The following was originally published on my Facebook page, but based on the response it received there, I wanted to repost it here as well.
I remember being in college and sitting in a room full of boys while they used racial slurs in jokes. I told them they weren’t funny and then I got up and walked away. They told me I needed to get a sense of humor. No one else said anything. The jokes kept happening.
I remember ushering my children into the other room to avoid an older relative’s casual use of the n-word. I pursed my lips and shook my head and exchanged a frustrated glance with my husband. But we make excuses for the older generation. No one said anything.
I remember when we were adopting out of foster care and we had to examine our hearts and answer hard questions. They asked if we had a healthy support system in place for a child of color, and I had to say that I truly didn’t think that we did. Our entire neighborhood is white, our church is white, the majority of our friends are white, and whether we like it or not, our family culture includes people who are casually racist. I didn’t think that would be fair to a child who was trying to develop a sense of identity.
I remember when I was teaching in a city school and I had to take a student out in the hallway because he was being a little rowdy. He was as tall as I was, but he started crying because at 11 he was already so frustrated by his lot in life. He was frustrated to be in trouble again. He told me I couldn’t understand because I was white. All of his teachers had always been white ladies. And he was right. I couldn’t understand what it was like to be an adolescent trying to learn how to be a man and a minority at the same time when all of your role models have always been women with privilege.
I remember my first year teaching I had a student whose mother was particularly difficult to handle. I bent over backwards to please her, but she eventually requested to have her son placed in another class for no other reason than “she didn’t like me.” I sat in my principal’s office and, despite my best effort to fight them, tears came into my eyes. It was literally the first time in my life that someone had said they didn’t like me. My principal and vice principal were both black. The VP looked at me and, confused, asked why I was crying.
“No one has ever said that to me before.” I replied.
“You made it all the way through college and no one, in your entire life, has ever looked at you and said that they don’t like you before?” she asked.
“No. Not out loud.”
She exchanged a look with the principal that my 21-year-old self didn’t understand. It did not register with me then that people must have been saying this to them, one way or another, every day for their entire lives.
Because that is what white privilege is. It’s the privilege to be oblivious until something affects you directly. It’s the ability to think that current events really don’t concern you, so you don’t need to say anything. But when we think that we are wrong. Because often our silence is mistaken for acquiescence. And when no one says anything, we speak volumes.