Like many others, I’ve been thinking about the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for the death of Trayvon Martin. Many articles, interviews and commentaries have informed and moved me, especially those by African-Americans seeking to make sense of a not-guilty verdict that reopened old wounds or rubbed salt in existing wounds. I have also been frustrated by responses that can only be described as thoughtless, mean-spirited and, yes, racist. The incident and all the ensuing discussion have made me reflect again on my own attitudes about race.
I’ve often wondered how my childhood affected my racial attitudes. I lived in Zimbabwe and Zambia during colonial times (i.e., British rule) before independence. I went to whites-only schools; public facilities were separate for “whites” and “blacks” or “coloreds.” For all practical purposes, I lived under a system of apartheid, even if it wasn’t called that, and I don’t remember that it ever bothered me; it was simply the way it was. How did living in that environment affect me, both short-term and long-term?
I came to the United States in the middle of the civil rights movement and not too long before the landmark Civil Rights Act. In 1964, when the Act was passed, I had just graduated from high school, which might explain why, for an assignment in English class during my senior year, I wrote a short story called “Created Equal.” Even though I received an A on the assignment, along with comments about its being “excellent” and on a “powerful theme,” I am sort of embarrassed when I read it now. The story is about an African-American family forced out of their home because of white protests and the family’s struggle to find another home. I’m not sure what made me think I could write with any integrity, accuracy and knowledge about the experience and feelings of African Americans, especially since I didn’t really know any at the time. However, the story does demonstrate that, despite my somewhat condescending and cliche-ridden prose, I was aware of and believed it was wrong for people in the U.S. not to be treated fairly and equally because of the color of their skin. I suppose the story can be seen as evidence of my awakening to the absolute importance of racial justice and reconciliation.
In 1975, Dale and I moved with our 22-month-old daughter to the city of Harrisburg, where we lived for more than 17 years. Dana and Derek both attended the city public school district which at the time was about 70-75 percent African American. At our end of the block, an Indian family (refugees from Idi Amin’s Uganda) lived right across the street, a Puerto Rican family lived a few doors up the street, the neighbors in the other half of our house were Greek/Romanian immigrants, and there were several African-American families. We weren’t the only whites, but we were in the minority. Most of the time, we really liked the diversity – what’s not to like about having a mini-United Nations on your street, or receiving stuffed grape leaves and baklava treats from the neighbors, or running across the street for Indian curry (as Dana often did after she finished dinner at our house)? Both our kids had great friends throughout childhood and adolescence who were not white. Sometimes, however, being in the minority was difficult too. Three short anecdotes illustrate this:
- When she was in middle school, Dana wanted to do a sociological science project that involved conducting a survey of her classmates on their attitudes toward race. The principal (who was white) disallowed the project because he was afraid it would inflame racial tensions, especially since the projects would be displayed right around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a time when he said tensions were always higher. (The irony was not lost on me or Dana!)
- Dana dated mostly African-American and Hispanic boys in high school. One time, when she and an African-American boy were interested in each other, he invited her to his home for a party. When Dana arrived, his mother wouldn’t allow her in the house because she didn’t want her son to go out with white girls.
- Derek was bullied by other boys because he sometimes hung out with African-American girls; the boys made it clear they didn’t want him messing with “their girls.”
I’ve sometimes thought of these and other experiences as examples of reverse discrimination, and at one level maybe they are. But once I became aware of the concept of “white privilege,” I began to see things differently. I first learned about the concept when more than 20 years ago I read an article called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh (1988). That piece, simple and brief though it was, fundamentally changed the way I think about race in the United States. In the article, McIntosh lists multiple ways in which her whiteness gives her privileges and advantages that African-Americans typically don’t have. For example: “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed” or “If a traffic cop pulls me over, or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race,” or “Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.” Understanding white privilege, and more importantly recognizing how I benefit from it every day, doesn’t make what happened to our children any less personally painful, but it does help me put things in perspective.
So when I think about current discussions on race relations in the U.S. and remind myself of the continuing reality of white privilege, I understand the reaction of many African-Americans to the verdict in the George Zimmerman case. Regardless of what the verdict perhaps should have been or what Zimmerman’s intentions were, I’m not surprised at the anger, hurt and frustration when he was found innocent. Whether or not Trayvon Martin did anything wrong, I understand why once again it feels like an African-American was treated unjustly simply because of the color of his skin. I understand what President Obama and so many other African-American men mean when they say, “Trayvon Martin could have been me.”
My high school short story ended with this sentence: “Until things were better, Rosie and Caleb [the mother and father in the story] would have to live as two of the many that were ‘created equal,’ but not treated equal.” Rereading the story almost 50 years later, my feelings about it are mixed. On the one hand, it is embarrassing to realize how stereotypical and condescending my attitudes were toward African-Americans. It is also depressing to note that the last sentence could still be written today – “things” are probably better, but “the many that were ‘created equal'” are still not “treated equal.” On the other hand, the fact that I actually wrote on the topic of race and lamented the sorry state of affairs in 1964 is a positive indication of the journey I had begun toward understanding the nature of racism and trying to do something about it. In the years since I wrote that story, I have been on a long personal journey. I know I’ve stumbled, lost my way, and not liked myself very much sometimes for things I’ve said, done or thought regarding race, but I also know that in my heart I long for genuine racial justice and equality and try to match my actions and words with the desires of my heart.