Privilege is supposed to feel comfortable, but the more I become aware of what privilege may be, the more uncomfortable I feel. I picture myself in a comfortable outfit- most likely yoga pants and my loose fitting Estes Park sweatshirt, providing my physical body with relaxation, security, and ease. I don’t have to think about how my body feels or what others might see. I am content and snug. But when I am wearing an outfit I do not feel confident in, it seems impossible to ignore anxiety or restlessness from the tight fitting fabric against my skin or the nagging thought that others can see exactly who I am underneath the comforts of layers.
To some extent, talking about privilege requires undressing in front of people who only see you clothed. Acknowledging the topic demands sensitivity and brutal honesty, and it never feels comfortable. I feel that is why it is a high challenge to actually engage in the conversation rather than choose the familiar and uninhibited path of disregarding the awkward truth that you might not deserve the life you live.
I think about equity on a daily basis as an 11th grade English teacher in a setting where several of my classes have more students of color than white students. I have tremendous praise for St. Louis Park based on the integration I see on a daily basis, rather than a forced reconciliation. But there is still a need for healing between racial groups and students that come from different backgrounds. Everything we read as students of literature can be related back to human choice, conflict, and character. It is my number one goal to inspire dialogue among my students about injustices present in our world and the parts we contribute. Nearly every text we read lends itself to this important theme. I’ve listed several of the texts at the end for recommended reading.
The inspiration for writing this particular blog comes from an encounter Ben and I experienced in the Minneapolis skyway yesterday, on a pretty normal and snowy Saturday. As we were meandering around with no urgency in our steps or deadlines to meet, I casually observed neighboring people throughout the skyway system. I tend to think I have a gift for observation, however it does tend to place me in positions of reading into situations too often.
Anyways, Ben and I were in Marshalls, and it was very clear that there were some homeless men sitting on the stairs with no intent on shopping for clothes but more likely for resting in a warm place. Ben mentioned to me on the escalator that reading Scratch Beginnings by Adam Shephard had changed the way he looked at homeless human beings. I agreed.
We continued walking in the direction back to our car. We were approaching a section of the skyway outside The Brothers’ Deli, where around the corner we needed to turn, I observed three teenagers of color. There were two girls and one boy, all African American. This does not scare me. I feel a deep longing to be able to connect with people of color like brothers and sisters underneath the immediate barrier of my white skin, female gender, straight sexuality, blonde hair, and blue eyes. I was thinking this exact thought when all of the sudden, dry spiral tri-color pasta noodles hit the back of my head with a dull painful thud. This was a brusque shock for me because I had actually zoned out from any of the few words exchanged before between the girls and Ben.
As I was reacting to the confrontation, Ben told me that one of the girls had asked him if we had a dollar to spare. The other girl apparently followed up the request with a caveat that if we didn’t give a dollar, her friend would throw something at us. Ben reported a simple “sorry.” I wish I would have been more present because my thoughts had taken me to a different space where I never heard any of this dialogue. I was putting some of my student’s names and faces on the bodies around me, wondering if others would treat them differently in the middle of the city, when I know their characters to be trustworthy.
Over the past few years, I have learned that one sign of maturity means to respond rather than react to frustrating or startling circumstances. And so I continued to walk with Ben towards our car, attempting to reflect on what just happened before I even had the means to discuss with him.
I don’t really have any thoughts to share here about giving money away or demanding justice from pretty typical teenage behavior. The conclusion I came to after walking away from the pasta left on the ground of the Skyway was an overwhelming awareness of my privilege.
Having that pasta thrown at me made me feel like small ounces of my humanity were shaved from my character without my permission. I felt unrecognized as a human being. And as despairingly painful as this felt, I do not think I need more than one hand to count how many times I have experienced a feeling like the difficulty in swallowing that your collective presence in the world goes unconsidered.
My whole participation in this slice of time and culture gives me a fraction of empathy for what my students of color and friends of color must feel more often than they ever deserve. The reality is that as a white person, I expect to live comfortably in many ways. I do not expect that strangers will suspect me for poor behavior or crime or conflict. I expect that my humanity will serve me with stability. I can expect that it will not be threatened or poked at, questioned or screened most everywhere I go. I get a green light to walk where I please, live as I wish, and not have anyone looking over my shoulder. As a white person in this country, I expect immunity.
