WEST FORK KICKAPOO - Deanna, a mixed-race friend and client, stared in disbelief at me and the others in my class as she tried to make her point: “Can you honestly say you don’t see that I’m Black? Are you color-blind?”
At that time, almost three years ago, Deanna was taking a leadership course that would help her to help others understand her life—the life of a person of color—and what white privilege means.
I think back to this scene often, especially in these days when we are questioning ourselves about where we fall on racism and privilege. Or we should be.
If you asked me 30 years ago if I was racist or felt I was privileged, I know I’d tell you I wasn’t privileged. I was a young single mother who struggled daily, juggling work, money, college, and a young daughter. How could I be privileged? As far as being racist, I’d have said, “I’m not prejudiced. I don’t even see color.”
Or do I? In 2006, I was doing my first solo hike on the Superior Hiking Trail from Two Harbors to Judge Magney State Park. It was mid-May, my favorite time to hike because there are fewer people and, with any luck, it’s after mud season and before mosquito season. By day four, I’d had every campsite to myself and had seen barely a handful of people on the trail.
After a rest, I bent over to grab my pack and was swinging it up onto my back, when I saw a man walking toward me. He was Black. I remember distinctly my stomach dropping a notch, my instincts becoming heightened, and my heart starting to work a bit faster. The thought in my head was, Black people don’t backpack.I had been backpacking and hiking for years and had never seen a Black person on the trails.
He said hello, I said hello, and I kept walking, when normally I’d do anything to try to start up a conversation.
I didn’t consider myself prejudiced at the time, yet that’s exactly what my reaction to this man was.
Recently, I’ve been remembering Deanna and her pointed question, “You mean to tell me you don’t know I’m Black?” Flashbacks have come, too, of my childhood, of my dad calling a Brazil nut a n****r-toe, and warnings from my mom during the Milwaukee riots to get down on the floor of the car immediatelyif she told me to because we were driving through a badneighborhood—which I knew meant a coloredneighborhood.
As for privilege, I may have been a broke single mom, and I may have had two dollars an hour in pay left after paying for child care, but I never had to be worried about jogging around my block at night with my daughter following me on her Big Wheel. That’s white privilege. I’ve learned recently that Black people in our area often are fearful of going out at night, and of going for a run even in broad daylight.
I didn’t feel scared when I got pulled over, with my daughter in the back seat, for not stopping at a yellow light. When the officer ran a check and discovered I had unpaid parking tickets from attending UW–Milwaukee, he told me he’d have to take me in. He allowed me to follow him to the Greendale Police Station, where I was finger-printed, read my rights, and put in a jail cell—with my daughter. I wasn’t too worried about being arrested for unpaid parking tickets—I figured my brother would come to the station and pay them. If anything, I felt ashamed and inconvenienced. But a Black person seeing a flashing red light in their rearview mirror knows it could mean death.
I was raised in an all-white suburb. I didn’t have any Black friends, nor any Black teachers. There were no Black people in any of my favorite TV shows: ‘Lassie,’ ‘Leave it to Beaver,’ and ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ The few dolls I played with were all white. I’ve never been followed in a store, made fun of, or picked on for my skin color, nor denied any job or apartment because of it.
I’ve had a lot of privileges because of the color of my skin. I didn’t see that before, but I do now. White privilege isn’t about having money or not growing up poor. It’s about whether your skin color matches the skin color of the dominant culture, of those in power, and the benefits that come with that.
As Deanna explained, understanding racism and white privilege isn’t as simple as black and white. Becoming “color-blind” isn’t the answer. I’m getting better at recognizing my privilege, but it’s still uncomfortable to admit how much race has worked in my favor. Yet in order for us to be equal, to be one, to learn to live on this one Earth together, we need to do the hard work.
Children just want to play. They don’t automatically focus on skin-color differences. They learn it in the way they’re brought up, from watching and listening to their parents, who watched and listened to theirparents.Racism is something we’ve learned. Our work is to unlearn it.