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.

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