For me, it started with a telephone conversation just three years ago. A friend wanted to know if my husband and I would share a getaway weekend in Hocking Hills with his family. I leapt at the chance to spend time with them, especially the children. In the middle of making plans about specific dates and reservations, though, he abruptly asked, “Have you been there? Is it fine for my sons?”
I thought he was asking whether there would be enough activities and attractions to keep four boys busy and happy. But he wasn’t. What he needed to know, and what I finally understood, was whether his sons would be safe.
I am white. My friend is black.
I didn’t know if the boys would be safe. I assumed that they would be. I’d been to Hocking Hills several times, but I honestly couldn’t recall whether I’d seen any people of color. I hadn’t noticed.
I am white. So I had no need to notice.
He is black. So he has to notice.
That was the beginning of my belated awakening to the concept of white privilege. I don’t know why it took me so long. I grew up during the years of the Civil Rights Movement. I knew about Jim Crow laws and whites-only water fountains. I watched the newscasts of black people hosed and beaten in the streets. Later, as a parent, I consciously raised my children to consider a person’s actions rather than skin color.
That privileged white woman who doesn’t recognize her own ease in navigating the world? That was me. And if I’m going to be honest, it’s still me.
As a semi-retired grandmother, I wonder at times whether I have enough years left to learn what I should already know about this country’s deep-seated bigotry and systemic injustices.
What must it be like simply trying to barbeque while black, to drive a car while black, to buy a house while black, to be killed playing video games in your own home while black? What must it be like to agonize over the safety of your sons while black?
I can’t know what “living in America while black” is like. But learning and leveraging my privilege are choices that I can make. So can you. One good place to start actively learning is by attending Cleveland Neighborhood Progress’s Racial Equity and Inclusion training programs, facilitated by local consultants from Third Space Action Lab.
It’s time to stop talking about what we (white people) think we know and start learning what we don’t. It’s time to stop imagining and ignoring what “living while black” in America is like and start listening to the people who live it.
Martin Luther King Day is not just another day off. In fact, it’s been designated as a national day of service since 1994. There are many local ways to engage in the commemoration of the civil rights leader’s life and legacy. The City of Cleveland and Cleveland Public Library’s 35th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Ceremony: Let Freedom Ring is just one. The Cleveland Orchestra: Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Open House is another. For more information on these and other local Martin Luther King Day learning opportunities, visit this link.