Saturday, September 12, 2020

White Privilege: Being on the Map

White privilege is being on the map.

In 2005, I attended a conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Knowing that Atlanta was home to the beginnings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and knowing that Atlanta is the mecca of some very important HBCUs (Historically Black College and Universities), I was eager to attend the conference and use any extra time exploring the historical aspects of the city.

I arrived at the hotel early and immediately began flipping through the nicely bound hardback book set purposefully on the table so tourists like me could search for things to do while visiting the city. Intently thumbing through the book looking for anything related to Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights movement, or the colleges, I came up empty handed. Somewhat annoyed and sure I’d missed something, I flipped through a second time...with the same results.

Not to be deterred, I moved on to look at the map of the city placed in the conference bag provided at registration. Because the conference I was attending was for multicultural educators, I figured the reference maps would surely direct us to these very significant sites and perhaps introduce me to others of which I was unaware. I excitedly reviewed the sightseeing options that were neatly outlined as suggestions for days one through four.

Day one: Coca-Cola museum, CNN studios, Atlanta Children’s Museum, Braves museum, and Six Flags over Georgia.

Figuring those must be the most frequented sites in the city, I moved on.

Day two: Stone Mountain Park, Hard Rock Café, the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, the High Museum, and Underground Atlanta.

By then, I wasn’t expecting much for days three and four, but it still seemed a slap in the face that a paper making museum and a patio in an historic district were held in higher regard than anything related to Black culture or our Civil Rights history. Not a single thing was mentioned in those two categories.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’m guessing whoever wrote those visitor books and created those maps were educated under the same system I was: a system that didn’t expose us to all of our history. It was only through my own reading and research that I knew about Atlanta’s prominence in the civil rights era, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the four deeply revered and historical HBCUs that make up the Atlanta University Center: Clark Atlanta (1865), Morehouse (1867), Spelman (1881), and Morehouse School of Medicine (1975). After finding my own way through Atlanta that trip, I also learned that The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change has been in existence since 1968, a memorial tomb for Dr. King and eternal flame was dedicated in 1977, and a visitor center was built in 1996. It seems that a company creating books and maps of and for the city of Atlanta should be expected to know and include those prominent places.

In 2014, Atlanta opened a National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Today, if you dig into the AtlantaDowntown website, you can now find a Black History and Civil Rights Tour and Atlanta’s Journey for Civil Rights Bike Tour. Even more interesting to me is the link to a different “Civil Bikes” website that offers tours and acknowledges, “This is the history we were never taught in school. Learn about the heroes we didn’t grow up with, but should have.”

Despite these seeming advances, I still find it troubling that in the Atlanta Preservation Center Walking tours, they have a walking tour that spotlights “Confederate fortifications” but not the historic HBCUs. I find it unsettling that the “Sweet Auburn” tour is the only one featuring “African-American commerce and culture in Atlanta,” yet it is also the only one of the fourteen tours that gives no prices or availability and, instead, says, “This tour is available for parties of ten or more by prior arrangement,” and has a form to fill out if you would like to request a tour (None of the others require “ten or more” or a “prior arrangement” tour). It also seems curious to me that, in the other thirteen tours advertised, the only two items related to culture--Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s throne and Japanese Zero war planes--are called midtown “oddities.”

Why should it take so much effort to learn about deeply-rooted history, especially when it’s connected to someone like Dr. King, who we love to tout as our historical peacemaker? What do we gain (other than privilege and power) by erasing parts of our past, wiping out any reference to achievements by people of color, and calling the ones that we do acknowledge “oddities”?

White privilege creates the maps, and the language around them, that determines who and what is important. By creating the maps, we were and are able to influence how White people see the world, as well as tell people of color how they should see the world. White privilege also controls the system that chooses the contracts of the businesses who will put the books on the table and the maps in the hands of visitors. The process often favors those who are already connected with the city...and those are often largely White. The process has typically been too arduous for minority-owned, small businesses to have the time and resources to take on.

In 2013, the city of Dallas created a Business Inclusion and Development Plan that specifically states that they will work harder to “increase participation of locally owned Minority/Women-Owned Business Enterprises.” Plans like those are created out of necessity...because Minority- and Women-owned businesses are continuously being overlooked. My guess is that Dallas is not the only city that has had to do that.

