Though the idea used to make me quite uncomfortable, the truth of my body is that my white skin offers me privilege as I navigate this world. Recently I spent most of a day at a conference called “Bridging the Gap Between Black Women and White Women.” On more than one occasion, my white privilege showed up and slapped me right across the face.
There were vulnerable, raw, honest speakers of both races. Several stand out to me. The first was a mom navigating schools alongside her children, just like me. The story she told was one that I could have slipped into many times over during the twenty-five plus years that I have had children in school settings. She wasn’t proud of this story, but it was her honest experience. One of her children has struggles within the classroom setting. He is loud and likes to move. On more than one occasion, she has been called into the school to talk about his behavior. A highly educated woman, she sheepishly shared that whenever she meets with a teacher or administrator, she very intentionally removes her work badge and lays it right on the table in front of the school representatives. She does not want anyone to assume that she or her husband do not work or struggle financially. Her experience is that sometimes such assumptions are made simply because of the color of her skin.
She is not proud of this show of her credentials each time she meets with school officials, but it is her reality. As she told this story, my heart was struck deeply. I have been interacting with teachers and principals for several decades. Not once have I ever felt that I needed to display my credentials. In fact, I have been a stay-at-home mom for all of these years. I have no badge to throw down on the table. But I enter such meetings with confidence and not one thought of whether or not the school official will make negative assumptions about me or my family because of the color of my skin. I have white privilege.
There was talk of fear around being mom to black teenage boys. I pay attention to news and the stories of Trayvon and Michael and Emmett, so this idea was not new to my heart and mind. As the mom of three sons, I understand the concern that all moms of teenage boys have around possible stupid yet developmentally appropriate choices our boys may make. But the possible consequences are often times so much greater for a boy of color. Even the possibility of death for walking down a street with a certain posture; or stealing cigarettes; or speaking or whistling or looking at a white woman in a certain way.
At my table, the one and only African American teacher in her school told this story. She taught first grade She had a blond-haired and blue-eyed boy in her class. He was very disruptive and destroyed the work of his classmates and picked up scissors to use as a weapon. The principal would come into her classroom, look at this boy, and say, “He is so cute. I can’t believe he could do such things.” I asked her, “How would this be different if this was a black boy?” She replied. “Oh, there was another disruptive African American boy in this grade in a different class. He threw a book in class. They called the police.” He was in the first grade!
As I sat and tried to wrap my mind and heart around these stories, tinges of guilt and the old helpless and hopeless feelings around racial issues arose within me. My most profound and instructive interactions came with a lady that I ended up sitting right beside. She is a black single mom. In time, I learned of how much she has to swallow at work just to keep a job that she needs to support her family. At one point as one of the black mothers was telling her story, I became aware that big emotions were arising within my table neighbor. I touched her shoulder – in my mind, this was a gesture of solidarity and compassion.
Later, we got the chance to have honest discussion around each table. The woman beside me in answer to the ever present white woman question, “What do we do?”, felt freedom to speak important truths to me. She gently and directly told me that “What can you do? Where do we start? You don’t even know how things can come across. When you put your hand on my shoulder, I heard ‘quiet down’.” She also shared that as she was processing very deep and heavy emotions, I asked her a reasonable question that could lead to better understanding between us. But my timing was off.
I shared this story with a friend. She said, “The same thing happened to me in yoga teacher training. It was pointed out to me that I was interrupting someone else’s process. I was comforting my crying friend to make me feel better.” Bingo. That is exactly what I was doing around that inter-racial table. And when my timing was off, I treated the black woman beside me as if she was invisible and my question was more important than her feelings in that moment. She had absolutely no reason in the world to trust me or my motives, given her history and her story.
This process of racial understanding and reconciliation is hard work. It is so easy to get defensive and throw up my hands. As I left that day and let so much of what I witnessed and heard swirl around inside of me, I first felt misunderstood, overwhelmed, and a bit defeated. “This is too hard. I am just going to go back to my own world and forget about trying to reconcile.” “I don’t need this stress in the midst of so much anxiety from so many places.” Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. The only reason that I could even entertain such a thought is because I have white privilege. This is not an option for my sisters of color.
In an interesting twist of circumstances, my table neighbor ended up being the person to give me a ride home that day. Each conference participant was challenged to take one action to increase understanding or relationship across our races. I am grateful for this woman who gave me the gift of honesty and personal growth on that day. I invited her and a mutual friend to come to dinner at my house. I hope that in days ahead, we can continue to have the hard conversations. We have much to say to and learn from each other.