I feel like the question of racism and its presence in US society is being revisited, especially on the heels of police brutality, which has led to a surge in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. As a Latina in a Mexican American community, I too cringe in the presence of law enforcement. I’ve never gone to prison or court, but I’ve almost been shot due to mistaken identity. It’s not easy being Black, Brown, or any other “minority” color.
I write this from a place of confusion, disappointment, sadness, and anger. I used to think there could be empathy across races, especially after the long historical struggle with slavery and civil rights issues. I thought the integration of races in society guaranteed that a group of people could step into another group’s shoes. I was wrong; this sort of empathy is not automatic. Understanding can’t be taken for granted.
This past week, I found myself in the unique position of being surrounded exclusively by Anglos. Although I was never in danger, I was consistently reminded of how different my views were. Some stated them as refreshing, others as bewildering, and yet others as conflictive. I know I can be a bit of an oddball, but sometimes I felt like the other person was working through some anger. That was disquieting.
It’s interesting that we often think our friends are very similar to ourselves. When there is conflict, I’ve often been surprised by how a friend can stand in a starkly different place than I. In a way, my encounter left me in a sad place. Let me detail and clarify.
Experiences at home and abroad have made it clear that my skin color elicits suspicion, distrust, or simply disregard. This last I’ve been able to use to my benefit to stay safe in places where I’m a foreigner. As for the first two, I’ve noticed when my pale-skinned colleagues receive preferential treatment in public spaces. It has taken me decades to realize that treatment is called White Privilege. It is present on the streets, at school, at work – everywhere.
Pairing my experiences with the current dialogue about BLM has, in a sense, brought me home to a place of familiarity. A fleet that is there to protect turns against you because you fit a vague racial description, or because the people holding the guns hold prejudices about certain cultures. Being overlooked or underestimated because of stereotypes about minorities and their education levels, intelligence, or abilities is very familiar.
What took me aback was that such assumptions would be held by those that knew me, or that were friendly toward me. Somehow I thought they would know and act differently – better … but it was I that overestimated. I’ve heard that one draws his/her tribe – that one draws likeminded people, but as much as I wish this were true, maybe it’s not.
My involvement with the Green Party seemed to be causing waves. During introductions to conservatives, I had to ease tense moments by saying my position was neutral. This neutrality was harder to defend when I viewed the convention recordings later, before going to bed at my hosts’ home – let’s call them Kim and Andy.
The things that struck me about the convention speakers were: 1) The high number of Black and indigenous speakers, 2) the high number of women and lavender speakers, 3) the high number of young people, 4) and the raw honesty of people’s experiences when they spoke. The speakers brought their personal experiences to the platform, along with their hearts, emotions, and passions. If something didn’t feel right, they were upfront and asked for resolution. Oftentimes, the speakers could be characterized as loud and vociferous.
The speakers didn’t catch me off guard. I knew from experience that the Green Party tapped the Occupy Wall Street movement for candidates. While watching the convention, I realized that much of the language and actions originated in Occupy, for example the democratic voting process, the chants, and the way of restoring order. The people from the Occupy movement wanted a voice, and they found it in the Green Party. This is why the Party is said to be made up of the 99%. We are the 99% that are disenfranchised by the government and oligarchy. We are the forgotten, the mistreated, the oppressed.
So I was watching these videos of the speakers before heading to bed, and I observed misunderstanding from those with White Privilege – both in the video and in the house.
A Black woman was speaking about her experience with oppression. Meanwhile, with her back turned, Kim commented incredulously: “What?! What is that woman talking about?” After a while she turned to the screen and said flatly, “Oh, she’s Black,” as if stating that of course she’s black, because only they keep bringing up a stink about oppression, despite having gained civil rights, and having overcome slavery a long time ago. It’s as if Kim was trying to say, “Come on; Get over it; It doesn’t exist anymore.”
Later, Andy walked in and heard the anger in another Black woman’s voice. She was talking about how education was a White man’s education, how people of color weren’t given a voice, how a revolution was needed to give voice to all who were oppressed in a White system.
That speech roiled up Andy. He seemed confused and taken aback by the speech; there was something about it that he found offensive. His response was that the education system was just fine; that we have survived just fine on the education we have had. My only comment was that it would be nice to have a diversity of voices in the books, in art, in everything. Then Kim piped up and told Andy that he just didn’t understand (the context of the speech). And yet, she couldn’t really explain it, either. He walked away, visibly upset.
The next morning, I stayed in bed to finish listening to the speeches. My hosts had already had their breakfast. When I was done with the videos, Andy came in and asked if I’d had enough of political speeches. He stated that he didn’t like how angry and loud the speakers sounded, and how it felt like they were fighting – nothing like the other conventions that were televised.
I knew what he was talking about. The people in Occupy had always sounded angry to me. I knew it could be a turn-off to some. And yet, I felt it was my job to find something positive about the experience. I defended the speeches by saying that I thought they were refreshing. Andy’s body language told me he found offense in my reply. He looked like he was ready to battle.
“The speakers were mostly women and people of color, including indigenous. These are the disenfranchised populations that are rarely given room in common platforms. How many times have you seen people like that take center stage? This is the first time I’ve ever seen them be given the public space to air out their grievances. No other party does that; that’s why I found these speeches refreshing.”
From that perspective, he didn’t quite agree, but his tension visibly relaxed. I added that it was the only party that ran common people. “I’ve had friends run under the Green banner in other election cycles.” And then, since I knew he is ex-military, I added that one of my ex-military friends ran for congress. “She received an injury that the military refused to fix, so she ran for congress to try and fix policy from the inside. Now I have an indigenous friend that is running. How many times have indigenous run under the other tickets? I’ve never seen that.” He agreed; and so, even though he hadn’t liked what he heard and saw, he walked away with the realization that common people ran under the Green flag, people that would not find a voice under the other parties.
And yet, why did I have to explain all of that? Looking, seeing, and hearing should have been sufficient to understand people’s grievances. Yet, it was too easy for either of them to perceive them as complainers and troublemakers. In a way, it’s infuriating that those with White privilege don’t perceive problems… because they never experience them. As such, these problems that I and others have are non-existent to those with White privilege; they will never experience a world that is slated against them … a world where you have to go the extra mile to try and get your needs met, but where that extra effort will not necessarily be rewarded.
If you are White and are reading this, acknowledge that you live in an inherently different world than the rest of us. When you interact with those unlike you, be they women or racial minorities, etc, check your privilege. Just because others have an alternate view of reality doesn’t mean they are lying or wrong; if it feels like that, realize that their experience is inherently different than yours. Respect that difference, and respect the person. Remember that you don’t have to demand respect, and your honesty is rarely second-guessed. Those are two common privileges of being White; your world would be vastly different if you weren’t.
When I left Kim and Andy’s house, I knew I had friends. But somehow, something tells me that it’s one of those friendships where we can never truly know each other … where despite our shared times, meals, and laughter, there could never be true understanding between us. They can never know what it is like to fill my shoes, nor I theirs. Yes, there is respect between us … but how can the bridge to understanding be built. I think that is the true challenge that faces our nation – and our world.