I sometimes wonder if I’ve been cursed rather than blessed because I tend to see shades of gray rather than only blacks and whites. I’ve been thinking about that especially recently as we (as a country) have been dealing with the incredibly different ways people of different races have seen events.
“Privilege” is one of those terms that can bring sharp reactions…especially when paired with a color adjective, as in “white privilege.” I used to bristle at that myself, but maybe this is one of those times when age begins to allow me to see it in a different way. I am a white woman…somewhat past middle age. And while there are some things I don’t think are necessarily fair in my life experiences,
I have come to realize that there are ways in which I am privileged (and have been privileged). Some of this perspective comes from hindsight–and some of it is still pretty new. I remember coming of age in the 60s…and being aware of the civil rights movement, but not totally understanding at that point why it was necessary. Yet I walked quite frequently past a housing area just a couple blocks away that the city didn’t seem to care about…and it was populated by folks who were a different color than me. I never really wondered why that area was so ignored…or why the people who lived there were uncomfortable responding to my greetings. Nor did I understand my mother’s reaction a couple of years later when I invited an African-American friend home to stay with us. My mother was fine with it–but she let all of our neighbors know what was going on so that they would not be unkind or cruel to Gwen.
In later years, when Gwen and I would compare notes on our sons–who were about the same ages–our concerns and fears for our sons were so different. I worried about my son making a stupid mistake (and he made several of them during his teenage years!) and hurting himself in some way. Gwen worried about whether they would be pulled over for some small driving mistake and being treated as sub-humans…and whether they would simply be coming home safely.
I have never had the experience of my right to vote being questioned. I have not had family members beaten simply because of the color of their skin. I have not lived with the legacy of lynching…of mob violence in other forms…of fear at looking someone in the eyes and wondering how they would react. Not personally.
And I think that in some ways that imprints itself in our psychological DNA. Yes, it can be overcome…and yes, it’s not true for everyone.
But to have lived with that fear as a part of your history for generations colors perspective…just as my living with the privileges I have experienced as a white person have colored mine. To say that this perspective should simply (and easily) be set aside ignores the fact that these inequities still exist in so many places in our society. To acknowledge those inequities brings the possibility of dialogue, of learning from each other, of beginning to make changes in ourselves and our society.
Stephen Covey says it this way: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Perhaps if we all try to live that way, we can begin to make the changes we want.