Saturday, July 25, 2020

White Privilege: White Angles

Have you ever heard of Nat Turner? If you *are* familiar with Nat Turner, I’d be really interested to hear what you learned about him and how you felt about him when you learned about his 1831 Slave Rebellion.

I can’t remember if I originally heard about Nat Turner in a history class or much later when I started doing research on my own. Either way, I remember thinking he was cold-blooded. During his revolt, he led about 70 slaves to kill about 60 White people. They went to homes and murdered men, women, and children...with an ax.

Nat Turner was eventually caught and executed. White militias went to great lengths to find him. They ended up killing 120 slaves and free Blacks in the process and, ultimately, executed 56 slaves for their role in the uprising. To me, those actions seemed justified. It seemed unnerving to have someone that brazen out there killing “random” people.

Juxtapose that with slave owners.

At the same time Nat Turner went on his killing spree, the slave owners he was killing were enslaving 2 million people. Because slaves were their “property,” slave owners took liberties to skin them alive, pour hot tar on them, “quarter” them, dismember them, whip them with chains, rape the women, sell them, work them innumerable hours without pay, separate their families, lynch them in the town square, and force them to watch their friends and neighbors be lynched so they wouldn’t want to step out of line. Slave owners even took their own children to watch the “festivities” and made postcards out of the lynchings.

However, unlike Turner, no slave owner was ever convicted for their crimes. Ever. No slave owner was even sought out. In fact, we lauded (and still laud) those people as heroes for the many other things they did in their life. What we deem as their “successes” allow us to excuse their insane treatment of people. What’s strange is that I have always been troubled by Nat Turner and the potential ripple effect of his actions, but never near as troubled by the slave owners.

Don’t get me wrong...I’ve always thought slavery was wrong, but when I read the history books, slavery comes across like a thing of the past: Millions of human beings were tortured and killed...the Emancipation Proclamation was issued...slaves were freed. Thank you, next.

Why did I feel so at ease about the fact that Nat Turner was executed for his actions and just as at ease that no slave owner (then, or even now) faces any repercussions for his?

The reality is, our history books focus on the detrimental impact Nat Turner had on White people and the potential destruction he could have caused had he not been stopped. William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Confessions of Nat Turner (which wasn’t written or dictated by Turner at all), presents Turner as having sexual fantasies about a White woman, which helped drive his killing spree. Styron’s book, along with his bias, influences and informs what is written in our history books.

Let’s think for a minute… What if, instead, throughout our whole lives we had read about Nat Turner’s amazing courage and bravery in opposing a system that was brutally torturing and killing millions of people? What if we had read about Turner risking his own life to make slave owners take notice so that they would possibly change their treatment of people? What if we had read how insane it was for people to own and brutalize people and how crazy it is that they have never been held accountable for their actions?

White privilege is embedded in the way we read history and what we read influences our thoughts and actions. White privilege leads me to take my history at face value and never question the angle from which it is presented. White privilege tells me that “Give me liberty or give me death!” is only a phrase that can be applied to some people...because if it applied to all of us, wouldn’t Nat Turner be the poster child?

Saturday, July 11, 2020

White Privilege Chronicles: Minimizing Stereotypes

I ride my bike down to White Rock Lake quite often. I almost always go early in the mornings. Almost every time I ride, there is a Hispanic lady running down the path. She’s a tiny lady, petite and fit. She jogs slow and steady and makes it look easy; my efforts and attempts at jogging tell me it’s not.

As I rode by her the other day, my mind wandered and I pondered her life...How is she able to get out of the house to run every single morning?! I wonder what her husband and kids think of her leaving so early every day. I bet her husband has to leave for work super early...landscaping or construction...and I wonder if he expects her to cook breakfast every morning. What about kids? Who’s watching them while she’s gone? I wonder if her husband approves of her running each morning? Why do should he be “approving” her running anyway?? Maybe she’s a stay-at-home mom so she has time to run.

Wait… STOP! Did my brain really just do that??

I had just stereotyped her entire life in less than 15 seconds as I rode by her. Where did I get all of those thoughts….and how did I get that from a lady running along a path to the lake??

I thought about the other women I see jogging. What stories do I create about them in my head?

I pictured a White woman jogging and began to ponder her life. I tried to think about the way I would construct her story. I came up with a much different picture:

That’s awesome that she gets up so early every day. I wonder how she manages to get up early every morning and run. I bet she has a demanding job and this is her stress relief. I wonder if she has kids. I bet she chose to hold off on having kids so she could focus on her job. That’s probably what allows her the freedom to run every morning. I bet her husband is encouraging.


Doing that forced me to think about how my brain automatically characterizes and caricatures people so fast and so subconsciously that it impacts the way I see them and what I expect of them before I even know them.

What I want to believe is that those thoughts are harmless, but I know they aren’t.

