I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of race lately. That might seem like an odd thing for a middle class white woman to think about but it’s been on my mind nonetheless.
One of my cousins recently posted on Facebook that she had just finished watching The Help and the ending had made her cry. A friend of hers posted “The ending made me laugh. Stupid white guilt.”
The comment made me sad. True, I’ve never treated anyone like that and I never will, so from one angle, any guilt I feel is stupid. But sadness is not the same thing as guilt. Furthermore, the people depicted in that movie were living what they thought was normal. What am I doing right now that feels normal but is actually deeply wrong? How will that “normal” be portrayed in movies 50 or 60 years from now? What impacts are we still experiencing from the damage done so long ago? And do those of us benefiting from white privilege have no obligation to address those impacts?
White privilege is a difficult thing to define and a difficult thing to see if you don’t know where to look and it’s a term that surely makes a lot of people roll their eyes. People like that Facebook commenter, without a doubt.
But acknowledging white privilege is not about feeling guilt. It’s about noticing the advantages you have that others don’t, big or small, simply because of the color of your skin.
A black woman sits in the cubicle next to me. In addition to talks about work, our weekends, movies, family, and everything else, we have frequent talks about race. She, along with a couple of other black friends, has opened my eyes to the disadvantages of being black. Being stopped by a police officer because you don’t look like you belong in the affluent neighborhood you are driving in. Being followed by a store employee as if you are about to steal something. People making assumptions about your socioeconomic status and family history.
One of my best friends growing up was black. It wasn’t until recently that I learned why her mother never let her go to the mall with the rest of us. She was afraid that if there was ever a problem – claims of shoplifting or something – her daughter was the one that would be assumed guilty.
This makes me sad. I don’t feel guilty, just sad. I wish it wasn’t this way. I wish my black friends didn’t have to warn their children about dangers that I don’t have to warn mine about. I wish they didn’t have to put up with things that I don’t have to put up with.
I noticed a subtle form of racism and white privilege in the cafeteria at work recently. A fairly sweet and friendly woman runs the short-order grill. She jokes around with most of the customers and is pretty accommodating.
Last week, a black man waited for his omelet to be prepared. She was preparing it as she usually does, spreading the egg out thin, then adding the contents to one half and folding the egg over. He asked her if she could scramble it all up together, demonstrating with his hands what he wanted.
She did as he requested but rolled her eyes and told him dismissively that it’d taste the same either way. He didn’t respond. She started harassing him. She sometimes sounded like she was trying to joke around but there was an edge to her voice and animosity in her manner. At the end, she adopted a falsely sweet voice and loudly announced, “Here you go… SIR.”
I found her behavior rude and when I had the opportunity, I slipped away to tell the man that I prefer my omelets scrambled too. She accommodates other odd requests without the kind of belligerent behavior I witnessed that day, but I didn’t make the connection to the possibility of it being motivated by race until today.
Today, I waited in line behind quite a few people. I had a lot on my mind and wasn’t paying much attention. Someone had apparently asked to have his sandwich put in foil instead of the styrofoam box. A woman, black, said that she’d like hers wrapped in foil as well.
I didn’t see the first person get his food but I watched as the grill lady wrapped the woman’s sandwich in foil and then place it in the box. I mentally shook my head, thinking I bet the woman wanted the foil instead of the box.
Sure enough, when she handed the box to the customer, the woman said, “I didn’t want the box.” She then removed her wrapped sandwich and returned the box. She wasn’t overly friendly or demonstrative or apologetic about it but she also wasn’t rude or upset. She was just matter-of-fact. I don’t want the box. Here it is.
When she walked away, the grill lady rolled her eyes at the next customer and said, “As if she expects me to be able to read her mind.”
I was taken by surprise. The customer had not expected her to read her mind. She had misunderstood and the customer had clarified. So why the animosity?
I thought back over the many times I’ve stood in that grill line. The only two times I can think of her being disrespectful to a customer’s wishes was with these two people, who shared one distinct trait.
Was I experiencing a small form of white privilege? Were all of us white people going through that line being afforded more respect than the black people? Did we have more right to express our wishes? To be served by friendly and helpful staff? To ask for something special?
I believe we were. Now, there’s always the possibility that when you start looking for something, you’ll see it even where it isn’t. I recognize that. And maybe I’m doing it now. Or maybe I’m finally waking up and truly seeing what’s going on around me. What I’ll do with the enlightenment is still an open question.