Saturday, April 17, 2010

Guest Post: White Privilege

Today I have an amazing guest post from Maggie who blogs at Bibliophilia-Maggie's Bookshelf. You remember Maggie? I gave her the spotlight yesterday

Take it away Maggie!

I don’t really remember not being aware of the white privilege. I think I was five when I read my first book on Martin Luther King Jr., the same year I started public school kindergarten in the suburbs of Richmond, VA. Not to disparage Richmond, VA, because it’s a beautiful city, but in Richmond, people wave giant Confederate flags in the middle of the road. It’s kind of hard not to be aware, even in kindergarten, that as a middle-class white girl you are being treated differently than your black peers. To be fair, I should say treated by some, not all. To be fair, I should also say PoC peers, but I honestly don’t remember any “colors” besides black and white in my admittedly narrow experiences that year.

Two months into my first semester as a public school kindergartner, I transferred to private school. There was one black kid in my class, who I remember really rubbed me the wrong way. But I remember feeling guilty that he rubbed me the wrong way, because as a black person, wasn’t he entitled to some standard of better five-year-old behavior from me? Yeah, I know. I was a messed-up, anal-retentive five-year-old.

Now that I’m ten years older, and hopefully wiser, and have spent those years in a very different social position from my peers—after kindergarten, my mom started homeschooling me—I’ve realized that this was a somewhat counterproductive reaction. I spent the next four years that I lived in Virginia paralyzed with guilt, obsessed with studying the Civil War, the civil
rights movement, and the seizure of lands from Native Americans by the U.S. government, and constantly worried that I would make some kind of racist or ignorant remark around my friends and neighbors. (Not many of whom were black, and none of whom were of Native American descent.)

I read novel after novel about the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, and the Trail of Tears. If a book had anything remotely PoC related in it, I devoured it. I was dead set on becoming the most racially open-minded kid my age. And in trying that hard, I became so politically correct that I’d feel terribly awkward in any social situation involving someone who was not white. I don’t remember being too freaked out at my bi-racial godmother’s wedding, where I was the flower girl—I think I was distracted by my pretty dress and the blister the
shoes gave me—but I do remember looking back on the pictures and thinking, what did they think of me? Did I say something insensitive? Did I?

When my parents decided to move back to their roots in small-town Minnesota before their divorce, my obsession sort of died. I had emotional trauma to deal with, and besides, there aren’t that many people of color where I live. It became a moot point. Until very recently, when I suddenly realized that I live 30 miles away from a prominent Ojibwe Indian reservation, and a whole new kind of cultural history.

I visited the excellent Indian museum there, and started doing my own research. And even though the tone of the museum certainly wasn’t an accusing one, I could start to feel my old, buried guilt creeping back to me. I found myself hunching over while I walked around the museum with my friends in the homeschool group I was part of at the time, like I was being invited into something sacred that I didn’t deserve to be a part of. I just about melted into a puddle of mortification on the floor when my Minnesota history “teacher”—another homeschooling mom—decided to read the essay on the Ojibwe I’d written for her class to one of the employees of the museum, part-Ojibwe herself.

Then I realized: What am I achieving by feeling guilty? I haven’t enslaved anyone, or stolen someone’s land, or exploited their cultural heritage. So why do I feel so bad? I decided that, every time I started feeling guilty about being entitled to the white privilege, I’d do something to help stop it instead. That way, maybe, I wouldn’t feel so ashamed of my blond hair, green eyes, and pale skin every time I walked into a room with someone different than me. It’s
been a tough decision to hold to. It is so much easier to feel guilty for the actions of your ancestors than to take an action that you and your descendants can be proud of.

But really, those actions are not so tough to take. They can be small. They can be as simple as reading a good book about someone different than you, giving it the same weight you give a book about a protagonist with a racial and cultural background you share, and then sharing your honest opinion with others. Spread the word about PoC lit, especially YA PoC lit, where colorful
protagonists are notoriously difficult to find. Especially after finding Ari’s blog and those like it, it’s what I intend to do as often as I can! Demand accurate cover portrayals of the characters in your favorite novels, and make sure that publishers and bookstores understand that it’s just as profitable to sell books about PoC’s as it is to sell books about white people. Then, maybe, we’ll be a little bit closer to a world where no person of color has to face discrimination, and no white person has to feel guilty for being the beneficiary of that discrimination.

