I am having an online “discussion” with some loose acquaintances over whether or not white privilege exists. I of course believe it exists but I fear I am not doing so well convincing the others.
I think they think I’m a left wing extremist who has drunk too deeply from the pools of white guilt and become fully indoctrinated with a terminal case of liberalism. As I said before we are just acquaintances.
I am told that the idea of white privilege is simply an idea pushed forward to perpetuate a victim mentality and entrench a sense of racial division. It is argued that racism as an obstacle for black people is a myth and that the best course, the one supported by God and truth, is that we should all just be one people, work hard, and stop complaining about the past.
Stop complaining about the past. I hear that a lot. “How can we move forward if people refuse to forgive?”
Forgiveness is a hard thing to give; especially when it isn’t asked for.
Not only is it hard to give, it has nothing to do with the discussion. It has nothing to do with white privilege.
White privilege is not about the past, it is about the now. I didn’t learn this by reading it. I did not learn about this in some liberal college. I didn’t even learn about it by the name “privilege”. I learned about it when I was a Mormon missionary.
I learned it when for the first time I lived in a place where all the faces on billboards didn’t look like mine. I learned it when I walked down the street and everyone would stop and stare at me. I learned it when people I had never met, including police officers, would stop me and ask what a white boy was doing in this neighborhood. I had my motives questioned at every turn. I couldn’t have one single solitary conversation without first addressing and justifying my race. After two months of this I was deeply and fundamentally worn out. I was tired after two lousy months. After two years I was callous.
There was more to it than that, and that was only the first half of my nonacademic education.
More than two years after those two years, I watched as my black wife experienced the very white world of Salt Lake City.
None of the faces on billboards looked like her. As she walked down the street people would stop and stare at her. People she had never met would always lead by asking where she was from and wanting to know how a black girl ended up in Utah. She couldn’t get anywhere with anyone without first explaining or justifying her race. People asked her to repeat herself, not because they didn’t understand what she said, they were just amused by the way she talks. After a couple months she was tired. After two years she wanted out. So we left.
Two more years after that came the real lesson. Two years after we retreated from Utah’s white world we were in South Carolina. I walked from one world to another, white to black and back again, and only occasionally was I questioned. My race sort of disappeared… unless my wife was around.
Her race never went away. She never brought, nor brings, it up. She doesn’t have too. Everyone else brings it up for her. She doesn’t focus on it. She just lives her life. But I bring it up all the time.
Because when I walk into a restaurant to have lunch with a client or my employer, they simply smile and shake my hand. When I don’t warn these same folks that my wife is black, there is a very tangible elephant in the room with us. They smile at me, then pause at her. The head tilts sideways just a little, confusion passes across their face, and they don’t really say anything for a minute. Once our lunch dates, our fellow church goers, our neighbors, or anyone we meet gains their composure it isn’t on to business as usual but rather the start of the side show. I am never as fascinating or entertaining when I am by myself, but with her in the room there is electricity.
Now make no mistake, she is quite electric, but when I walk into a room with my sisters or any coworker who looks a little more like me; nothing.
She does not complain. She does not act the victim. It is just her life. It is a part of her life that I never have to deal with unless I choose to. She cannot choose. For her it is as permanent as both her American-ness and her black-ness.
My white-ness doesn’t even exist unless I say something about it. Even then most treat it like it is only pretend.
How fair would it be for me to tell my wife that it is all in her head? How fair would it be for me to tell her that our experiences are alike and the same? Do I tell her to forgive and just move on?
Move on from what and go where?
She has to deal with something that I do not. Neither of us are dwelling in the past nor placing any blame. That has nothing to do with our differing experiences. Our parallel realities. This is what my privilege is.
She has to deal with something in life that I do not. I enjoy a privilege in comparison.
Why does this matter? Why is it important for me to acknowledge? Because she is my wife. If the two of us are to have any sort of relationship, to live in the same house, to work together, we have to understand each other. Acknowledging our truths does not drive a wedge between us.
It is the only thing that can remove the wedge that already exists.