“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
~Martin Luther King, Jr.~
It was early 2017. White nationalists seemed to be everywhere in the months following Donald Trump’s election, waving Confederate flags and proclaiming the USA is a White nation. All this in spite of Oprah and Obama. I felt the need to apologize. “I am so sorry,” I told my personal trainer, a Black woman. “Racism must have been here all along.” She was probably accustomed to liberals craving penance and seeking forgiveness. She did not respond to my confession, except to say I should go to the weight machine and wait for further instruction.
I am a 64-year old White liberal overeducated woman who has been a spectator to civil rights injustices for more than 50 years, observing it all from the safe seats. My first awareness of American racial inequity was when my father’s company moved us, after six years in Europe, to Memphis, Tennessee. The year was 1966.
From the back seat of the family car, I watched Black men, women and children toiling in cotton fields, as if reenacting a scene from Gone with the Wind. On lockers at my public school, I wondered at graffiti, “The South will Rise Again.” In the middle of the school year, my Yankee parents switched me to a girl’s Catholic school for reasons still unclear. Something to do with the crass behavior of the principal, his use of language not befitting an authority figure. I suspected the n-word was at play.
April 1968- The CBS Evening News showed footage of Black male protestors in Memphis carrying signs that read, I Am a Man. In our suburban living room —occupied by my father, mother and Walter Cronkite— I wondered why garbage men protesting poor wages and unsafe working conditions needed to prove they were men.
A nun spoke tearfully of the assassination of Dr. King. She told us there would be curfews each night. The city expected riots. Fear, not grief, seemed the predominant feeling in my segregated world. Why, I wondered, would anyone want to harm a Black preacher who had come to Memphis to help garbage men? Why kill a man who spoke of dreams and peace and equality under the law?
My favorite prayer, The Confiteor, invites the congregation to recognize, “[We] have sinned in thought, word, and deed; in what [we] have done and in what [we] have failed to do.” I have failed to do something . . . but what? The current civil unrest, combined with the existential threat of the pandemic, challenges me to confront my status as audience, not activist. How does my silence maintain a society that delivers unequal justice to its citizens?
My memory searches for examples.
Not long ago, I walked into an urban Walgreens near my home. A security guard at the entrance stopped a college-aged Black man ahead of me and told him to check his backpack. The young man sacrificed his pack and proceeded into the store. I reached into my overstuffed purse to retrieve my wallet, before handing my bag to security.
“That won’t be necessary ma’am,” the guard said, “I can see you’re fine. Go on in.” Not for one moment did I consider challenging unequal treatment. I walked into Walgreen’s with my red leather privilege hoisted over my shoulder.
This is one example of my complicity in a culture conveying messages that folks are safe or not, good or bad, presumed innocent or presumed guilty until proven otherwise, based on the happenstance of skin tone.
I remember another day when, cursing at the blue lights flashing in my rearview mirror, I pulled over to receive a scolding from a police officer. “Ma’am, did you know you were 15 miles over the speed limit in a school zone?” I apologized and told him I should have been paying better attention. He did not ask me to step out of the car or put my hands on my head. I would did not have to decide whether to resist arrest.Try to be more careful ma’am,” the officer said as he handed me a summons to traffic school. I drove away, slowly, continuing to travel to my destination—Bed, Bath and Beyond.
I realize that driving recklessly near a school could have caused more harm than the minor infractions for which Black men and boys have died—driving with a taillight out, selling a black-market cigarette, playing with a toy gun in a city park, or jogging through the neighborhood. My encounters with police officers do not frighten me. My White skin does not frighten them.
According to the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Community Change, “Scientific studies conclude that race has no biological meaning or significance. The gene for skin color is linked with no other human trait. The genes that account for intelligence, athletic ability, personality type, and even hair and eye color are independent of the gene for skin color.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines privilege as, “A right, advantage, or immunity granted to or enjoyed by persons, or a class of people, beyond the usual rights of others.” The term,“White Privilege,” was coined in 1988 by Wellesley professor, Peggy McIntosh, in an essay that listed 46 ways Euro-Americans are privileged because of skin color. Here are a few examples:
- “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.”
- “I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the ‘person in charge,’ I will be facing a person of my race.”
- “I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.”
In her essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, McIntosh describes privilege as an “elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it, I must give up the myth of meritocracy.”
