Tag Archives: white privilege

After You

About one year ago I wrote about an incident that happened at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). It was a cool after-hours event with my bestie, Mike, and we were dressed up and having a fun. At one point we were focused on our target — a set of stairs — and like normal urban people made a straight line for them. Without realizing it, we walked between a group of people posing against an elevator wall with art on it and the person who was taking their photo. There wasn’t another way around, only the option to wait, but I didn’t see them. However, piercing my urban fog was a Black woman who suddenly appeared, draped her arm around my shoulders, and said sarcastically, “Congratulations on your white privilege!”

One million thoughts fired through my shocked brain, including, hey, why aren’t you yelling at Mike? He walked ahead of me! (Love you, Mike!) OK, fine, maybe I’m the safer target. That thought was followed by the many ways I am a person who is more racially aware. And also, have been working on to improve. One of my best friends is Bla….Oh, crap. I can’t believe I went there.

OK, how about I’m naturally clueless? My college roommates short-sheeted my bed, and I didn’t even notice. Wait, do people even do that anymore? Argh! And why didn’t you also yell at Mike? Why am I being singled out because I’m white and female…ugh and Argh!

OK, all I got at this point is shock, and so I apologized verbally, and I also bowed with my hands in prayer — maybe they thought I was being sarcastic, or maybe the Japanese people can call me out for appropriating their thing.

This shit is complicated.

But I learned from the white privilege class I took earlier this year that I can be good and racist. Although a part of me insists I was just being my normal clueless urban self. This is what city people do to stay sane. We ignore each other.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I was walking with three members of my family, and I was telling them a story as we crossed a big wide open space in the Ruggles train station. It was a Saturday afternoon and fairly empty. Suddenly a Black woman appeared to my right and said loudly. “Excuse me!” She was trying to cross in front of us. Again, my first reaction was, we’re in a city! First come first serve, WTF? Also, there are four of us and one of you. Doesn’t that give us some sort of urban right-of-way? Is that even a thing? You know, democracy, majority rules, blah, blah, blah?

But I kept thinking about the woman at the MFA. Is being urban clueless a good enough excuse today? Was it ever? When I was growing up, people who had fancy boats with bathrooms could just flush their toilets into the water. That was OK then, and now it’s not. Sooo, where’s the line?

Not long ago, I was walking from one work building to another, and at one point the sidewalk narrowed to just wide enough for two people abreast. Two white people were animatedly talking in front of me, and suddenly (it seems I’m hopelessly not paying attention to people, and they are always appearing suddenly!) a Black jogger appeared next to me and behind the couple. He was speaking, but he had something over his mouth. All I can say was that it looked like the mouth part of the old timey World War II gas mask, but without the mask part. I was nearly next to him, and I was having trouble understanding him through that thing. But he must have been on repetition number 3 or 4, because he was mad, and yelling. “Move out of the way! Can’t you see me?” The white guy, on the narrow sidewalk ahead of him, said. “No, I didn’t see you.” The Black man answered, “What? Am I invisible?” Although it sounded more like, “WhamIibbibble?”

Oooooh, boy. I was kind of like, um this sidewalk is too narrow to see behind you and what in God’s name are you wearing? Is this a YouTube prank?

Was this about race? Was it about a narrow sidewalk? Was it about a weird WWII gas mask muffler thingy? Clearly Black people are pissed off, and have every right to be.

Within a few days of that encounter, I was waiting to cross at an intersection near my house. The cross walk is for pedestrians and bikes, and the three converging roads all have stop signs. I’m usually more in danger of getting clipped by the bikes than cars. This day I waited as the car came fast down the street and blew through the stop sign, only slowing down because she was turning the corner. A bike was also coming toward me and went into the street with nary a slowdown. The car jerked to a stop, and the guy on the bike pointed his finger at the driver, and yelled, “Stop sign! Stop sign!”

Now I know why we were told not to point. While it’s somewhat satisfying to point at others, it is also annoying to get pointed at. The bike passed, and the driver merely punched the gas and yelled through her window, gesturing wildly, “I’m driving! I’m driving!” Which I guess was her mistaken attempt to put herself in the right, even though, she so wasn’t.

So, both of them were white. Clearly everyone is pissed off.

It used to be that city people could just ignore each other blissfully, like at an Olympic champion level. We need to go from point A to point B with the straightest line possible. I cut you off, and that’s OK, because you will likely cut me off next time. It’s like an invisible contract we sign. I have lived here for 36 years, and I have not experienced this level of immediate reaction and being so pissed off about everything. And I’m not being all old timey and saying people were more polite back in the day. Hell no. We were rude then, and we’re rude now, it’s just that it took something really rude to get our panties in a twist enough to start yelling. Now everyone is on a hair trigger, and Black people are plain Fed Up.

A realization finally managed to penetrate my white privilege bubble: It’s not enough to look out and see Black people. I have to see everyone.

Of course, I did have my white privilege hissy fit: Why do I have to pay attention? I’m busy! I need to be places — important, urban places! Why can’t you just accept that me ignoring you is an urban thing? If you want to be treated like a princess, go live in the burbs or the country. I’m naturally clueless. Live in my head. Why do I have to change?