I want to believe if both of these women applied for a job with me, I would look at their resume and treat them equally, but I know my thoughts impact my decision-making...whether those thoughts are conscious or not.

Based on my thinking, I know I would assume the Hispanic lady probably had more responsibilities at home and a husband who expects more of her. I would assume that she wouldn’t have as much time for her job, even though I couldn’t legally ask her questions like that. Conversely, those split-second thoughts would probably lead me to also assume that the White woman is more likely to be a career woman who would dedicate herself to the job and would have the time to be devoted without distractions or financial struggles.

Metacognition. It’s a concept I learned in grad school. “Thinking about your thinking.” I learned it as something we educators need to help children do. When children gain awareness of their mental state, they achieve at higher levels.

However, it works for adults as well. Being aware of our thinking and understanding how we process information impacts how and what we learn. Being aware of our thoughts helps us adjust and regulate our behaviors.

I obviously still have these thoughts. My hope is that being aware of them allows me to confront my thoughts and actively reverse them. It’s kind of like walking backward on a people mover in the airport. It’s not enough just to stand still; I have to actively and aggressively walk backward so I don’t simply get carried forward to a destiny I don’t want to reach.

Sunday, July 05, 2020

White Privilege: Impunity

White privilege...being able to ravage, loot, and pilfer Black communities for 80 years with complete impunity...and then, when Black people turn the tables in 1943 and start fighting back in earnest, we dub it an “urban phenomena,” label people Black people as the problem, and continuing to pilfer and loot their communities in higher level and different ways…and still labeling and blaming and making it stick even another 80 years later in 2020:

“Sunday, June 20, 1943, a fight broke out between several hundred white and colored men on Belle Isle, a park extending into the Detroit River on the east side of town. of the worst riots ever seen in the United States, an outbreak that would mark a turning point in American race relations. Until the 1943 uprising in Detroit, most riots in the United States, from the 1863 Draft Riots in New York to the riots in Tulsa in 1921, to Atlanta in 1906 to Washington, D.C., to Chicago, Springfield, and East St. Louis, Illinois, and Wilmington, North Carolina, among others, had been white attacks on colored people, often resulting in the burning of entire colored sections or towns. This was the first major riot in which blacks fought back as earnestly as the whites and in which black residents, having become established in the city but still relegated to run-down ghettos, began attacking and looting perceived symbols of exploitation, the stores and laundries run by whites and other outsiders that blacks felt were cheating them. It was only after Detroit that riots became known as primarily urban phenomena, ultimately centered on inner-city blacks venting their frustrations on the ghettos that confined them.”

~The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson (p. 155)

No commentary needed.

Saturday, July 04, 2020

White Privilege Chronicles: Risk Averse

As my husband and I rode our bikes around White Rock Lake, I saw a yard with hundreds of flags staked in front, I assume, for the 4th of July.

I know flags are an attempt at being patriotic. They are a symbol that shows how much we care for our country. But, these days, they are also a statement. The more flags we display, the more we say to the world that we believe in our country...that America is the greatest...that we support the troops...and, these days, that we oppose Black Lives Matter.

I have no idea if the latter was the statement this yard was trying to make. However, when I saw all of the flags, my first reaction was that I would make my own statement. I would go and buy a bunch of Black Lives Matter flags and put them in my yard as well!

I pondered the idea the rest of the way around the lake and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t my best idea...but it also got me thinking about why my first reaction is feeling a need to make a “statement.”

My conclusion? “Statements” are fairly easy and involve little risk.

Here are a couple of ways I make “statements” that are risk-averse:


  • Protests. I have participated in quite a few protests. People know I participate in protests. I do this because I feel strongly about whatever I’m protesting. I’m glad I participate because what I’ve learned by walking in these protests is that the way protesters and police are portrayed in the media is slanted; protesters are often bad and police are usually good. From my own personal experience, this isn’t necessarily true. However, truth be told, I haven’t participated in protests that push my boundaries too blocking highways. I truly respect and admire those who do and wish I had their courage; I just haven’t been able to do it myself. 

  • Kneeling. While I completely agree with kneeling during the national anthem and completely support it, I do not kneel myself. I would gladly kneel with anyone who takes that stance, but the truth of the matter is that I have never had the courage to actually do it on my own. I may choose to stay seated or stand without my hand over my heart as my own way of silent protesting, but I have yet to kneel. 

When we, as White people, make statements that go too far or stop too soon, do they hurt people of color more than they help?

I thought about the White people I have seen jumping on police cars, turning them over, and throwing bricks through windows in their attempt to ally with protesters to make their statements. I wonder if they think about how their looting gets blamed on the Black people who are peacefully protesting?

I thought about White people who jump in to topple statues to make a statement. I wonder if they use their contacts to bail themselves out and get the charges taken off their record...and, if they do, if the same was done for the Black people who toppled those same statues.