“People often think privilege is a thing that you get,” says Hannah Drake, a spoken word poet, writer and civil rights activist in Louisville, Kentucky. “Like you can go buy a box of privilege. Privilege means, based on your skin color, you have access to so many things Black people do not . . . Your life isn’t made any harder because you are White. My life is made harder simply because I am Black.”
May 2020-—We continue to shelter-in-place because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I pour myself a cup of coffee and turn on CBS morning news to see images of armed protesters who have stormed the statehouse in Michigan to object to COVID-19 closures. White men carry semi-automatic rifles and wear ammunition vests. One yells into a line of police protecting legislators. Another man stands with a naked Barbie Doll lynched—an effigy of the female governor hanging below an American flag. A female protestor carries a sign with the phrase placed above the entrance of concentration camp by the Nazi regime-”Arbeit Macht Frei,” which means “Work sets you free.” I tremble at the totality of these images.
Does the Second Amendment entitle us to brandish loaded weapons as an act of intimidation toward leaders with whom we disagree? When does racist behavior and language predict danger? Does carrying loaded guns manufactured for human slaughter qualify as terroristic threatening? What would be the consequence if a group of heavily armed Black men swarmed a state capitol uninvited?
Each day, events are increasingly hard to bear. We learn that two White vigilantes shot an unarmed Black jogger in February. The young man dies. The men are not arrested.
Police break into an apartment in the early hours of the morning on a “no-knock” warrant, shooting to death a young Black woman. Breonna Taylor was an EMT, a first responder and a citizen of my city.
As I write, another Black man has died in Minneapolis from police restraint—a knee on the back of the neck for nearly nine minutes until he is limp and without breath. Peaceful protests have erupted in cities across America. The president’s tweets are subtle invitations for his White nationalist followers to confront “thugs.” He threatens vicious dogs and ominous weapons.
My liberal credentials are solid. But the steps I have taken to do penance for my country’s original sins have not provoked change. I have joined the ACLU, donated to Black Lives Matter. In graduate school, I studied WEB Dubois and the Harlem Renaissance. As a college instructor, I assigned King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and Brent Staples, “Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space.” I taught James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. For years, I have attended a sanctuary church that hangs a #BlackLivesMatter banner at its entrance. None of these earnest attempts to acknowledge inequity absolve me from looking deeply into myself.
“It is not the KKK person that worries me, but the White liberal . . . who believes racism is over, or they couldn’t dare be racist, or let racism slide because they are tired of talking about it,” says Hannah Drake.
Solutions cannot come easily. For hundreds of years, our ancestors maintained an economic system that relied on the buying, selling, and enslavement of African people and the displacement of indigenous people. The notion of White supremacy is a product of this system.
Where to begin? I type a question into my laptop browser—“How can I help change structural problems that create racism?” Pages of credible sources emerge.
I must become more than an audience to racist practices. I must determine to be more direct with my responses to racialized messages on social networks. I will demand my city leaders reform our police department. Make our police peace officers again. Demilitarize. Talk to us.
More than anything, I must pay attention to those times when I have failed to do good.
- When I walked into Walgreens without having to sacrifice my purse to the security guard, I might have said, “Why are you checking his bag and not mine?”
- When in a group I was leading, a woman joked that her husband refers to Michelle Obama as a “monkey.” I should have said that statement offended me.
In the article, “Recognizing White Privilege is a first step” in The Chicago Tribune, Jacqueline Battalora, PhD, JD, writes, “the acknowledgment of White privilege does nothing to dismantle institutionalized white superiority and, on the flip side of the same coin, structural racism . . . if not accompanied by action that alters the status quo.” The recognition of White privilege must be “followed up by actions that fracture and crumble one of the core pillars of social inequality: institutionalized white superiority.”
“Biden being elected won’t change anything,” says Hannah Drake. “Trump just revealed America to some people. For many of us, we always knew America was this way. Now everyone is getting a good look. And it isn’t pretty but sometimes you have to work through the ugly to get to the beautiful.”
About the author-Kimberly Crum MSW, MFW teaches memoir and essay at the Shape & Flow Writing Services studio at a repurposed slaughterhouse in Louisville, Kentucky. Kimberly is the co-editor of The Boom Project: Voices of a Generation (Butler Books 2019)—a literary anthology of essay, poetry, memoir and fiction by the Baby Boom Generation of the Ohio River Valley. Her work-in-progress is a segmented memoir titled Slouching Toward Self-Actualization.