But I was going to have to do just that — the unthinkable. I was going to have to be calm, polite, and let other people go first. WTF?!? I told a friend my stories of pissed off people and how I was trying to be more aware in public spaces and let others go first. He asked me if it helped.

At first I said, well, I haven’t gotten yelled at lately. So, yes, it has helped. But then I realized, it also was making me feel better. I have a sensitive nervous system and can be easily be overwhelmed by certain kinds of stimulation, like talking to people, especially strangers. I thought having to always be aware of my surroundings, other than the usual woman ongoing, “strange man in vicinity” alert, would be exhausting. But as I began to do it, I noticed that I don’t have to pay attention all the time. Only at the essential times, such as getting through the train turnstile, or getting on or off the train. I’m not quite at the advanced level of giving up my seat, unless it’s really, really obvious the person needs the seat. I need to see fainting, blood, or obvious pregnancy.

I am making a conscious decision to see others and let them go first. I am trying to be extra nice to Black people — I try to smile in hopes of cancelling out any looks/comments they have gotten to this point in the day.

Is it helping improve this poisonous place we call the U.S. right now? Who knows? I have felt despair, and wanted to do some big grand gesture. That’s great, but it also smacks a bit of white privilege/white savior. It’s not one and done; it’s being there every day and being aware of others, whether I feel like it or not.

At least I haven’t gotten yelled at for past few weeks.

Nod to Elton John: This Blog Has No Title

I’ve been sitting here trying to find a pithy title to this blog. And then Elton John’s song popped in my head:  This Song Has No Title.   When I say popped, I mean up from the recesses of my adolescent brain. I haven’t thought about this song in years, but the album it’s on, Yellow Brick Road, is part of the soundtrack of my youth — it was etched into me before I understood music could do that. It was my sister’s album, and she listened to it a lot. And I loved the double album artwork, so I as I gazed at it and read the lyrics, I listened to it when she wasn’t there. As I listened to the song just now, after at least 40 years, I air pianoed in all the right places. It seems relevant still:

“And each day I learn just a little bit more
I don’t know why but I do know what for
If we’re all going somewhere let’s get there soon
Oh this song’s got no title just words and a tune”

I’m stalling. I’ve been taking a class called “White People Challenging Racism: Moving from Talk to Action,” and just so there is no misunderstanding, we’re against racism and are looking at our white privilege. The way it’s worded and in today’s Cheeto flea world, I want to confirm that it doesn’t mean we are challenging the legitimacy of racism. So all you MAGA people, move up or move on back. Preferably get a clue, but that’s probably not gonna happen. And Black folks, we’re trying to work out our white junk so we can be better allies to you and make sure our baggage fits in the overhead compartment.

And I want to talk about it, but it’s messing with my head, making me look for words, which for a writer is like being a carpenter without wood. I’m angry, sad, puzzled, tired, exposed, struggling. Where the hell is the wood?

I’m a good white person. I need you to know that, and that’s part of the problem, see? This isn’t about good white person = non-racist. I can be a good person and still have racist ideas and thoughts and assumptions. And I’m squirming and struggling against the idea like one of Pepe Le Pew’s victims. I had the great fortune of having a best friend in college who let me into her Black world. I am an empathetic person by nature. I got it, I believed it when she told me how life was for her being Black. We analyzed when she was a new lawyer at a big Boston firm. Was the interaction because she Black? a woman? Low lawyer on the ladder?

I grew up working class, from immigrants. First generation on one side, 2nd on the other. College was a goal, not a given. I worked all during college, two of those years about 30 hours a week. I graduated with tons of loans, worked in nonprofits — a professional who was not out to make money, but a difference. I did not own property until I was 37. It was in an affordable, but less desirable Boston-area town. My then husband and I didn’t have parents who could give us a down payment, so we took the money out from our 403Bs.

I know white privilege exists on a systemic level. I can’t have listened to a Black person’s experience and doubted it. Ah, so comfy, from my “less privileged” place. I didn’t have money or social standing. I’m good, I’m cool, right? I’m not like those clueless rich white people. Am I?

I defer to my alter ego Blanche, because she likes to laugh at me when I’m being stupid. She sits at the bar drinking gin and taking long contemplative drags on her ciggies.

Blanchesmoking

Poor, Blanche. She just fell off her stool, she’s laughing so hard. Luckily, she’s a tough bird. She’ll be OK. Plus, she likes laughing at me, so she wants nothing better than to get on that stool and in position for my next misstep.

Blanche says, “You’re white, girlie. Hide behind your ‘working class, immigrant’ shield all you want. The fact is, no one has followed your sorry ass in a store, even when you had no money to spend. No one ever thought at work that you were only there because of affirmative action. Once they meet you, your coffee slurping may annoy them, but that’s just being a bad office mate. You uncomfortable? That’s sounds about right.”