I thought about myself and how I am willing to take a knee as a statement amongst a crowd of protesters, but how I’m much more hesitant when I am by myself in a crowd of mostly White people.

Each of those are important ways to ally...but when we aren’t willing to take all of the heat, are we really being allies?

I’m really glad that so many people are participating and coming out to join the current movement. And while I’m sure the numbers themselves will help move it forward, I wondered what will happen when we start seeing a few wins, when the cameras are turned off, and when being a part of the movement involves sacrificing some of our own luxuries. Will the movement continue to be diverse or will White people settle back into being comfortable and content with the miniscule progress that was made? And then, maybe more importantly, will White people attribute that progress to how many of us got involved or will we give credit to the people of color who have been crying foul for centuries, long before any of us were willing to get involved?

As I continue working this out in my head, I ask myself questions like: What am I willing to give up? What am I willing to sacrifice? How much pain am I willing to endure? How long am I willing to endure discomfort for the equity that I claim is so important? Am I willing to lose my job over this? Am I willing to go to jail even though I have a 13-year old daughter?

As a White woman, I have the luxury of opting out if I feel like it involves too much risk or too much sacrifice. If I opt out, my life and opportunities are no less because of it. My privilege stays intact. Right now, it’s easy to ride the wave and go along with the crowd. The question I have to keep asking myself is what am I willing to do when everyone has gone home and no one else is looking? How will I continue to fight for justice?

Friday, July 03, 2020

White Privilege Chronicles: In Charge

It happened again. 

I was returning a tub of supplies to a lady who is the director of a physics camp where the Scholars from my college readiness program were attending.

I drove up, handed them off to her and we started chatting. While chatting, another girl came up to return her supplies. In the era of COVID, I backed away and stood by my car. The teenager walked up and handed her tub to my friend. Her mom drove up and stopped beside my car. “Thank you for doing this camp!” she hollered out the window to me. I looked around, thinking she was talking to my friend, who was further up and was actually taking the tubs and talking with the girls. Nope. She was talking to me.


Of course she was. I’m White. My friend is Black. She assumed I was leading the camp. It happens all of the time. I get mistaken for the person in charge. All. Of. The. Time. By White people, by Black people; it doesn’t matter.

I have been at all Black events (like my husband’s cousin’s wedding) and someone asked me where they needed to go for the reception after the wedding. I have been at a national conference where someone wanted direction on where to place the food. I’ve tried to write it off as my personality or some vibe I give off. Maybe I just appear to know what I’m doing. But what I’ve come to notice is that it really doesn’t matter what venue I’m in or what I’m doing. It doesn’t even matter what I’m wearing (I rarely wear even a blazer to make me look professional). People automatically assume that I am in charge...because I’m White.

In my own passive-aggressive way, I have started looking at them like, “Why would I be in charge?” and shrug like, “Why would I know what you are supposed to be doing?” even though I know exactly what’s happening.

On the flip side of that, though, I do it, too. Last year I went to the grocery store early one morning when they were stocking the shelves. A man, probably in his late 40s, early 50s, was squatted down and had a black, windbreaker type jacket that seemed like something an early-morning worker on a cold day might wear (Don’t ask me why that’s what I assume early morning stockers wear...because I truly don’t know). I assumed he was stocking the shelves. “Excuse me...could you tell me where I could find…” I asked. He looked at me much like I look at people who ask me if I’m in charge and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t.” It took me a second to figure out why he wouldn’t know where something was in the store and then I realized...he didn’t work there! He was simply a Black man in the store getting groceries early in the morning, just like me. I was embarrassed, but there was nothing I could do. The damage had already been done.

I want to write it off as a simple mistake anyone could have made. But it’s not a simple mistake. It reinforces a power structure where White people are expected to be in charge and people of color are expected to be subservient. And it happens all of the time. I’ve heard Black and Hispanic friends talk about it. No matter where they are, they are assumed to be a worker (even if they have a doctorate and are running a my friend with the physics camp). No one has ever mistaken me for a worker. Ever. Always a boss.

Reinforcing the power structure impacts our psyche. When people assume I’m a boss, I start acting like a boss; when people assume I’m there to serve them, I either succumb to their expectations or become frustrated trying to convince them otherwise.

I know I have to actively work against my biases because my biases impact my actions. Before I say, “Excuse me,” and try to ask for help, I have had to intentionally start looking for a name tag or some kind of identification that shows me they work there...and even if I am convinced they work there, if I don’t see it, I don’t ask.

I know I never intend to do harm...and I think people of color often give me a pass (more often than I deserve). However, being dismissive by saying, “I didn’t mean anything by it,” feels like I’m using my own measuring stick to decide whether or not I’m hurting or harming someone else...and that doesn’t seem fair. If I’m determining whether someone is hurt by my actions, it seems like I should be using a measuring stick they create, not one I do.