In the recent film, Hidden Figures, Katharine (played by Octavia Spencer), a black woman who is in informally in charge of the “black computer group,” has been repeatedly denied promotion to supervisor by her white boss, Vivian. In my favorite scene in the movie, Katharine encounters her boss in the public restroom, which has been recently been desegregated. After an awkward pause, Vivian says, “Despite what you think, I don’t have anything against y’all.” In response, Dorothy fixes Vivian with an unforgettable gaze and delivers one of the film’s most stirring lines: “I know you probably believe that.”
In a scene from my life, a group has come in to give our staff “sensitivity training.” After nearly an hour of discussion about racial inequality in the work force, a staff member who has been looking puzzled finally says, “I really don’t understand what you are talking about. I just don’t see color.” Several others smile and nod their heads.
With a huge sigh, the leader says, “That’s just the problem. We need to see color. We need to see and accept differences.” Now I’m nodding my head. For more than 25 years, I have been married to a black man. Before we began sharing life, I would have said the same thing: “I don’t see color.” To say we don’t “see color” sounds inclusive and accepting. It implies: “I don’t treat people differently because of their color.” But to a person of color it says: “I don’t see you.” And, unfortunately, it means that white people do treat people of color differently.
I have learned from living in a black/white world, that I, a white American, have an attitude of privilege. White privilege means that being white is the ideal. “People of color,” a young black man recently mourned on the PBS News Hour, “are all trying to achieve whiteness. White is the default race.” As my husband says, “‘If you’re white, you’re right. If you’re black, get back.’ For example, if you are white and you are going to an interview, all you have to do is put on good clothes. If you are black, you have to change your color.”
The term white privilege refers to the way white people subconsciously assume the world to be – assumptions that are not part of the life of people of color, Activist and author, Jim Wallis says, “Whether we or our families or our ancestors had anything to do with the racial sins of America’s establishment, all white people have benefited from them. No matter who you are, where you live, how you have acted – and even if you have fought hard against racism, you can never escape white privileged America if you are white” (American’s Original Sin, p.35).
As “educated” as I was about the world I lived in, my white privilege was so ingrained that I didn’t see it until it was brought to my attention by my loving but often impatient husband who frequently said, “You just don’t understand!!”
My White Privilege
Here is some of what I learned about my white privilege:
♦ My family assumed that I would receive a good public school education and graduate from college. I expected the same thing for my children. My husband Fred’s family taught him to find a job (with General Motors, if possible) and keep it all his life! “That is all that a black man can expect,” was their message. “Don’t even try to go to college.”
♦ My parents taught me to call a policeman when I am in trouble. The last thing my husband would do is call a cop! He, and all blacks – especially males – have been taught, “If you see a cop, hide!”
♦ I assume that I can drive down any street in any city with no harassment. My husband has been stopped by police more times than I can count – for no other reason than he is black. I have been in the car with him some of those times. Some of those times, he has been searched for no reason.
♦ I assume that I may live wherever I want, as long as I can afford it. When we were first married, we learned about an apartment complex in a small town and went to look at it. As we turned off the highway to enter the city, Fred noticed that a police car which had been going west turned at a crossover and followed us into town. He said, “That cop’s following us.”
I said, “You’re crazy. Why would he follow us? You weren’t speeding.” (White privilege rears its ugly head!)
The cop followed us to the apartment we had planned to look at and parked across the street while we debated going in. Finally Fred said, “I’m not going to live anywhere where the cops follow me when I drive by.” We left the town and headed toward the highway, followed by the cop. When we turned onto the highway, he went in the opposite direction. I learned that we would have to go separately to check out rental properties; after one of us signed on the dotted line, the other could look at the property. Fred wasn’t wanted in the suburbs, and I wasn’t wanted in the segregated downtown. As a bi-racial couple, we weren’t wanted in either place together.
♦ I assume that when I am interviewed on the phone, offered a job, and told when to report, that I would have the job. Fred was offered a job at 5:00 by phone and told to come in at 9:00 the next day. I went with him because I was familiar with the town, and it was a long drive. When he gave his name to the receptionist, there was a loooong pause. She said, “I’ll go get the boss.” After a loooong time, she came back. “The boss said that you are not what we expected after all. I’m sorry, we’ve hired someone else for that position.” My husband just turned and left, tears rolling down his face.
♦ I assume that I will be waited on when it is my turn at a retail store counter. Fred is often ignored until I come up and stand next to him . . . and then I am waited on. The first time this happened, we had been shopping separately, and I wondered what was taking him so long. I finally went to find him. The sales woman turned to me and said “May I help you?” I said, “No, but you can wait on my husband who has been standing here totally overlooked.” (At least she had the grace to look embarrassed).
♦I assume that I will be welcome in church. When we moved to the town where I had been raised, I proudly brought Fred to my former church. After the service, a woman came up to him and said, “You must attend the seminary here.” Fred looked at me in confusion and said that he didn’t attend the seminary. “Then you must be a visitor from Africa.” He turned to me again and then said, “No I live here.” Now she looked confused. “Then why are here at this church?” He said, “I’m with my wife.” She quickly turned and walked away. A minute or two later, a man came and shook hands with Fred. “Welcome!” he said. I smiled at him. Then he offered, “Did you know we have a second service? Most people like you prefer that service.”
The next time you hear an interview with someone from Black Lives Matter or with a civil rights protester or with a mother of color complaining about her child’s poor education, stop and listen to what they are saying. Can you see that your assumptions about life are based on your white privilege? Can you understand why others are upset when they are denied the fulfillment of those same assumptions? And the next time you see a person of color, really see them. Maybe even strike up a conversation and find out who this person really is. We are all different, but we are all the same in God’s eyes.
For a more complete treatment of the idea of white privilege, read America’s Original Sin, Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis. Better yet, gather a group of people and study it together.
For a black woman’s view on the presence of white privilege in the church, see this post in the blog Literary Hub.