Gwnewch y pethau bychain

“Do you understand where you are?”

Whenever you discuss issues of relevance to a minority community, eventually the notion of privilege comes up. There are certain status that, through accident of birth, simply make it easier for you to get by in our society. Two things I’ve observed about this in the past are that 1) telling someone they have some sort of privilege often makes them defensive, and 2) it’s really hard to realize it when you have it.

I know that I’m extremely fortunate in many ways to have been dealt the cards I have. I’m a married white guy from a comfortably middle-class family with country squire roots. Double Income No Kids and good jobs means that I have a fair amount of disposable income at hand — not enough to do whatever I want whenever I want, but enough to live comfortably in a nice neighborhood with two cars and a fair number of gadgets and toys — not to mention traveling across the country just to see someone I love because I can. While there are certainly parts of my life that are well outside the mainstream, they’re easy enough to hide if I was inclined to. (I’m not, but I’ve found — and have sometimes been gently chided for – simply not mentioning things makes it pretty easy to avoid scrutiny.

Do I have privilege? I have privilege in spades. Good lord, I’m only short being rich and good-looking for a full hand of trumps. And it’s not my fault, and I can say that none of the things should matter, but they do, and when you were born able to breathe the water, it rarely occurs to you that other people are drowning.

Part of the problem is that it’s really hard to put yourself in another persons shoes. No matter how much you empathize, no matter how much you care, no matter how much you show solidarity, its hard to really grok what it means to be black, or poor, or gay, or a woman, because you just don’t have the context. You don’t have the invisible framework that exists around those things that lets you see the world the way they do. You can see the picture, but don’t notice all the colours, or the little details that are just out of your frame, but the painter was quite aware of.

Every now and then, someone will come along and tear a jagged wound in their soul so that you can see inside, and while total understanding still eludes you, something strikes you deep in the heart, and you get it just a little more. Yesterday, shadesong pointed to just such an essay, a reaction to the Jena 6 incident that is continuing to play out in Louisiana and the continuing presence of racism in our society.


A few minutes later, I was helping my then terminally-ill father to the bathroom. He had been down south for a few weeks with my mom. Back “home” was where he wanted to die. I stayed there with him, as he stood at the urinal.

“You know” he said, “I came back here to let go, right son?”

“Yes sir.”

“I wanted it to happen here…where I was born. With Mama and Daddy, and everything I knew. I wanted to go…home.”

“Yes sir.”

“And I’ll be”—he looked around to see if there was anyone there to hear him curse—“I’ll be Goddamned, if the shit I ran away from in 1948 ain’t still here.” He sighed heavily. “The same shit.”

He looked at me. His eyes wet with tears. “I swear to God son, I tried to make this a better world for ya’ll. I tried. And look at it. Coming home to this shit…I know I’m not gonna be here much longer…but coming home to this shit…it just takes it outta me that much more. I feel like I could die today.”

Read the whole thing. Walk a mile in those shoes, and see the world through another’s eyes. Understand where you are, how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.

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Ring of Sedation

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The rest of the trip

14 Comments

  1. Damn. And here I sit, middle-class middle-aged white woman. I was raised on anti-racism. I watched “Wee Pals” and the original “Sesame Street,” back before it became big business. I listened to Up With People songs. And I have no idea what to do about any of this. The shows and songs made me personally fascinated with people who are different from me, but they don’t seem to have helped that much in the wider world.

    • Oh, I think it has helped. It just hasn’t helped enough. There’s more work to do. There’s always more work to do. Each small candle lights a corner of the dark.

  2. This is awful.

    It has gotten better, I know it has. The story about going back to the town reminds me of what I’ve been told about the first time after we’d adopted my sister Jacqui, who is black, that my family went to visit my grandmother, in a small rural town in Iowa. (I’ve been told about the details -- I was too young to get it all.) We stopped to eat at the little cafe, since we’d been on the road so long -- and by the time we left and drove the short distance to my grandmother’s, my uncle was at the door to meet us with “So you had lunch at So-and-so’s.” The gossip about the mixed family showing up was already all over town, apparently with a lot of disapproval. But things have improved -- my mother remembers when she was younger, a black family driving through, and stopping at the gas station, and being refused service. We did get to eat. Gossip is pretty small potatoes compared to a lot of the problems out there.

    But it hasn’t gotten better enough. Still needs more work. I expect it will keep needing more work. I don’t know what I can personally do -- other than treating people as people, whatever their color, and actively teaching my children to do the same, and that I do.

    Looking at ‘s comment -- I grew up on Sesame Street, and didn’t even think of it as anti-racism -- but it was, wasn’t it?

    And by the way -- you DO have a full hand of trumps. No question in my mind. Financially, well, you may not be at the top, but we’re both reasonably in the cream, I’d say -- and remember, true wealth is biological, and you’ve got that. 😉

    • Seseme Street is anti-racism in the only way that is really possible -- by being very subtle (almost subversive) about it. That’s why it’s been so very effective with nearly everything it has aimed to teach.

