“This is the country we live in. Millions of Black lives are valued less than a single White person’s hurt feelings.”
When I was teaching my first year in the inner city, I was like the only white teacher, and in fact, one of only a handful of white employees of this school for at-risk kids, where all the students were black. One week, we were told we’d all be receiving racial sensitivity training — presumably directed at us white teachers, who needed to learn how to navigate a very different culture than the one we knew. I was very receptive, and welcomed any help I could get. It was a very rigorous two days, and very emotional, and it was the first time I had ever heard the words ‘Institutional Racism’ or ‘White privilege’ before. It was all so overwhelming, and a bit disorienting. Everything I thought I knew about how the world worked had been upended quite shockingly. After all, I was a proud liberal Yankee, and felt very strongly about racism and equality for all Americans. I deplored racism, and couldn’t possibly see that I had any role in its existence. Near the end of day two, we were all so exhausted and frazzled, and were asked to pair up. I got matched with this grumpy and miserable black secretary, whom I had always tried to be nice to, but just never got anywhere. In an epic and climactic finish, we all sort of extemporaneously aired our dirty laundry, and by this time, I was crying and fragile, and I just came out and admitted that I too, was a racist, and as much a part of the problem as I was the solution. I had broken down, and confessed this horrifying secret, and rather than compassion or understanding, this woman shook her head in disgust, and muttered epithets under her breath. I felt betrayed, and she made me feel like the worst person on the planet for doing something I thought was rather brave and honest.
What did I want a medal for most valuable white guy hurt feelings?
In the days that followed, and the years that have since passed, I recognize how valuable that lesson was for me. Although it was painful and humiliating to put myself out there like that, and get so harshly rebuked, I think we all need to break a few eggs before we can make an omelet we all can enjoy. I don’t hate all black people because that ONE misanthropic black woman showed me no mercy when I needed it the most, just as I would hope I don’t represent the whole of my race.
I don’t have to have personally owned slaves or trafficked in the contemptible institution, but I do benefit from it. Over 150 years later, and I still operate freely in a world built for ME! The laws we abide by, the narrative we choose to spin, the iconography of black (evil) and white (good) that permeates our story, the very way our city blocks are laid out, public transportation is organized, the schools teach to a white learner, and perhaps the most insidious of all….the very language that we use in everyday parlance. ALL of it is skewed towards white privilege. Institutional racism is not the evil confederate flag waving, cross-burning hillbillies from Dixie. We know about them. They’ve never been shy to express their vitriol. It”s ironically the very kindness of friends which often hurts the most. These are the nice and respectable husband and wife academics from Westchester, who annually donate to the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund, while holding onto their college days at Berkley, and their many Civil Rights marches. It’s the most well-intentioned of us, who often don’t even realize our own culpability in perpetuating the system.
That’s not meant to demonize white males or give a free pass to all unguided black youth. It’s just to recognize that there is an unseen system at work, reliably stacking the deck for the hegemony, while covertly or overtly suppressing the hopes and aspirations of the people of color in this country. It doesn’t mean that the good old ‘American Dream’ can’t work for people of their stature, it just means that we’re not all taking off from the same starting line. White males have already made three full laps, and minorities are just warming up. Have no illusions: this race was rigged for just ONE race.