My mother was flipping through the channels on TV when she came across c-span’s coverage of Chicago’s Black Pride Parade. The images on the TV were nothing that I had ever seen in my everyday life. I was a ten-year-old white girl in the suburbs of St. Louis. I went to a Lutheran grade school with one student that wasn’t white. Needless to say, my world wasn’t exactly diversified. The newness of the images mixed with my inherent fear of the unknown led me to scrunch up my nose and regurgitate the rhetoric I heard on a daily basis in my whitewashed life, “Why do they get a parade when if white people had a parade it would be called racist?”
It seemed like a fair question to me, but my mother jumped on me. “Stephanie, what do you think Oktober Fest is? Lots of things celebrate being white, how can you say that?” She had a look of disgust on her face that came from wondering where her child learned such intolerant ideas. I began to cry.
She apologized for reacting so angrily, but maintained her ground. She taught me that being white meant we never experienced racism like African Americans and other marginalized groups. We were given inherent privileges for our skin color, and having a White Pride parade would be redundant. Our everyday lives were white pride days.
Being aware of white privilege was disturbing. I didn’t want to think of myself as the bad guy, and knowing that my passive behavior was perpetuating racism was very upsetting. As a result, it was easy for me to begrudge other groups their cultural and ethnic pride because I didn’t notice my culture’s dominant position.
A decade later, I’ve begun to notice the small things. I enter a McDonalds and no one notices me, yet when some African American teenagers walk in they’re watched like hawks. I’m never in a position at my university where I am a minority. I am rarely uncomfortable in a situation just because of my skin color. Sometimes I forget, but every once in a while I notice the uncomfortable white faces or the sideways glances and it brings me back to that day my mother taught me about what was going on.
This question rolls around in my head like a scrolling marquee, “What can I do to make a difference?” I don’t know the answer, but I do know there is a Zen saying, “A thousand mile journey begins with one step.” That first step is recognizing my privilege, and at some point those other steps are going to fall into place. This I believe.
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