While we are all talking about white privilege, let me tell you when I started unpacking my own. I was about 28, it was the late 70’s, and had gone with my friend Helen to the NO Jazz festival. We were at the stage listening to the Neville Brothers, and a few black men approached her to hit on her, and ask why she was hanging with a “pasty” girl. She, at first, told them she wasn’t black, just had a tan going, and that I was her sister (this despite sporting a huge Afro.)
After about the 5th time this happened, she got up, and said “come on, lets get out of here” and insisted we go to a stage where a white artist was playing. Totally confused, I followed her. When we had settled again, I asked her why she was mad. I had no clue at all why she would be mad about someone of her own race calling her “sister” and asking why she had a white friend. She looked at me and said “It makes me furious when ANYONE, black or white, makes assumptions about me based on my skin color. And not only were they making assumptions about ME, they were making assumptions about YOU as well.”
Still confused I asked her, “Well, isn’t there some truth that most whites are racist? I can understand them thinking that about me.” She looked at me and asked, “Denese, when we first met, did you see what color I am? My first impulse was to say the popular, “I don’t see race,” but instead I told the truth. “Yeah, Helen, I immediately knew you were a black woman. ” I felt like I was admitting something horrible. She said, “That is why you are my friend. You saw ME. White people always say they aren’t racist because they have a black friend. You ever say that?” I told her no, I don’t think so. She asked, “Am I your first black friend?” My answer was no to that as well. She told me to think about that for a while. Still confused, I said I would.
Later, when we got to the car to go back home to Lafayette, it started to rain, and one of the windows in the car wouldn’t stay up. I got out of the car, and started looking for some sticks. Helen asked me what the heck I was doing. That is when it happened. I replied, ” I am looking for something to nigger rig that window.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I was horrified, and burst into tears and sank to the ground.. I apologized hysterically, over and over, getting more and more manic as the moments ticked by. Helen got out of the car, grabbed me up out of the mud, and roughly shoved me into my seat in the car, and got back in and slammed the door. I kept sniveling and saying :I am so sorry, so sorry, so sorry!” She angrily told me to “Shut up,” I kept crying. Then, she said, “Denese if you don’t shut the hell up, I am going to slap you!”
Sure I had lost my friend forever, I tried to get myself under control. When my sobs had reduced to hiccups, Helen said, “Denese, look at me.” I turned to her, my eyes full of tears, and looked her in the face, expecting her to tell me that I was a miserable racist piece of shit, and I knew she would be right. Instead she gently asked me, “How old were you when you first heard that phrase?” I told her maybe 5 or 6. She asked how many times I had heard that, or similar phrases. I said,” I dunno, thousands….millions?” She said “Yes, so many times that it is just background noise, and has no real meaning, don’t you see?” She explained that accidentally using a term like that did not mean that I was racist, but that I had been born into a racist world. She asked if I had ever called Asians, Japs or Chinks. I said of course, I had not. She asked if I had ever heard that Asians were good at math. I said I had. Then she asked if I had ever met an Asian that was bad at math. I remembered my friend Yvonne from 6th grade, who I always helped with her math, so I said, “Yes.”
We then started talking about all kinds of common terms, phrases and assumptions about race. A great deal more were in common use in the 70’s than we hear now. We agreed those were all racist things…everything from “White people can’t dance” to “Blacks are best at basketball,” to “Asians are all good at math” to “All Mexicans are wetbacks.” We named all those awful things, and we called them what they are….racist. We talked about whether white people should feel guilty, and when. We agreed that they should if they let racists remarks pass unchallenged. We agreed they should if they didn’t look at their own behavior, and correct it when needed. At the end, Helen asked me, “Are you ever going to forget, and use that phrase again?” I said that I hoped not. She asked me, “Are you going to speak up when you hear stuff like that?” I promised her I always would. We didn’t use words like “privilege” or “micro-aggression” or “silencing” We used the words that were in common usage at the time. But we were talking about those very things.
When we got home, we hugged and told each other we loved each other. Our friendship continued, better than before, until she left the state, and married someone, and changed her name.
That is the time that a wonderful black friend showed me my privilege, showed me that I still had work to do, that my guilt was useless, and galvanized me to always stand beside all of my brothers and sisters on this planet who speak for good, and who speak for equality, fairness and understanding. And most of all for peace.
There IS only one race on this planet…the HUMAN race. No one will ever convince me otherwise.
Thank you, Helen, wherever you are.