Happiness in the Time of Covid-19, Part 5: Investigating White Privilege
Preface: The following essay, which is longer than usual, was also harder than usual to write, more painful, less happy. But I really wanted to write stories about my own growing awareness of white privilege in a way that might help other readers who identify as white investigate your own privileged experiences. My hope is that we can use our stories to help other white folk better understand the pervasiveness of systemic racism, and to deepen our own commitment to stand up for racial justice as allies. There are so many ways to do this work; you can read a list of 75 options here. And what does all this have to do with happiness? To me, it’s a no brainer. While my anguish at seeing killing after killing of unarmed black people in this country can hardly compare with the pain felt by people of color, the murders and other evidence of ongoing racism do, in fact, make me unhappy. And why wouldn’t they? We are interconnected and interdependent. Most of us are empathetic. We are all sentient beings equally deserving of love, compassion — and economic, political, and cultural systems which provide maximum support for our well-being. The Dalai Lama has said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Now more than ever, that means love. “In times like these,” according to Representative Antonio Delgado, love is “justice in action … grounded in the moral observation that we are all one.” In this moment in time, love and compassion mean: Black.Lives.Matter. For everyone to have a greater opportunity for happiness, we need to see it, feel it, and make it so.
Investigating White Privilege:
When my son was 14, he had a sleepover birthday party. I remember the event so fondly. He and his friends were still ever-so-slightly little boys, innocents on the verge of full blown adolescence. There were lot of giggles, burps and farts (and jokes about burps and farts), and pancakes. By his 15th birthday, it was a whole different scene. But that year, at 14, they were still so young. One of the party guests was Ben’s friend Calvin*. Calvin was very tall. I remember looking way up at him when he came to our door. He was still a child, but because he was black, and so tall, I sometimes worried that people meeting him on the streets would be afraid of him. This was long before 17 year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down, so I never actually worried for Calvin’s physical safety. I just felt sad to think that people would be afraid of him. This sweet innocent tall boy.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I see white privilege in this story. I could and did feel bad for someone else’s son, but I never once worried that anyone would be afraid of my own child — much shorter, yes, but more to the point: white.
A couple of decades later, I had the white privilege of being only the slightest, tiniest bit worried as my pregnant daughter more-or-less breezed through both pregnancy and childbirth. She might disagree with the verb “breezed,” but there was never anything to be seriously afraid of. I didn’t think of it as a white privilege, though, until six years later. That’s when I read an April 2018 article in The New York Times called “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis: The answer to the disparity in death rates has everything to do with the lived experience of being a black woman in America.” Oh. My. God. This article is a must read. A healthy pregnancy is a privilege.
Perhaps the phrase “white privilege” is uncomfortable to you. I’ll admit, it took me a while to accept this description of all the many many ways being white in this society makes our lives easier. Since some of the realities of racism were brought to my attention when I was 14 years old, I don’t think I ever doubted the concept of white privilege — though, it’s taken decades to realize even partially how pervasive it is. It’s just that privilege to me felt like something that belonged to the world of very rich people. It should not be a privilege to believe that your son is likely to come home alive, or that your daughter’s pregnancy is likely to be safe. Those should be more or less normal.
But of course that’s not the reality. In our white supremacy culture, so much of normal life is a privilege not available to all, especially people of color. Recently, when I was writing a sermon on kindness, I was stunned to read a section of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between The World and Me, that illustrated how even receiving kindness from a stranger can be a matter of white privilege. Kindness! I found that devastating. Talk about dehumanizing!
Ultimately I realized it was of zero importance whether not I like the term white privilege. Maybe my rejection of the words was a form of white fragility. I don’t know. What I do know is that is urgently important to get it, to better understand white privilege — my own and others — and then, take whatever steps I can take to help change the system.
As I reflect back, however I named it, sometimes the privilege was immediately visible. When my children were teens, they each brought a friend for a week long family beach vacation. As it happens, both friends were people of color. One night, we went out to dinner at a local seafood restaurant. I can’t remember the specifics of the incident, but both friends were upset at how the staff treated them, presumably based on the colors of their skins. I think we walked out, but I’m not sure. Later that week, though, we definitely walked out of an arcade, after our son’s friend felt unsafe due to racist threats. Lesson learned: in that particular beach town, feeling safe in a restaurant or an arcade might just rest on having white skin.
Just a couple of years ago, I got pulled over for speeding. By this time, not only had I heard the phrase “driving while black” many times, but Sandra Bland’s death was also very fresh in my mind. Throughout the incident, I was well aware of my white privilege. As the officer approached my car, I fully expected to be treated with respect, and I was. I kept wondering, what would I feel right now if I was a black woman? Would I be afraid?
There’s a stop sign on the dirt road in front of my house. For some reason, many people — white people, as far as I can tell — run that stop sign with great regularity. I have often wondered, would these drivers so blithely break the law without the protection of white privilege?
When I take the time to look, at past and present, there are so many other stories where white privilege stands out — like the time I learned taxis didn’t like to stop for black women in Washington, D.C… Or just last Saturday when I decided to check out the lake front property we’ll soon be renting for vacation. It occurred to me that I might not have felt safe walking up the empty driveway if it weren’t for my white skin. Of course, none of this makes me happy. It’s just all so wrong.
One example of white privilege that I’ve thought about over and over was a Gross National Happiness USA project, the Happiness Walk. That Walk covered 10,000 miles over eight years, on foot, often relying on the kindness of strangers. I participated in that walk myself for about 300 miles, and was the recipient of much generosity from scores of very diverse people. Again, though, I often wondered, how many people would have stopped to help — with offers ranging from buying us bug spray to providing housing for multiple nights — if more of the walkers** had been people of color? And how safe would a black walker have felt in accepting those offers? I cannot know, but I think it’s clear that white privilege was on the Walk with us.
My final example is a biggie: voting. Voting in the 21st century should absolutely not be a white privilege. But. The GOP has been systematically gerrymandering and suppressing the vote in many other ways that land especially hard on people of color, who often vote with the Democratic party. This past winter, I saw the movie “Suppressed: The Fight to Vote” several times; one of the groups I am active with sponsored the showings as a fundraiser for Stacey Abrams’ group, Fair Fight. “Suppressed” is a documentary of how Georgia’s then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp and others systemically robbed voters of color of their fundamental right to vote in 2018, when Kemp ran for governor against Stacey Abrams. The film is horrifying. I’ll admit, I was shocked at how brazenly Republicans are stealing the right to vote! from people who fought so damned hard to get that right. In this case, there are very specific ways white allies can help fight back. My activist friends and I have not only supported Abrams’ group, Fair Fight but have also volunteered for Reclaim Our Vote and contributed to the Black Voters Matter Fund. Additionally, we have canvassed, texted, and written postcards for candidates of color — some of whom, like Antonio Delgado, have won.
I’ve been passionate about politics since the second grade, so this is an obvious arena for my involvement. That might not be your preferred way to get involved. Fine. Find something else to do. We all need to do more than post “Make it stop!” in response to yet another video capturing a sickening racist incident. Turns out, we — the big collective we, with people of color leading the way — are the ones who must make it stop. History has its eye on us. We are in a unique moment in time, when we just might be able to make a real and lasting difference. Let’s seize the opportunity to make this country a much happier place for everyone. Black lives matter.
* Not his real name.
** To be clear, there were only a handful of walkers the entire time. Paula Francis, who is white, walked most of the Walk alone.