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.