlightened ones, and when someone doesn’t agree, then they’re just not capable of serious thought or discussion…and that means that we’ve got to be open to discussions in which the very notion of “white privilege” can be challenged and reshaped, without losing our heads over it.

    -NH

    • Thanks for this thoughtful response, Nate. You know exactly what I mean about the difficulties in the classroom–where you have people with all kinds of POV differences and they are young and still forming, to boot. And all that in addition to teaching sensitivity to language and all the other joys of teaching English. Like facing a steep mountain some days.

  2. You have expressed beautifully some important, but still overlooked, truths. Thank you for writing this, Susan. –Grace Edwards Fiandaca