“That was the first time I really felt I was different,” said my Chinese-American friend; “that I just did not belong.” She was speaking of a contentious group experience we had shared, a discussion about a program to support immigrants. She had spearheaded the effort and provoked opposition that was, at times, rancorous. I had been supportive, but not particularly outspoken. After all, this was a no-brainer. Wouldn’t any rational, progressive-leaning person want to welcome and help the immigrants coming into our country? Sure, there were dissenters, but I understood their struggles with change and figured they’d come around. To me it was simply another hurdle everyone would eventually leap. To Amy — I’m giving her an alias because she doesn’t need any more guff from me — it was a personal blow to the gut. A confrontation between white-privilege adults and one child of immigrant parents.
Who knew? Certainly not I, at the time. I wasn’t the one in pain.
Nor was I the one in pain during the recent killings of African American men. Or the countless affronts, indignities and terrible sufferings of black, brown and in any other way ‘different’ fellow humans who happen never to have been protected by the shield that has silently separated Them from Me since the day I was born.
In hindsight I can see that Amy’s very identity was taking arrows to the heart. Where I had always seen her just as a smart, beautiful young woman I’d known since toddler-hood, she is more than that: Chinese-American and justifiably proud. I now admit to having also seen her immigrant parents, longtime friends, simply as gracious and accomplished colleagues — hardly noticing their deep Asian roots. Furthermore: Where I see Liz — one of my closest friends of many years — just as a feisty, gifted, gorgeously-aging woman who happens to be Black, she sees herself as someone whose highly educated Black privilege never shielded her from the reflexive racism she encounters still. If any of these were strangers, I have to admit, I would very likely see them immediately as Asian or Black first. I think that would never have interfered with building the strong connections we have. But about other strangers? Walking alone at night, how much street-crossing do I do according to the skin color of an approaching male? Would I ever hesitate to call the police in any emergency, having had “policemen are our friends” messages embedded in my psyche since childhood? Would I even have briefly considered not trusting a police officer? Can I even imagine what that would feel like?
I am among the millions finally awakening to what our white privilege has wrought: pain and suffering for nearly every non-white person who shares our universe.
Interesting thing about white privilege awakening: Many, if not most, of us white-privileged believe ourselves to be not racist. I for one — and I’ve been comfortably in the arms of white privilege longer than most — was absolutely certain I’m not a racist — until I encountered Ibram Kendi. (Along with a few other eloquent writers & speakers.) The protests, which I would surely have joined were I not confined to geezer house quarters, brought all these emotions: pride in my fellow humans, enthusiasm, confidence that the country is shifting towards a more just society for all. But even though I had read many of Kendi’s articles, not until How To Be An Antiracist had I ever considered myself part of the problem. White privilege is the shield that keeps The Problem on the outside, and self-satisfaction on the inside. Comfy spot.
Kendi suggests that we white-privileged quit saying we’re not racist, try to understand the word, begin to identify racial disparities and inequities and accept responsibility for getting them changed. If this seems a tall order — yeah, definitely, from where I sit — he has an ally in a great American philosopher, Jon Stewart. Stewart winds up a wide-ranging interview for a recent New York Times Magazine with these (condensed) words.
Interviewer David Marchese: “Are you hopeful about what lies ahead?”
Stewart: “Always. Because the view we get of the country is not accurate. . . I’m not naïve. I don’t think that true divisions and animosities and bigotry and prejudices don’t exist. . . But our biggest problem as humans is ignorance, not malevolence. Ignorance is an entirely curable disease.”
Stewart: “Information and work. . . In the same way that Trump’s recklessness is born of experience, so is my optimism, because good people outweigh (expletive) people. By a long shot.”
As soon as we white-privileged can manage to make the climb from not-racist to anti-racist to effective activist for change, we can join the ranks of the good people. In which, for lo these many years, we’ve always figured we belong.