In this new era of adjustment and upheaval, brought about in part by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, our society has been struggling to readjust our understanding of race relations in our country. We’ve been re-examining some things that were just taken for granted by the white majority, but which have been extremely hurtful to the African American community – things which have been used as subtle and not-so-subtle tools of subjugation. It’s high time that we take another look at things that have been brought up as reminders of our disturbing past as a culture that thrived on using slaves.
Given my position as a white woman from the northeastern states, born during the Civil Rights movement of the Sixties, I was pretty blissfully unaware of the daily struggle of black people for many years. I didn’t realize that the slogans I heard as a child, “I’m Black and I’m Proud” for example, were something new and powerful. I just thought that black people were always cool, and that the culture I saw from afar was something aspirational. I didn’t realize as a child that I couldn’t grow up to be a black background singer/dancer in a band, which is something I thought I might be able to do. I had no idea what Blacks as a group had been through, and that you couldn’t chose your race. It did seem very strange after a while that the only black people I saw were on television, but never in school or in the neighborhood. Our town was so white that I vividly remember the first time I saw a black woman walk down the street, because it was so unusual. I wondered why my Dad’s black friend Jeff from work lived so far away from us, in Paterson, NJ.
In school, we learned about slavery, and I wondered who these terrible people were that would do these horrible things to black people. I silently cried in high school history class, in the darkened room, during the film about the assasination of Martin Luther King, Jr. It really didn’t occur to me at the time that it was all a product of an overclass of wealthy and powerful white people who made sure that they were on top of the power hierarchy, at all costs. And that society as a whole worked in big and small ways to make sure that the power and wealth stayed with those people. I felt the difference in wealth, having grown up in apartments in a town where nearly everyone else lived in houses. My Dad had many jobs over the years, and I felt the difference between us, the people that mowed the lawns or delivered the mail, and them, the people who were bank managers or business owners. But as much as I felt the wealth and power difference, I didn’t realize that I still received the benefit of simply being white. I didn’t grow up with status or wealth, but I still benefited every day from white privilege. Just the fact of having white skin saved me from so much of what black people endured historically, and currently.
Of course, I’ve seen racism in action. I was shocked to find out as a teenager that the reason there were no black people living in my apartment complex was because the landlord actively refused to rent to them. As an adult, I was incensed to find out that a police officer I knew revealed to me that there was active discrimination against hiring African Americans in his white, suburban department – because the white people living there “wouldn’t have it”. And then my friends told me ways in which they had been discriminated against. I felt the eyes of the shopkeeper in a store where an African American friend and I were shopping, when I had never felt that in that store before. It took so many years for me to totally “get it”. And I’m still learning.
For example, I now understand, from the safe distance of my white privilege, what it must feel like for the ancestors of slaves to walk past statues of Civil War Confederate Leaders, and feel the oppression they stand for. Knowing that those people fought hard to keep your ancestors as property. Fought with the understanding, however wrong and unjust, that your entire race were less than them, were akin to animals to be harnessed as tools of work. I only recently learned that the majority of those statues were erected during the Jim Crow years and during the Civil Rights Era. Communities and the government decided all that time after the Civil War to “celebrate” figureheads from a war in which they were the traitors to our country, actively killed our citizens, Why would these people be celebrated in this way? Why would the values they held be justified and indeed lauded by giving them the honor of public memorials? It’s so clear that it was meant to validate the still-held belief of racists that their cause was worthy. It’s clear that it was meant to tell black people that they were still considered less-than, still inferior to white people.
I imagine walking past those statues as an African American, thinking about how those people owned my family members. How they sold them like cattle, abused them in abominable ways and terrorized them when they were freed. How people like them burned crosses on front lawns at night, where terrified children were held by terrified parents, and men were dragged out of their homes and hung to death in trees to show black people “who was still boss”. I wonder how my fellow white people can try to come up with justifications for keep these symbols of hatred and oppression and treason standing, and can’t see what they mean to black people. I see the news and hear of black people being hung from trees, and the Klan still walking among us, actually proud of themselves for the things they have done. I’m still that teenager in the darkened classroom, silently crying over man’s cruelty to his fellow man.