Wait! White privilege? Me? I’m no more privileged than anyone I know…
It was Week 3 of a nine-week lesson in awareness that I hope I’ll never forget — and wish I’d taken years ago. Building Bridges of Asheville is one part awakening, two parts “whack upside the head” and nine parts “meet you halfway,” as in “This is what life is like for us African-Americans here in the Asheville area. If you want to help change that, will you meet us halfway?”
We were given a worksheet titled “White Privilege” and asked to score each of the 26 statements with a 5 if “always true,” 3 if “sometimes true” and 1 if “seldom true.” Statements like:
“I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.”
Well, no one’s ever said to me, “Great job! You’re a credit to Caucasians everywhere!” Gets a 5.
“I can swear, dress in secondhand clothes or not answer letters without having people attribute those choices to bad morals or the poverty or illiteracy of my race.”
OK: Another 5.
“If a police officer pulls me over, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.”
Won’t argue that one: 5.
When we’d finished, all 100-plus participants were told to line up side by side, based on our total scores (highest to lowest). My total (107) put me deep in white territory, while the African-Americans, whose scores ranged from 30 to 70, were to the far left. I’d racked up enough friggin’ points to be in the White Privilege Hall of Fame (if there was one). It also made me realize how much I didn’t know about being black. I’ve had black friends, neighbors and/or co-workers all my life, but I’ve never lived a black life.
That night, I realized that white privilege isn’t what I’m aware of but what I’m not aware of — something that’s been going on since long before white slave owners penned the words “All men are created equal.”
This privilege manifests itself as “microaggressions” — saying or doing things that may seem well-intended but come across as the exact opposite. Saying things like “When I look at you, I don’t see color” may seem harmless, even generous. But what an African-American likely hears is a denial of his or her racial and ethnic experience.
If you think there’s no validity to this then why, more than 50 years after Selma, Martin Luther King and civil rights, do we have Black Lives Matter? Or, at the local level, the countless groups and events striving for racial equality, such as the Racial Justice Coalition, the YWCA’s Stand Against Racism and the YMI Cultural Center… the annual MLK prayer breakfasts and Montreat Conference Center’s August 2015 “Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda”? And websites and blogs like the State of Black Asheville, The Urban News and Asheville Action?
And why did a recent CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll find that racism is a bigger problem now than 20 years ago, when O.J. Simpson and Rodney King commanded headlines? Back then, 41 percent called racism a “big problem.” Last November, 49 percent said it.
“White privilege” and racism “are systemic,” says Audrey Yatras, co-chair of Building Bridges’ board. They’re also “an umbrella. Underneath is everything else: housing, education, jobs, criminal justice, health care,” and they extend “into neighborhoods, our youth.” To whites who claim they’re blameless for racism’s continued prevalence, Yatras says, “Just because you didn’t own slaves…”
What might set Building Bridges apart is that it goes deep — really deep — into a person’s psyche, to help identify what’s needed to bridge the racial gap. When white privilege is truly history, when the microaggressions are history, then both races will be able to meet with identities intact. The program brings local signs of discrimination to light and turns it all deeply, maybe painfully inward, until we can feel discrimination.
The sessions are split in two: For the first hour, everyone listens to speakers and views statistics about the topics mentioned by Yatras. Then we form small groups led by two facilitators (one white, one African-American), and that’s when it gets down ’n’ dirty. As co-facilitator Scott Owens told me, African-American participants know and live those stats. In the small-group sessions, whites hear how their privilege and microaggressions can cut to the quick. Owens says blacks, in effect, can say, “I’m so sick of what you’re doing to me! Whew! I feel better.”
Of course, it doesn’t always play out that way. Some participants drop out, some sit on their hands and watch the clock, and some passively twiddle their thumbs. Because a lot of what’s discussed is, to varying degrees, painful or embarrassing.
During one small-group session, an African-American told of being late to meet a visiting friend at a downtown restaurant. When she called to say she’d be there in 15 minutes, the friend asked softly, “Is it OK if I wait here?” The woman said, “Why wouldn’t it be OK?” and her friend said, more softly, “There are no other blacks here. Will I be safe?”
In another session, an African-American told of being in a supermarket checkout line. The white woman in front of her paid by swiping her debit card; the clerk handed her the receipt and smiled. But when the black woman was about to swipe her debit card, the clerk sternly asked for an ID.
That was in Asheville — a city where white residents display “coexist,” “diversity” and other such bumper stickers. A city whose roughly 500 eateries serve everything from barbecued ribs to baba ghanoush, but no soul food (Chameleon Soul Food restaurant closed in 2011).
It’s not just a question of racist comments, Yatras told Xpress last March. “Not being able to get a loan for your house, only being able to live in certain places, only being able to put your children in certain schools — those are institutional things that are much harder to overcome.”
During those nine weeks, a retired banker told us how rampant such practices as mortgage redlining were until recently. A woman gave a gut-wrenching account of how her grandmother was subtly forced out of the “squeaky-clean” home she’d owned “like, forever” to make way for “affordable housing.” An educator talked about black high schoolers having to drop out and get full-time jobs to support a single parent.
So, now that I’ve “seen the enemy, and he is me,” what am I going to do about it? Have I purged white privilege and started walking over the bridge?
Let’s find out! Before writing this article, I had a chat with Yatras. I told her that I know two interracial couples, that I’d lived in a public housing project as a kid and that, back then, “I didn’t know color.”
OK, so I still have some “white privilege” within, which is why I’m writing this. Who knows? Maybe others who are like the pre-Building Bridges me will want to find out just how unintentionally privileged they are. It’s too late to sign up for the next nine-week session, but there’ll be another one in the fall.
And if you can’t wait that long, consider the last statement in the “White Privilege” handout:
“I can choose blemish color or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.”
I gave it a 5. What about you?
Mike L. Czeczot is a forcibly retired newspaper writer and editor now living with the love of his life in Black Mountain. For more information about the program, visit buildingbridges-ashevillenc.org.