Acknowledging white privilege
July 7, 2008
Asheville, North Carolina
"Building Bridges is a community dialogue process that's been going on for the last 15 years in Asheville, N.C. It was originally based on study circles, but we wrote our own materials which focus on Asheville. I have been involved since the program's third session (second year).
"We now have a Black woman mayor which would have been unlikely 15 years ago. Discovering I am a racist has been a painful experience. I don’t shout nasty epithets at people or even tell racist jokes, but I have found that I carry the burden of racist patterns even with the best of intentions because I grew up White in America. I can’t help but have those patterns. The patterns might look like a thought that someone would serve me first if a person of color is waiting; the unconsidered assumption that I know better how to solve a problem; or the assurance that my needs will be met in stores and beauty salons and doctors’ offices wherever I go in this country.
"My earliest memory of blatant racism was getting on a bus in Florida with a Black adult who was looking after me when I was too small to travel alone and hearing the bus driver say that she had to sit in the back of the bus. Where was I supposed to sit?
"I grew up in a progressive family where my parents took pride in the work they had each done to desegregate aspects of this society. They believed that they were 'color blind' and saw each person as an individual, not according to their race. However, the only Black guest I remember in our house was one man who had fought in the Lincoln Brigade.
"Free Spain had been one of my mother’s favorite causes, along with the first integrated private school in Washington, D.C. But that didn’t keep them from hiring Black domestic help, and thinking this was part of their good works.
"One of the privileges I had without being aware included being placed in a majority white classroom when we moved to New York City. I should have been in the 8th grade in a junior high school which was 40% Black and 40% Hispanic. But they had a 'special progress' program that allowed 'bright' students to complete the three years in two, and I was placed in the second year, with a majority of white students.
"When I brought a Black classmate home one day, my mother was so happy that I hadn’t mentioned her race in asking permission to have a guest. I could tell that race mattered.
"When I was in college, I was very involved with the international students, many of whom were from Africa and Asia. But I didn’t notice that I had no Black American friends, even though I went to a large public university.
"In graduate school, I lived in Kenya for my overseas internship and became comfortable in a majority Black environment. When I came back I chose to live in Atlanta where it felt familiar to have so many Black people around and I made Black American friends.
"I began to teach about diversity from a cross-cultural perspective. I was invited to go to parties where I was one of a very few White people and felt awkward and sometimes heard from other guests that they were not okay with my being there. I could tell that race mattered.
"It wasn’t until I came to Asheville and went through Building Bridges that I became aware of White Privilege. In the very first session I went to 15 years ago, I heard someone say that to have Black friends in Asheville, one had to be intentional. You could live your whole life here and never encounter Black people, especially in social situations. I decided to be intentional and have stayed involved in Building Bridges since then. As a result, I have many friends who are Black and often have the opportunity to talk with people about race and racism.
"I have learned that racism is an insidious thing. That it is pervasive and I can’t avoid its impact on me. However, I can learn how to become more aware. I can teach others what I have learned about White Privilege and I can listen to the feedback from folks who are the targets of racism. I can attempt to interrupt my own and others behavior that reflects the assumptions of White Superiority and I can work to eliminate institutional racism in our society by respecting those who are targets and believing them when they point out the places it impacts them. Most of all, I can continue respecting the leadership of my Black colleagues and not pretend that I am 'color blind.'
"Talking about race makes many people uncomfortable. The first step toward changing things is usually recognizing the problem by talking about it. Then we invite you to action. Won’t you join us in the next session of Building Bridges which will take place starting September 9 at Asheville High School. You can get more information by calling 828-777-4585 or going to the website at www.buildingbridges-asheville.org."
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