Let me say it again, just to be clear. I know that I don’t know what it means to be black in America.
That’s an awkward way to say it. Here’s what I mean.
I am white, and I am privileged. And for most of my adult life, that privilege was invisible to me. I’d never thought about it.
The fact that I didn’t have to think about my skin color in 99% of my relationships, business dealings, and other life processes, while others operated daily with a profound awareness of skin color and its impact on their survival and well-being is the very definition of privilege.
My first impactful encounter with the idea of “white privilege” was in 2007. I was just beginning a stint as the interim preaching minister for a church in Shoreline, and one of the first things that rolled around on the calendar was Martin Luther King Day. One of our long-time elders, a black man, was adamant that we do something concerning racial reconciliation in honor of Dr. King’s work. I was happy to oblige. However, I had not been an active advocate of racial reconciliation, and didn’t have much (read any) credibility in talking about it. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in it—I certainly did, in principle, like any good white man. Again, the truth is, I just didn’t think about it much. I didn’t have to.
That’s white privilege.
I decided to interview some of our black members to ramp up toward that morning; I figured it made more sense to let them speak. One of them, an super smart, super energized elementary school principal, came over to my house and began to talk with great animation about “white privilege.” I had not heard the term, and asked him to explain. I don’t remember the details of what he said, but I remember his passion, his patience, and his sense of conviction that nothing would really change until white privilege could be addressed and dismantled. (It’s worth mentioning that his wife, also black, didn’t see things quite the same way.) I also remember the feeling that this man was making a lot of sense. The Sunday morning before Martin Luther King Day that year, our service featured a panel discussion (featuring both people of color and whites) of White Privilege (do I capitalize that or not?), and the talk was respectful, interesting, and didn’t get us very far, and the next week, I’d pretty much forgotten it. On to the next sermon.
That’s white privilege.
But it was the four years of work on a play (that I still haven’t finished) that really opened my eyes. The initial idea was to write a historical play about Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, a two-hander to perform along with a friend of mine, finishing preparation just in time for the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. Long story short, the more I researched the Civil War, the more I became convinced that probably the least helpful thing I could do was write a play about two white guys when the war was really about the black guys.
These are the books the changed the way I think about things. In the order I experienced them:
Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. David Blight. 2002. The story of the war for how the story of the Civil war would be told in the fifty years following the war. If you’ve ever heard people say the North won the war, and the South won Reconstruction, this is the book that explains how that happens. Race and Reunion is a beautifully written book that is horrifying to read. There is a reason there is very little in popular culture (films, plays, etc.) about reconstruction. It was ugly and awful for black Americans.
Slavery By Another Name: The Re-enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to WWII. David Blackmon. 2008. Jim Crow laws, chain gangs in the south, the petty, ever-present hostility toward blacks throughout the country, but especially in the south. It’s a stomach-turning read, and rightfully won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
The Souls of Black Folk. W.E.B. Dubois. 1903. An eloquent, turn-of the-century exploration by one of this country’s premier black writers, The Souls of Black Folk (as Dubois explains in “The Forethought”) explores the meaning of emancipation, personal leadership, the plight of the black peasant, and the “deeper recesses” of the black soul through its religion, its sorrow, and its struggle.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Michelle Alexander. 2010. Whenever I try to explain to a white person who hasn’t been thinking about all this just what this book has to say, I’m met a incredulous, “No way. I don’t believe that.” Read it and consider Alexander’s evidence as she traces the fall of Jim Crow through Civil Right legislation right through to the rise of the War on Drugs, and the staggering rates at which young black men have been incarcerated since the 80’s. If you’re white, and you think black folks just do more drugs than white folks, and that’s why the prisons are disproportionately filled with black people…read this book, and think again.
As I continued to churn out drafts of my play, the characters of which are both whites and people of color, more and more discussions turned to racism. I got schooled, sometimes embarrassingly so, by my black friends. (And no, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t have that many.) As part of my research, I also installed Blackbird on my desktop. Blackbird is a web browser designed “to make it easier for African Americans to discover relevant content on the web.” It seemed worthwhile to explore a newsfeed aggregated toward relevance for black Americans. I was fascinated to see how differently the newsfeed delivered the events and conversations of the day. I read debates about whether there is any such thing as race, our DNA being 99.9% identical (I tend to think the human race is the only race of humans currently around, and what we call racism is about skin color and culture, but not, strictly speaking, about race.). I read bulletin boards populated by people of mixed heritage who were trying to decide if they should identify as white or black, and how it really didn’t go all that well either way.
In other words, I was trying various strategies to see how a black man might see things. As an actor might do when exploring any character.
What began to dawn on me imaginatively was this: my long-time assumptions that we all encountered life pretty much the same way crumbled. (duh) I didn’t have any idea what it means to experience life in America as a black person. If I were called on to play a black man in a play (which, for all kinds of good reasons, is not going to happen), I wouldn’t have the foggiest notion of what it meant. The experience of having white people cross to the other side of the street because they’re afraid of me, of being followed in stores because they suppose I’m likely to be a shoplifter, of being turned down for a loan because my skin is black, of having to explain to my children not to run down the street in situations where it might be construed that I’m up to no good, of being pulled over by police for no reason, multiple times, except for the color of my skin…it goes on and on.
I am convinced that white Americans and Americans of color, especially black Americans, have different street-level experiences of life. (again, duh.) As white people benefiting from white privilege, it makes perfect sense that we do not see or experience racism as black people do. But just because it makes sense doesn’t mean we don’t need to wake up to the reality that racism is. As so many have said so much better than I, it’s not about whether or not we are personally, explicitly racist, nor is about white guilt. No one I know—well, there are a few exceptions—is consciously and actively racist. That’s not the point. The point is about the structures of thought and the structures of institutional ways of doing things that invisibly disadvantage one group while privileging another, all the while shouting “all men are created equal.” The point is our responsibility, as privileged folk (man, it’s embarrassing to write that), to alter the ground as we’ve inherited it, so that the opportunities and support structures that we’ve come to call privilege extend equally to everyone.
I titled this post as I did because if I can acknowledge that the black experience is profoundly different than mine, perhaps I can realize that the only way I’m going to grasp what’s really going on with issues of skin color and privilege is to listen to what black people have to say. Ask them about their experience, and then let them tell me what it means to them, even if they’re robustly emotional while they tell it, even if it is upsetting and unsettling. (As this article explains better than I ever could, the discussion of skin color and privilege cannot be driven by concern for the bruised feelings of white people.) And maybe, if we see from behind their eyes just a little, imagining their perspective, we can better grasp how to be helpful allies, looking to our friends in the black community to lead us in that alliance.
Yes, it’s work to see the world through someone else’s eyes, and it’s always a limited proposition. But in working on it, I see again that my black friends and I have places where our stories merge, echo, resonate, and connect. For after all, we are all human beings, all hoping to survive, all hoping to find community, love, and meaning, all hoping to prosper.
Empathy and compassion travel on the rails of the imagination.
I can work to imagine it, but here’s what I know:
I know I do not know what it’s like to be black in America.