Confessions of an old white liberal

By Sarah E. Reynolds | Oct 30, 2020

For the past few weeks, I've been taking a course on white privilege through my church. I signed up because the pastor and another woman at the church whom I respect were leading it, and because it seemed about time for me to think about my own contribution — albeit largely unconscious and not actively chosen — to the vicious system that still hampers the lives of Black Americans in every way imaginable.

One of the first points we were invited to consider, and which is still very salient to me, is the fact that we whites do not think of ourselves as having race. We are simply the norm, we are "people." Others are "Black people," "Asians," Hispanics," "people of color." So when we say that old liberal line that so infuriates people for whom race is the central fact of their lives: "I don't see race," we are half-right. We don't see our own race.

While race is an entirely made-up social construct, it still shapes how we live our lives to an overwhelming extent, and racism, the system that awards advantages to people on the basis of their skin color, is only too real.

Most whites — nearly all those I know — think of themselves as being in control of their own lives, more or less, most of the time. This is never, or almost never, so for Blacks, who must live with the awareness that whites, in the form of police, the justice system, the health care system, the social service system, business owners and more, down to ordinary fellow citizens, can and may interfere in their lives at any time with greater or lesser impunity.

Imagine having to live your entire life walking on eggshells in case someone might take offense at the color of your skin and report you to the police for bird-watching, pull you over because your car is "too nice" for someone of your color, assume you're uneducated because you're listening to rap music, refuse to accept your absentee ballot because they think they know who you voted for. This is not make-believe. This is what really happens in our country to our fellow citizens every day — this, and far worse.

But I digress. It is easy to wax outraged at the injustices perpetrated on Blacks and other people of color by other people, or by "the system," and those injustices are real and cause grave harm. However, the real point of the course I'm taking is to look at our own indoctrination in the racist system under which all Americans live. We may not be able to make big changes individually — we might not even have a clue about where to start.

However, we can begin to develop a willingness to see, and then seek out, the ways in which we have been advantaged by that system, and thus understand our unwitting investment in it. Our very unawareness of our stake in the system is one of the most powerful forces perpetuating it.

As people of goodwill, we have, you might say, been bribed, suborned into supporting with our passivity a system, which, if we consciously understood it, would force us to repudiate either it or our principles. (For the purposes of this column, I am assuming readers are people of goodwill who would not willingly do harm to others if they could avoid it.)

When we understand our investment in the status quo, we are able to question whether we want to continue to benefit from a system that causes so much harm to others. While we can never change the color of our skin, we can choose to speak up for those disadvantaged by the system that gives us preference, and to avoid behaviors that perpetuate the system's underlying assumption of white entitlement.

I'll admit, this course is hard for me. The material, pointing up how I have benefited from a system that harms others, and how I have acquiesced in that, has aroused considerable defensiveness in me. I don't think whites should be expected to apologize for their skin color, any more than any other person should, nor for being born into a system that advantages them.

But I have long passed the age where I could claim innocence, where I could assert ignorance as a sufficient defense. I have chosen ignorance rather than awareness, because it was more comfortable and convenient. I have chosen passivity and defeatism ("I can't do anything, I'm just one person") rather than action, because it was safer and easier. And, frankly, because I was afraid of Black people, having known very few of them, and none well. Projecting that fear, I told myself they wouldn't want me as an ally.

Sometimes the wrong we do is not so much a deliberate act of malice as the sum of our failures to do right. I think that's true in my case.

I don't imagine I will become an anti-racism crusader, but I hope I will continue to think deeply about these issues. And I hope I will begin to open my eyes and my heart and find some small ways in which to act on behalf of others who aren't as "other" as my society would like me to believe.

Sarah Reynolds is editor of The Republican Journal.

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Comments (1)
Posted by: Cynthia Wallace | Nov 01, 2020 16:42

Sarah, I too am self-educating on the subject of white privilege. Doing my work alone with books, podcasts, etc.



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