Okay, there’s no way I can keep up with everything that’s going on, so I’m just going to write about what I was going to write about.
In the wake of Charlottesville there’s been a lot of talk on social and main stream media about white privilege and white responsibility for blacks’ uphill battles in America. Many white people claim not to be racist, but they also don’t feel responsible for race problems that they were not directly involved in.
When I was in New York with my now-husband long before I moved here, we walked past an African American man standing on a soap box, shouting about white oppression on our way to a well-known soul food restaurant in Harlem. This was not long after the cops who beat up Rodney King in Los Angeles the year before (1991) were acquitted, and there was rioting in the streets of Watts. As we walked past, I said to Tony that hey, I feel bad (I really did), but it’s not fair to blame all whites. I for one didn’t do anything. I was in Holland when everything happened in America.
But that was a first, knee-jerk reaction to a sentiment that I hadn’t been directly confronted with before. The Dutch were involved in the slave trade to the American colonies from the get-go, through 1863. The last slaves in Dutch colonies were freed ten years later, in 1873. So my country had a prominent role in establishing and maintaining America’s “original sin” of slavery, from which it has still not recovered. I feel guilty about that in the same way that I feel guilty about South-African Apartheid, the only Dutch word known the world over. But that still feels rather distant.
However, even though I may not personally be responsible for suppression of blacks in America today (that I’m aware of), I’m certainly part of white society, as it is experienced by blacks, and that has been brought home to me quite shockingly several times. Let me explain what I mean.
I was driving from Savannah to Austin two years ago, taking the small roads because, while I get sleepy after three hours on the highway, I can drive small and windy roads all day long. I was cruising along a pretty two-lane road in central Georgia, in the middle of nowhere, where a name on the map was no more than three houses and a little church at a four-way stop, when I saw a man on an old bike in the distance ahead of me.
As I was catching up, he drove his bike into the thigh-high grass, to about thirty feet from the road and got off. I wondered why, because there was nothing there. In my rear view window I saw him pushing his bike back to the road. And it hit me: where he lived, cycling while black, he must be afraid of cars coming up from behind him, and he was taking precautions. He risked God knows what kind of snakes and spiders in that tall grass, because I might be someone who would run him over just for kicks.
About a year ago–Trump was already the Republican presidential candidate–T and the kids and I were stopped at a gas station somewhere in West Texas. We were walking toward the door of the convenience store, and a black man, clearly pretty poor, was there way before us, but he held the door open for us, expecting us to enter first. I think T was ahead of the rest of us, so he said, Oh no, after you, but the man insisted, without making eye contact. He wasn’t just being overly polite; he seemed nervous. Inside, four old white farmer types in dungarees and baseball caps were having breakfast at a formica table. I know it’s prejudiced of me, but it immediately explained the black man’s apprehension. Not a good place to be black in the Trump era. When we were going to get in line the same thing happened. The man again insisted we go first, nervously, avoiding eye contact at all cost.
Both times I felt terrible for these men, for their constant, daily fear that I was just made painfully aware of, a fear that I never have, anywhere, and I had a strong urge to say something, to somehow apologize for the fact that these men had to feel so apprehensive. I wanted to say something that would put them at ease, but what could I say? And of course the fact that my family and I are harmless was beside the point. Knowing that wouldn’t change anything for these rural black men. It wouldn’t change the precautions they take around whites, or lessen the potential danger in every encounter.
To be white and experience this kind of thing and not feel bad, not feel somehow responsible, not be aware of your white privilege, not feel that you should do something about it, even if you don’t know what–I find that inconceivable.
At this point I don’t even presume anymore that I’m not racist. If ever there’s an appropriate use for the saying “The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know”, it’s in relation to race. All I can say is that I strive not to be racist, and that I’m still learning and know I can probably improve, because I don’t know what I’m not yet aware of. For someone who doesn’t in the slightest feel personally affected by the enormous chasm that exists between black and white in this country–in some places more than others–and how it got this way, for someone like that to also say they aren’t racist sounds incredibly insincere.
What are your thoughts?