I’ve raised two sons. One is white, and one is black. I did my graduate research in historical race relations in the Americas, and I’ve worked in academia and the nonprofit sector as a language specialist and diversity trainer for about 30 years.
When I read media reports on “Black America” and “White America,” I am saddened, furious and scared. Much of what I read addresses polarization and white privilege — a dynamic I am intimately familiar with. I am relieved that, as a nation, people are protesting en masse, and hopefully, our collective conscience will take notice.
My own experience raising a black son has been an eye-opener. I have watched him be harassed by police at the end of the driveway — they insisted he put a key in the door to prove he lived in our (slightly) upscale neighborhood. They didn’t think he had business being there. After graduating high school, three days before his 18th birthday he was hauled off to the Juvenile Detention Center for breaking curfew; his white counterparts were told to go home. I once got a call from a middle-school teacher who confessed that she was scared of him because he was tall and “he looked like a man.” He was enrolled in an International Baccalaureate program. He was 13.
These are some, but not all, of the incidents he’s suffered. As he approached manhood, they became more frequent, and the potential consequences grew more severe.
My white son has never been exposed to this kind of treatment. When he gets in trouble, he is gently reprimanded, reminded that he’s a role model, and told to go home and think about it.
My black son has been harassed by police for sitting in public spaces.
My white son has not.
Daily, I scroll the local newspapers, looking for shootings involving black men my son’s age. When I read accounts of the shootings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and, more recently, the tasering of Christopher Lollie in my hometown, I think, “it could have been my son.”
And … but … I’m not black. Or brown, or remotely “ethnic” — except that I speak Spanish fluently, which you wouldn’t know if you were speaking English with me, because English is my native language. I work intimately with Spanish-speaking communities, so I know that they, too, are routinely harassed and terrorized.
White privilege is real. I have used it and I know when I’m being discriminated against because of who is standing at my side. I know, because of who my next-of-kin are, that some of my next-of-kin can’t use privilege the way I sometimes do. Nothing eats at my soul more.
Herein lies the problem with our discourse: This is not a black/white issue. We are not “Black America” or “White America.” We are a nation of people related by six degrees of separation, and often, we are closer to one another than six degrees.
It is sometimes argued that white privilege hurts everyone. It does hurt everyone, but that argument is made with a subtext: If white people knew how badly they were hurting themselves, things could change. The subtext maintains a black/white dichotomy. Drawing attention to white privilege becomes important because of how white privilege effects white people. It’s sort of like arguing that domestic violence is an important issue, because it hurts the abuser.
Our abuse of humanity needs to stop because we profess to be one nation, indivisible. Race, religion, language — these don’t tell you anything about integrity.
They also don’t tell you much about interrelatedness. If you passed me on the street, my color wouldn’t tell you very much about me.
You are closer to Trayvon, Michael and Christopher than you might think.
Sara Adams, of St. Paul, is a language and culture specialist.