As a white person, I am well aware of the privilege afforded to me due to the color of my skin. As white man, I am well aware of the deference given to me even when I haven’t asked for it. As a gay white man, I am well aware of the danger I might face if a bigoted person finds out. I am aware, unlike a person of color, I can “hide” my gayness, thus affording me some amount of safety.
When I was young, I was aware people were different colors, although there were very few people of color in the circle of people I knew growing up in rural Ohio. One of my best friends when I was in middle school was black (but we used the term colored then), but I didn’t really pay attention to that aspect of him. He was just my friend.
In my high school years, there were a few more people of color, but I would almost go so far as to say in my entire high school there were less than 50 students of color, with a mixture of Asian, Black, and Eastern Indian. I never imagined at that time what they may have gone through, or how they felt, not having peers or teachers who looked like them. It never occurred to me since most everyone looked like me.
It wasn’t until I left home, during a conversation with a peer and I used the word colored, that it was offensive. He let me know he wasn’t colored, he was black, and colored wasn’t really a word blacks liked being called. The term African-American wasn’t being used at that time.
It was around this time Reverend Jesse Jackson came to Columbus to give a speech. He was someone I listened to and went to see him. I believe I was one of five non-black people in the audience. Honestly I don’t remember a thing the Reverend said. All I remember is how I felt in that room. My mind couldn’t wrap around how many black people there were, and I don’t know why, but I kept thinking if Reverend Jackson had said to attack, I would be helpless. I know it was an irrational thought and fear, and I’ve never forgotten that feeling. Not because it scarred me, but because it provided me a perspective most white people never experience. This feeling comes to mind whenever I am in a place in which there are very few people of color.
During my life experiences, I have always tried to put myself in the shoes and experiences of a person of color when a situation warrants it. As an educator, I’ve always tried to put myself in the shoes of my students of color, trying to know their expereinces within all that is happening in our country, especially the past few years. It has been my goal to make sure everyone has a voice, even when the majority try to stifle the voice of those not like themselves. I’ve not been perfect, but I have done my best.
My heart has gone out to the families of young black men who have been wronged through arrests, harassment and senseless killings. We have tried to provide perspective to our children of how privileged they are, that not everyone has that privilege, and to think about the life experiences of others and not judge actions out-of-hand.
Hoodie guilt is something I have been experiencing over the past year, and I don’t know why it started occurring. Each time I put my hoodie up, I am reminded that I can do so safely no matter the time of day or where I may be. I do not live in fear of being harassed or killed for wearing a hoodie. As I walk with it on, I keep coming back to the guilt of being able to put it on, and my mind keeps going round and round of why such racism has continued, and even grown over the past few years. I wonder what I can do. I fear for my nieces, my ex-brother-in-law, my friends, and my husband who are people of color.
There is much I still do not understand.
Something I don’t understand, but can speculate, is the violent protests after a senseless killing, such as those happening now after what happened to George Floyd, with burning of businesses, which causes long-term harm to neighborhoods. I do understand the rage, the feeling of helplessness, the knowing justice has a high likelihood of not occurring, the fear it could be one’s own son or daughter next.
There is much I know I have to learn. And hope to continue to learn and understand, I know it is a journey and a life experience I will never live, which is why I continue to try to learn and act in better ways.
So, if I say something, or act in a certain way, that rankles you because of the privilege I enjoy because I am white, and sometimes don’t know what I don’t know, feel free to let me know I am doing so. Tell me, and if you have the energy, help me learn. If I have a question in which I seek to understand, please humor me by listening and answering.
I want to learn, I want to do better. I want the world to learn, I want the world to do better.