      I appreciate the compliment, but I don’t think I hold either of those trumps, in terms of what society values. I’m well-off enough financially to consider it a high card, but I don’t have the kind of monetary resources to be truly rich in the way that gets you all the societal perks. And while I appreciate those who find me attractive (very very much!), I don’t have the kind of good looks that ease the way to higher social standing. These are the kinds of things I was talking about.

      • Seseme Street is anti-racism in the only way that is really possible -- by being very subtle (almost subversive) about it. That’s why it’s been so very effective with nearly everything it has aimed to teach.

        I strongly disagree that that’s the only way that anti-racism is possible. Strongly.

        • Hrm. Possible was a bad word choice. Re-reading it, that whole sentence is awful.

          In the context of children’s television, I think that subtle is the most *effective* way to do it, because the people who object to that sort of thing won’t actually notice their kids are being taught these good lessons.

          That’s what I meant to say. Thanks for pointing out that that isn’t what I said.

  3. Dreadful, disturbing story. Racism in Canada -- and there is lots -- is not as nearly overt as “past the green house”, and besides there are nearly as many guns. Also, as in many areas of the world, it is not just or even mostly a black-white dichotomy, though some try to pretend it is.

    Congratulations on “getting” privilege. I have done anti-racism work and a great many tall, able-bodied white guys just cannot understand. Nor can I, a white able-bodied woman, come anywhere close to understanding what a disabled woman of colour faces. I have tried.

    One woman of colour who used to be male has seen me as a strong supporter and confidant throughout her change. Not much, I know, but better than nothing, and I certainly rejoiced when she not only found love but found that her family in her home country were accepting of both her gender and her marriage. She thought they would abandon her and she thought Canada and the USA were much more accepting. The story you link to puts the lie to that. So did all the people who did not stand by her in her changes (she is a hairdresser and about a third of her customers left her on hearing her plans).

    How in the world can we create an amazing future for our communities if we keep leaving some people behind?

    • Congratulations on “getting” privilege. I have done anti-racism work and a great many tall, able-bodied white guys just cannot understand. Nor can I, a white able-bodied woman, come anywhere close to understanding what a disabled woman of colour faces. I have tried.

      It’s a journey. I get it better now than I did in the past, and I still find myself with the kinds of default assumptions that show up my blind spots.

      Not much, I know, but better than nothing…

      “If I can save one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain.” --Emily Dickinson

      How in the world can we create an amazing future for our communities if we keep leaving some people behind?

      You change the world the only way anyone ever has: one person at a time.

  4. Excellent link. It’s odd -- UIUC is so multicultural, that I really notice when I go to visit other schools or when I look at their photos on the web and all of the students are white. It’s just *weird*. My classes would be so much duller without the perspectives and experiences that my African-American and Latino and Asian and all my international students bring. I don’t understand why I would want it to be that way.

    • I don’t understand it either. It’s funny, but I sometimes allow myself to forget that I live in the South because Atlanta is so cosmopolitan, and then I head outside the confines of the metro area and run smack into it again.

      I think what a lot of people forget (or ignore) is that each individual in That Group (whichever group) is a person, with their own hopes and dreams for themselves an their family. One of the reasons you always here bigots speak collectively about their assorted bogeymen is that it dehumanizes them. Juan and his wife struggling to make a better life for themselves might garner sympathy if you knew them and talked to them, but “The Immigrants” (always said with a sneer) are mysterious and scary and Have An Agenda. Same for the Blacks, or the Gays, or whatever group you care to insert.

  5. Thank you so much for posting this. I read the whole article. I grew up in Chicago and had all kinds of friends. I moved to Florida in 1990 and I was amazed at the things I would see and hear. I went into culture shock. I have a very common Spanish last name and once I was working the front desk at a hotel in Georgia and the person on the phone asked my name. When I told them, they said, but you speak English so well? Why wouldn’t I speak English well? I was born in America, English is my first language,I was always in honors classes and I am colllege educated. I thought my last name didn’t define me, but unfortunately to some people in America it still does.

  6. I realize this might stir things up a little, but here goes….

    Growing up in mostly white, upper-middle-class, liberal Massachusetts, I had always considered myself to be “unprejudiced”. I have, throughout my life, always tried to accept people as individuals, regardless of what stereotypes others might apply to them.

    However, when I first joined the Army, right after college, it was VERY disturbing to discover that some people actually “fit” the stereotypes that I was working to avoid applying.

    Some very simplified examples:

    -- The African American (to be PC) soldiers with very little education or ambition who thought the world owed them something just because of their race.

    -- The female private who thought that she should be promoted to SPC because she was sleeping with the company commander.

    -- And more recently, the black boy who has gotten my daughter pregnant and now wants nothing to do with her or the baby.

    For biggoted people, these types of situation only serv to prove the stereotypes that reinforce the prejudice.

    So, the way I see it, for real change it works both ways. Those of us on the [i]privileged[/i] side need to work harder at walking a mile in others’ shoes and being tolerant. But those who are living up to (down to?) the stereotypes also need to change their behavior.

    As for me, I’ll keep dealing with people on an individual basis, always expecting the best out of them until proven otherwise.

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