I grew up with clarity that we treat everyone equal. That the color of our skin doesn’t matter because we are all the same.
I grew up with clarity that we love all people the same. That our religion doesn’t matter because we are all the same.
I grew up with clarity that as a girl, who would someday become a woman, I had all the rights of men and that I could do whatever I wanted to do with my life.
I love my parents for this. I have this sense of sunshine optimism and love that is like a force field all around me even on dark, cold, and brutally racist and sexist nights. I live in white privilege.
To grow up the way my parents raised me was wonderful. I skipped along believing that we all should be treated equally and that anything else was just wrong and against some really big law somewhere. What I didn’t know is that some kids hear something different. I assumed everyone knew what I knew, that it doesn’t matter what color skin we are born with, we all have the same opportunities. I was so wrong.
Some kids grow up with whispers of caution in their ear and serious conversations at the table about the color of their skin. The color of your skin does matter. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, imagine the worst case scenario. That can happen. It doesn’t matter if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have dark skin so you are more likely to get in trouble. You’ll be profiled. You’ll have to prove you’re smart because before your teacher even knows your name, they will have already stereotyped you as coming from a poor and broken family – before they even know your name. You will face adversity. Life is not fair. Living in fear is how you survive so try your best to stay out of trouble.
The color of your skin does matter.
I didn’t hear that. I didn’t hear that being white means I wake up every morning with all the doors around me wide open. I don’t even have to push a door open. I can just walk right through to whatever opportunity is waiting for me. I know, I’m a woman, I might need to push one or two doors open but it is probably cracked a bit, I doubt it is latched and it certainly isn’t locked. At least not that I know of yet. I own my own business so I know what it is like to fight some injustices. But based on how I was raised it doesn’t occur to me not to fight. It doesn’t occur to me that fighting might be a waste of time or put me in a bad position. It doesn’t occur to me that I might not win. That is white privilege. I feel like I have the right to what I want. I feel protected by the law. But what I’m really protected by is our white privilege society.
Living in white privilege can look pretty obnoxious sometimes. I never saw it for what it was because it just isn’t taught to white kids. I want to apologize for what it looks like and for what it is even though I’m not supposed to. It looks a little bit like this:
It was 2001. I was living in Mexico with Carlos, my dark skinned, Mexican husband. We were married. Carlos owned a restaurant; I was staying at home taking care of our 6 month old son, Alex. I had a US passport and Carlos had his tourist visa. We were traveling to North Carolina for a family reunion and we had a layover in Dallas. Carlos went through one line for non US citizens and Alex and I went through a different line. Friends like us had told us to pretend we weren’t traveling together. I don’t remember why. I imagine it is because it seems more likely to Immigration Officers that we would be entering with the intent to stay if we were all together. I traveled with confidence (a sign of white privilege shining brightly). It didn’t occur to me that we’d have problems. I never have problems and when I do I can easily talk my way out of them. I ask for the supervisor. I stomp my feet a little, bat my eyelashes and that usually does the trick.
Carlos had directed me that if anything went wrong I was to keep going and not wait for him or stop or look for him. This was very unfamiliar to me. But I wasn’t nervous. Everything would be fine. It always is. I’m guessing that people with brown skin don’t have that kind of faith in the system. Why should they?
I was watching out of the corner of my eye as they pulled Carlos out of the line and directed him to a room. He went in and they shut the door. I froze. I stopped. I didn’t keep going. I waited. I paced back and forth. My heart was beating so hard and so fast. I looked for signs of something. I peeked in the windows where he was being questioned. I was freaking my shit out. I hadn’t forgotten what he had told me. I just couldn’t imagine actually leaving him there now that it was happening. I was putting him in jeopardy and as I stood outside of that room looking suspicious he was freaking out way more than I was and I was making it worse.
Finally they released him. He walked out and pretended he didn’t know me and it hit me full force that I had totally screwed up. I reacted quickly and kind of flounced about pretending to get something out of the stroller before making my way to the luggage area where he was. We didn’t walk together or talk again until we were at the gate waiting for our next flight. He told me everything that happened. He never got upset with me. He never even asked me why I hadn’t just kept going like we had talked about.
It wasn’t until after the Racial Justice Summit last month that I made time for myself to think about some things that I had never thought about. Like, what does it mean to be white, why do I feel bad that I’m white sometimes and what is white privilege anyway? As my brain worked hard and my heart felt with intensity, the memory of Carlos getting pulled into the scary immigration room at the Dallas airport came flooding back to me, along with other moments growing up. I understand oppression and hear horror stories about people that are wrongly deported or maybe rightly so based on law but wrongly so based on everything else that makes sense in my world. I know those stories and they make me mad and I want to fight something, someone. But I never realized that I had my own stories.
The way I reacted at the airport was the reaction of a white girl. That is what white privilege looks like at least as I am starting to see it. And you know what it feels like? It feels like a lion standing on a high ridge. Proud, big, powerful. Can you picture Simba at the end of the Lion King movie looking over his kingdom? Or in my case maybe a big Mama Bear is a better image. Like no one can mess with my husband. It doesn’t matter what color skin he has or where he is from. We are married and I’m a US citizen. We have a son. We live in Mexico with no intent of moving to the US right now. We are good people. We aren’t doing anything wrong. You can’t mess with that. And you won’t. Because I have people I can call. Because I can talk like you. Because I have a college education and I know how to work the system. I know my rights. And if I don’t know them, I sure as hell can hire an attorney to protect me and my family from injustice. I have resources. I have white skin.
Skin color does matter. Being white changes things for people. I get it.
Now that I’m starting to understand the privilege I was born with at a deeper level I am feeling a heavy weight of responsibility. Not just as a person with white skin, but as the mother to white (ok, kind of brownish whitish) boys that I am blessed with. I don’t want to screw this up. But more importantly I want to see this change. What if the way I grew up could be the reality? How can we get there? What needs to happen? Or maybe that isn’t even the question. Maybe the question is even bigger than that. For me, this is where I’m at. I’m being honest about what it has meant for me to grow up white and privileged. I’m going to raise my kids to know that the conversations at the table aren’t always the same. And I’m going to continue to challenge the wrongs I see in the world so we can live in love, with everyone.
Let me know if there is something else I can do because I’m devoted.