Blanch takes a long drag on her ciggie and looks me in the eye as she stubs it out, “You ain’t perfect, babe, let it ride. I’ll stop laughing when you talk sense.” She downs her shot and slams it on the bar. “Or not,” her smokey, throaty laugh echoes in stale air.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Lives Matter

Last Thursday my friend Mike texted me and asked if I wanted to join a protest against the decision not to indict the officer for the death of Eric Garner in NYC. Garner died while police were taking him down to arrest him. As a divorced mom, I only have certain evenings that I can be civic-minded, social, or watch old reruns of Starsky and Hutch, so I was happy the protest was on one of those nights. Mike and I had both been feeling frustrated and helpless about the Garner news following on the heels of the heartbreaking news out of Ferguson. Another grand jury failing to indict a police officer for a death of a black person. Like the NYC protest earlier in the week, the one in Boston was called to coincide with the lighting of the Boston Commons. I admit was a little conflicted on this point. I wanted to speak out and support racial justice and equality and I have no problem interrupting purely adult events, but as a mother, I didn’t want to be responsible for traumatizing a bunch of kids. I didn’t mind kids seeing us, but protests can quickly turn ugly, and I didn’t want to be a part of a toppled burning tree and kids who would associate racial justice with Christmas haters. I needn’t have worried. The protest was peaceful and orderly and although we stopped traffic in the street nearby the tree, we respected the barriers the police had erected around the ceremony. The kids may forever hear “Black Lives Matter” sprinkled among the strains of “White Christmas,” but I can live with that.

We stood in a crowd that began to grow. Every time we turned to look behind us more people joined. The crowd was encouragingly diverse, especially for Boston, which is pretty white. All shades of skin color and all ages, from gray heads to wispy-haired toddlers. We couldn’t see the speaker, and it was hard to hear, but the chants would flow back to us like the wave at a sports stadium. But honestly, it didn’t matter. What mattered was that we were there, with like-minded people, speaking out. After a while the crowd started to move. Even as I was chanting, a small part of my brain acknowledged the power of the crowd and giving myself up to it. The protest was not an elaborately planned civil rights March on Washington. It seemed more organic. I had no idea where we were going, but Mike and I followed and chanted. We stepped out into the street stopping traffic. For all of Boston’s bad driving reputation, not one driver yelled at us. Some cheered, some looked annoyed, and others just took the opportunity to text with immunity. We went around the tree lighting ceremony and walked up the small hill to the state house. The sight of police in riot gear “lite” lined up along the state house lawn was sobering. They had face shields and were wearing neon yellow jackets. I was somewhat reassured by the article I had read in the Boston Globe the week before about a longer march after the Ferguson decision. The police chief was exuberant that the police and marchers had been respectful and no property had been damaged. He seemed like a reasonable guy and so far this march was reasonable. We stood by the gates chanting while the cops stood in an impassive line. Finally the protesters with bull horns turned us back down the hill and we walked in the downtown streets. It was a little surreal. The traffic at this point was being diverted, because there were no more cars. Police on bikes rode alongside us as we chanted and walked. One of the chants was “Hey, hey, ho, ho, these racist cops have got to go.” Mike commented that he didn’t like that chant, but being the word girl, I pointed out that it could be interpreted as these racist cops over here have to go, while we support those cops over there who are not racist. Of course, one thrown rock and the cops wouldn’t care very much about the nuances of demonstrative pronouns.

We wound our way down Washington Street and we were getting a little punchy; a guy behind us tried to start rogue chants. Some were kind of funny, like as we were going by a tall skyscraper he started chanting “Take the bank! Take the bank” and then “Take them all! Take them all!” We all started laughing because it didn’t even make sense, and he was laughing too.  At the corner of State and Congress we stopped. Again I had that sense of just being in the crowd, in the moment. I didn’t know what the plan was or where we are even trying to get to. Mike and I joked they were just going to march us down State Street into the ocean. But then people started lying down. It was a “die in.” We’d been standing and walking for almost two hours so it actually felt kind of nice, even on the cold pavement in the middle of street. As we looked up into the dark night sky, Mike and I marveled that we’d probably never get to see this view, quite like this again. Then “Take the bank” guy started chanting “Get me a blanket! Get me a blanket!” and we started laughing again. Irreverent? Perhaps. But it occurred to me that the humor would help keep us safe from an anger that could turn into confrontation and get people hurt. Our presence, thousands strong was enough. We were lying in the street and chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” and “I can’t breathe!” We were making our point without fire hoses, police dogs, and burning buildings. Without riot gear, tasers, and mace.

To fit in my space on the street, I was curled up on my side and the hip I was resting on started to hurt. The ground was getting cold. Finally we got up. It was 8:30. Mike and I, who had both marched on Washington in our 20s—he for the AIDS crisis and me for abortion rights—were tired and hungry. It was time for us to let the young ones carry on without us. At least for the night. A few blocks away we encountered another large river of people parallel to the folks we’d just left. Yes we were leaving the protest in good hands, and we would continue our own education—Mike reading about white privilege and I rereading my books about the Civil Rights Movement.

Black lives matter.