My early childhood memories are quite a spotty blur. My dad was Army, so I was on school number three, at least, by third grade. But I remember one moment clear as a bell. It was in first grade and there was this one black boy in my class who always, always, always drank white milk instead of chocolate. And, I mean, what kid on Earth prefers white milk to chocolate, right? So one day, I asked him why he preferred white milk. You've already read his answer.
Think about that...this kid was in first !@#$%& grade and understood all about white privilege. And in that moment, I did too, though it would be years and years before I really grokked it.
For third grade, we moved to Washington, D.C. I lived by the Dalecarlia reservoir and attended Francis Scott Key Elementary School. It was very racially diverse. I had a friend who's family hailed from Thailand. There was a girl from Brazil. And of course, several of my classmates were African American. We all played together without a second thought.
In eighth grade, we had a student dance. I told my mom I was going with Jamal. On the day of the dance, he showed up and we went and had a great time. On the day after the dance, mom said to me "You could have warned me that he was black!" Why didn't I? Because Jamal was Jamal; I didn't give it a second thought.
Flip to high school, when I was telling mom and dad that I was going to the amusement park with Chris, Sheila and Dave. Dad said "Who's Sheila?" I said "The black girl, dad." Mom said "Don't say that!" I didn't see a problem with it. I viewed Sheila's skin as being as random a descriptor as saying "Chris is the redhead." I just didn't give it a second thought.
But I've thought about that boy from first grade my entire life. I wanted to cry when he said that, not because I "understood," but because one would have to have been dead to not be moved by how he said it. So, when I was formally introduced to the concept of white privilege, I needed no further explanation. I thought of him and it was all crystal clear. Everything clicked.
I had always perceived the PoC in my life as being no different from me and did not personally witness anyone being treated differently than I was. What I finally understood was that my experience was far from universal and that there was a completely different reality going on elsewhere, that some people just did not have access to the same opportunities. Once I started to look around and give things that second thought, I couldn't believe I once believed we had moved past race in America.
I listened to the oldies:
I listened to Parliament:
I listened to bands like NWA and Public Enemy:
I followed the Rodney King story:
Cuz everybody in the 'hood has had it up to here. It's getting harder and harder and harder each and every year. Some kids went into the store with their mother. I saw her when she came out; she was getting some Pampers.
They said it was for the black man. They said it was for the Mexican and not for the white man. But if you look at the street, it wasn't about Rodney King. It's this fucked up situation and these fucked up police. It's about coming up and staying on top and screamin' 187 on a muthafuckin' cop.
It's not in the paper; it's on the wall.
I read things like this from Whoopi Goldberg:
Well when I was nine years old Star Trek came on and she said, 'I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, "Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick. There's a black lady on television and she ain't no maid!"' And she said, "I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be."
I read perspectives like these, from one of the best articles ever about 9/11:
I watched from my window, not on television, as the twin towers fell. As shocked as I was, I felt that this was not my problem as a black person. The people who worked at the World Trade Center were mostly white men, and so they had nothing to do with me as a black woman.
When there was an outpouring of grief and donations from every corner of the United States, I said to myself, If those planes had flown into a housing project and the victims were poor blacks and Latinos, people in Missouri wouldn't give a damn. When I heard that there had been over $1 billion in private donations, I asked myself where was this money before? Why hadn't it been donated to help the homeless, children who do not have access to an education, people who do not have access to healthcare? Here we have people rushing to write checks to people whose families will be taken care of by insurance or their employers.
To me, 9/11 was just another example of the American paradigm of deservedness and white entitlement.
There's always been a joke among African-Americans about black folks and white folks during a disaster. My father was quick to point out a black woman who had managed to get out of the towers when she was actually on a floor above where the plane hit and she was still trying to get out of downtown when the reporter stopped her.
The fact that tons of white people just stood there near the towers looking before they fell cracked him up. It confirmed the stereotype of white folks never thinking anything is ever going to happen to them. And since black people are used to fucked-up crap happening to them all the time they were trying to get the hell out of there.
Of course I spotted a few African-Americans looking lost. My dad just said that they've been around white people too damn long. Real black folks run.
And I understood, through others' experiences, that we still have a lot of work to do regarding race.
“It is the province of knowledge to speak, and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen.” - Oliver Wendell Holmes
There is no escaping the fact that Obama is black and so discussions of politics will often have racial considerations for the foreseeable future. So, discussions of race and racism are necessary. The election of Barack Obama and the teabagger response to it demonstrates incontrovertibly that we still have a long way to go as a country. That's the bad news.
The good news is that we on the left are already united by the issues that best serve to combat the various isms dividing America: well funded public education everywhere, support for single parents and families on the edge, social justice, equality, the basic human right of dignity, etc. There is so much more that unites us -- white, black, yellow, green, progressive, centrist, moderate, whoever -- than keeps us apart. And we need each other, so we really need to able to discuss the legacies of institutionalized racism as they pertain to politics today.
The level playing field of opportunity that is the promise of America is something we can all work to fulfill. Only when it is clear to every child here that he/she can grow up to be and do anything will America have met that promise.