Thank you so much, Ari, for giving me the opportunity to guest post here! =)

Thank you Maggie for sharing such a thoughtful post on the sometimes uncomfortable and ignored issue of white guilt and white privilege. I completely agree that if every white person, acknowledged their white privilege and then did something positive to help change it, the world would be a better place. It would lead to a huge step in understanding between people.


  1. What a powerful essay! Thank you for sharing it, Maggie. And thank you for publishing it, Ari.

    As I was reading about your experiences, Maggie, it reminded me so much of my own childhood, growing up in Houston, Texas during the civil rights movement. And like you, I wanted to read everything I could about the Civil War, the history of the South, and also the history of Mexico. My parents sent me to summer camp when I was 10, and I remember taking along all these books that made my suitcase very heavy and were definitely not the same books the other girls had.

  2. Maggie, when you run for president, you have my vote. Thanks, Ari, for giving her the spotlight here.

  3. This essay reminds me of a quote from Jacqueline's Woodson's "Behind You."

    "You don't think there's one white person in this world...who gets up in the morning and says, "I'm white, so what am I gonna do with this--how am I going to use it to change the world?"

    Maggie, I believe you are one of those people who wakes up and wonders, what can I do to change the world. It doesn't matter whether you're black or white, but the fact that you have found a cause at such a young age. I wish I was that aware when I was your age. I look forward to reading more your blogs and essays.

  4. This is such a great essay and what a positive thing to take from it. I know this past year has changed the buying and reading habits of a lot of people, but it's great to have those who have been working on this idea of action over guilt for so long come out to guide us.

  5. Go, Maggie! Teens like you and Ari give me hope for the future...

  6. Great job, Maggie! thanks for running her essay Ari. It is always so interesting to hear someone else's perspective and experience with something like this. Growing up in southern California I've always known diversity though that doesn't mean the issue is an easy one for any of us

  7. What an amazingly open and honest essay! To have come to these conclusions is amazing for anyone at any age! O, I have to follow your blog to see where you're going to take us!

  8. Pure gold. Inspiring. Comforting. Thanks, girls.

  9. Oh yeah, that's the stuff. :)

    I can relate to so much here, only *my* discoveries came far later in life. What a humbling essay, and so beautifully written.

    Thank you Maggie and Ari!

  10. I love the suggestions at the end of helpful things to do, instead of feeling guilty, such as supporting PoC YA Lit! :-D

  11. Great guest post! I especially love this line, which I couldn't agree with more: "It is so much easier to feel guilty for the actions of your ancestors than to take an action that you and your descendants can be proud of." :)

  12. @Heather H-One of my favorite lines too!

    @Lyn-I can totally see you doing that! At least you make an effort to make your ancestors proud :) The honor was all mine to host Maggie.

    @April-Yeah, me too. Be productive instead of sitting around feeling bad. And you already do that =)

    @Laura-She has my vote too! Although she wants to be an ethnobotanist. So I'll support her in that too :D

    @Najela-That is an amazing quote! If I had read Behind You, it would probably be my Incredible Quote. Thank you for sharing it. Follow Maggie!

    @Jodie-Exactly. Here's a teen who didn't need the whitewashing controversary to wake her up. She was well on her way to promoting equality for all.

    @Zetta-Thank you! Maggie gives me such hope =D

    @Helen-You're welcome, I'm thanking Maggie for writing it. I agree, even if you grow up in a diverse place, you still may not realize about white privilege. Although you are probably aware of it subconsciously

    @campbele-Yay, follow Maggie!

    @nathalie-Amen, pure gold. Cash money 8D

    @Karen-Maggie is a great writer and I can't wait to see what she does with her talent. Thank you for visiting, reading and commenting.

  13. a wonderfully thoughtful post -- thank you, maggie, especially for exhorting us all to forward movement! thanks, ari for posting it; i love the way you share your space with a lovely variety of voices!

  14. @Olugbemisola-I try! But you have planted an idea in my head. I think I'll ask for more guest posts. Especially with exams coming up...

  15. It is so much easier to feel guilty for the actions of your ancestors than to take an action that you and your descendants can be proud of.


    Great post. I really enjoyed it.

  16. Wow, excellent essay! Almost painfully true, so I love that it goes positive at the end with the suggestions for being socially responsible.

  17. This is an incredibly essay, Maggie. I heard so much of my own thoughts in it--thank you!

    And Ari, as always, yay for this blog!


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