For years my parents have told the following story.
In 1958 they were newlyweds, my father worked for the navy and my mother was pregnant with her first child. After settling into an apartment they looked for a church, and they picked the one closest to their apartment. They attended every Sunday and, after their daughter was born, they contacted the parish priest to schedule her baptism. They were shocked to be told they could not have their daughter baptised there. It turns out that the church was the “black” church, and they had to go further down the street to get their daughter baptised in the “white” church. They tell this story to prove that they are not prejudiced. They say “we were so surprised to find out we were at the “black” church; we had no idea”.
I’ve been hearing this story for over 40 years, and the point of the story, according to them, is that they aren’t prejudiced because they spent 8 months at this church and never “noticed” that it was the “black” church.
For 40 years I’ve struggled with this story, because the truth is, they are prejudiced. I won’t repeat the things they say, because they are simply too offensive to repeat, but without a doubt, they are prejudiced.
Today at work, during a discussion about white privelage, it finally dawned on me what that story is really saying. What that story tells us is that my parents, as privileged white people, never bothered to look at their surroundings. They could go, and be accepted, anywhere they went. This belief was so ingrained in them that not once did they feel like they had to look around and assess where they were. And, to add insult to injury, they were annoyed that this church wouldn’t baptise their daughter. Rhis church was the closest to their apartment, so this is where they wanted to be. How dare that priest tell them otherwise.
My parents clearly enjoyed this status, as evidenced by the fact that they felt at home in the “black” church, never even recognizing it as such, until told they didn’t belong there. Never in the telling of this story do they acknowledge that they could move on to a different church, a privelage the black parishioners did not share.
One of my favorite coworkers is married to a black man. He is the kindest, most soft spoken, gentle man I’ve ever met. He grew up in the city, in a section plagued with gangs and unrest, and yes, he got out. He has a good job and he teaches Tai Chi nights and weekends. He is the person my parents would look at and say “see, they can make it if they really want to”. And I can’t argue that. But here’s the thing – he’s not “making it” in a sense that many of us would find enticing. He works for the janitorial department of a hospital, and his family lives week to week. They work their asses off, and have little to show for it. Most of the people I know, and all of the people my parents know, would not consider this “making it”, but for him, for his life and his neighborhood, he’s a sucess story.
The other part of the story is that he gets pulled over by the cops on a regular basis. His wife says he is an annoyingly proper driver, but he still gets pulled over. And they are both afraid. They are afraid he’ll get pulled over one day by the wrong cop.
I don’t know about any of you but I know that when I get pulled over, it never dawns on me that I might be tazed, or shot. White Privilege.
I’ve spent the past 2 years being quiet about my beliefs. I’ve listened to the crap my parents and others spew out as evidence that “black people are the problem” and I’ve said nothing. I’ve even looked up speeches and articles that I’m told are “proof” that black people are out of control, and it’s all bullshit.
Last year Houston was drowned by torrential rains and a hurricane. The city was decimated. Someone made a meme that said “All Cities Matter”, and it took a while for me to get it. The meme (a joke) suggested that Houston should get no preferential treatment, because all cities are important. If we, as a country, followed this advice, we’d have sent no additional aide to Houston. We would have said “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, Houston – you don’t deserve any special services or treatment”. Which is ludicrous! And not what we stand for as a country.
A friend of mine suggested that the reason I am so uncomfortable around my family is that I have not spoken my truth. I’ve spent so much time and energy understanding their point of view I’ve forgotten the fact that They Are Wrong.
& by the way, I do understand where they are coming from. If you look at the lives of black people today versus the 1940’s, you’d be tempted to say “there’s no such thing as prejudice”, because they can go to there are no longer segregated bathrooms and busses. Unfortunately, that is not enough. If we apply the same analogy to Houston, we would help them get the water out of the streets, then walk away. “You’re not flooded anymore” we could say. And while that would be true, it wouldn’t mean that they were in good shape, no longer in need of assistance.
Black people are our Houston. And we owe them more assistance than we’ve given them. And I won’t be quiet about it any longer.