This moment from my life makes me think of a story I taught this fall called A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines. In 1940s Louisiana, a 21 year old black man named Jefferson finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and is accused of a murder he did not commit. What must it feel like for generation after generation of people to feel oppressed by another people group? And what must it feel like for generation after generation of people to oppress another people group?
I swim in this tension of desperate sorrow that I come from the group of people characterized by how they oppressed and justified their methods of oppression with the deep hope within me to serve the oppressed and befriend the hurting.
My “hard days” amount to nothing when I think about fellow human beings who have no choice but to walk around this earth with no option to escape the fears and suspecting inquiries of strangers on a daily basis. What a horrendous reality to live in.
I pray peace for the three teenagers I seemed to ignore at that corner of the skyway. I pray that those of us whose opinions are naturally trusted and regularly listened to begin loving these three teenagers. And that we begin loving the families of color in our communities due to the acres of bruised pride and discounted humanity white communities have hurled their way.
My brain has a propensity for switching roles in different scenes, and I re envision the pasta throwing scene to be me as a white teenager with white friends walking through a public place deciding for no reason really at all to deem a young black couple guilty of disappointing me, so I can throw something at them. The tragedy of this is all too true for so many generations of African American people and all people of color in our nation’s history. I picture the horror of white superior Americans throughout history demanding things from neighboring black people, and the horror of voices being silenced or devalued because of the color of skin. I think of Emmett Till, who was murdered at the age of fourteen in Mississippi in the year 1955. Less than sixty years ago, a jury of white men acquitted the white men who killed this young boy. I think of the controversies and blatant injustice in Florida recently with the murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. I think of how white people in this nation are guilty of standing firmly to their self-given right to immunity.
It is time to wake up. Dr. Martin Luther King preached a wonderful hope when he declared: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This day has not yet come. Because as seen in these Florida cases, our nation still protects white people who feel fear at whims. These dead young men are our brothers. We must engage in relationships with people in order to know their character. It is far too easy to hate a stranger or fear a stranger, but I refuse to employ this negative pattern from now on as a young white woman.
If we are immutable and unwilling to change, change will not happen.
If we are uncomfortable and unwilling to acknowledge our privilege, then we will continue to live in the cycles already assigned to us.
I envision a future where my children can interact with all people without fear or obligation, but out of a deep desire to live equitably with their fellow human beings. But we must first recognize the small components of our everyday lives that already set us up for “success” that not all of our neighbors begin their lives with.
To my friends, students, and fellow human beings of color: I am deeply sorry for the climate of our nation that forces you into boxes and stereotypes you out of cowardice and false accusation. You are worthy of every ounce of humanity flowing through your veins. You are created in imago dei: God’s image is reflected in your skin and on your hearts. I see the human being in your character, and I express my deepest sympathy for the labels you receive that I will never truly understand. Your courage inspires me and brings me hope.
To my friends, students, and fellow human beings who are white: As uncomfortable as it is to address race, it is time. I urge you to consider the ways in which our society and culture caters to you as a white person. Think about your home, your education, your transportation, your relationships, your job. Think about the messages you send. Do you model interracial relationships to the youth around you? Do you feel yourself stretch and grow as you engage with people who grow up in different contexts from you? What can you learn from people who are different from you? And how can you alter the way you think about people of color you have not yet met? No one is asking you to be a white savior to all other races, but you are called to love your neighbor as yourself. Force yourself to enter the conversation. If you feel uncomfortable, you are doing something right.
We are living now. Let us join together to come into knowledge of the grace and love shown to us, so that we may extend that grace and love in each interaction we have, with all human beings, all created in the image of our God.
A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines
Scratch Beginnings, Adam Shephard
Whistling Vivaldi, Claude M. Steele
Disunity in Christ, Christena Cleveland
I will continue to add to this list… it goes on and on and on.