Leaving people and places off of a map and out of the process communicates a message....but people of color have been pointing this out to us forever. Why does it take me doing this research and having to discover it for myself before I believe what they have always said?? What we, as White people, need to realize is the research has already been done. Our job is to hear what they’re telling us and join in the fight with them to correct these messages and change the literal and figurative maps.

Saturday, September 05, 2020

White Privilege: Joining the Struggle

I’ve been reflecting on our history lately. I’ve always known Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks as peaceful protesters who created necessary change. What they did and why they did it seems like common sense now and we praise them for creating that change...peacefully. But when I look back on that time and put myself in that space, I have to realize the general population didn’t accept their “peaceful protests” back then...nor were their “peaceful protests” peaceful. In fact, the general population was just as angry at them then as so many are at Colin Kaepernick and the rest of us now. Additionally, the protests back then had residual violence and destruction as well, just as they do today.

In case we’ve forgotten (or didn’t know), Rosa Parks did not sit down on the bus because she was tired. She was tired of her people being oppressed. She intentionally stayed seated, despite angry people all around her.

Seriously...imagine that bus. The bus is full and a White man is standing. Rosa Parks is told to get up so the White man can sit, because that is the law and that is what is expected. And Rosa Parks says, “I’m not in the White section.” Imagine the looks she must have gotten. Imagine the outrage and incredulity from the passengers when a young Black woman had the audacity to speak that way to the driver! Imagine the driver asserting his power, threatening to call the police to have her removed, threatening to arrest her himself, and she replied, “Do what you have to do,” and continued to stay seated until the Montgomery police arrived to forcibly remove her from her seat.

From a safe distance, we can now reflect and romanticize her peaceful protest (which it was), but the truth of the matter is they did not see it as peaceful then. Instead of seeing it as an equal rights issue, they saw her protest as a slight against them and, if listened to, felt it would take something away from them. So they enforced “law and order” they are doing today.

Her resistance helped start a bus boycott that lasted for 381 days and disrupted an entire economic system, which made people even more angry. (People really don’t like their pocketbooks being messed with.)

Just because she was doing what we now think of as a very right thing didn’t mean that everyone all of a sudden got on board. Rosa Parks lost her job after her peaceful protest and her husband was fired from his job as well. It got so rough that they eventually had to leave Montgomery and move north in order to start over.

Let me pause here to remind us all of Colin Kaepernick. Four years ago, he quietly knelt during a football game because he, too, was tired; tired of police brutality toward Black men. His resistance wasn’t even breaking a law, but people made it seem like it was.

Like Parks, he endured the looks, the anger, and the outrage while he continued to kneel and he, too, lost his job because of his audacious action. Also like Parks, Kaepernick’s action called attention to an issue, but his one action did not result in the desired change. Since it did not, we have had four years of intensifying protests that are causing some people to be extremely uncomfortable.

I’ve seen people on my Facebook feed longing for the peacefulness of Dr. King, but it seems we also need to be reminded of his stance on things as well. In his Mountaintop speech in 1968, the night before he was murdered, Dr. King talked about how the protests back then brought with them “a little violence” and he lamented the fact that the press highlighted the violence more than the many injustices people were facing.

In this same speech, he was preparing people to march and protest for equal pay and more protections for sanitation workers who were literally being eaten alive by malfunctioning trash trucks. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t bother listening to the detractors who tried to convince him that equality is what it is. Instead, to all of us he asked, “The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.”

I see many more people kneeling these days. I find it almost humorous, considering that four years ago kneeling was considered the ultimate form of treason. However, though the action of kneeling has become much more acceptable, what Colin Kaepernick took a knee for has still not changed. Nearly every day, we are introduced to a new video of yet another Black man who was shot or asphyxiated by a police officer. Today, I can sit in my comfortable White privilege or I can revisit a paraphrased form of Dr. King’s question: “The question is not, ‘If I ally with Black people to stop police brutality, what will happen to me?’ but instead, ‘If I do not ally with Black people to stop police brutality, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.’

“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. … One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963