Many years ago my family went on vacation several states away from where we lived. An incident occurred there that had devastating results for us. The town where this happened opened their hearts and pocket books to us, giving us a place to stay while some of us were in the hospital so we didn’t have to stay at a hotel, as well as paying for our airfare back home when it was all over. We made friends with some of the townsfolk then, friendships that lasted decades. Despite the tragedy that occurred, we continued to travel in the same direction, stopping in the town to visit our new friends.
One set of these friends moved to the deep south a few years back and as it was a bit farther from where we lived we weren’t able to visit very often. But that was ok, we still called and wrote letters. A few days ago my mother, K, was talking to her friend down in Georgia, and, perhaps wondering how much of the Southern stereotypes were true, asked her friend how they were feeling about their new president.
There was a long pause. “Well, we can’t all get what we want.”
My mom was not terribly surprised by this as she had suspected they tended to vote Republican. But our friend continued: “he is black, you know.”
Now K is taken aback. Taken off guard, she asks about the neighbourhood. Apparently a lot of people are pissed and the KKK is talking openly about finding out who in the town voted Democrat and “getting them.” Now my mother is really alarmed. “Really?” she asks, incredulously.
“Well, he is black.”
At this point it’s all sinking in and K, not knowing how to deal with this development, stutters about the doorbell and it was nice talking toyougottagonowbye.
When she told me this, I had to keep asking her about exactly what was said in that conversation. I kept asking her if she was sure that “well he is black” was spoken of when the friend was talking about her feelings, and not those of her racist neighbours. But no, alas, that’s how it went down. As I write this I’m thinking that it might be surprising that we didn’t know they were this way. I guess we never talked about politics enough to know they were staunch Republicans? Certainly K wasn’t surprised that they voted for McCain, but I would imagine that if they never would have voted Democrat that that would have become evident over the decades that we’ve known them? My guess, as I interacted with them the most as a child and thus didn’t really talk about politics, is that they leaned toward conservative most of the time but were not dyed in the wool party faithfuls.
And certainly we were not aware of just how racist they were. This is, in large part, because we’re white. Duh. Certainly if we were black we would have found out earlier! As my mother and I were talking about this new information about them, both of us quite upset, my mom said “would they have helped us back then if we were black?”
And it hit me, this galling understanding that, no, they probably wouldn’t have. And the town likely wouldn’t have opened their hearts and pocketbooks and houses (literally) if we had been black. Emergency personnel would likely have done their jobs, yes, but probably that paramedic wouldn’t have let us stay in his house while he and his family went on vacation. But, maybe other people in the community would have helped us, but as it was a predominantly white town, that help would likely have been much smaller. I probably wouldn’t have met the mayor.
I know, I know, say hello to my white privilege! *declines shaking hands* Disgusted to meet you.
I found it interesting that the first emotion that I felt after hearing about this conversation was betrayal. Ok, first there was shock and dismay. But mostly betrayal. I think K and I feel betrayed by this revelation, even though we are not on the receiving end of this bigotry. Is that my white privilege showing itself again? Or is that us automatically seeing people of colour as like us, easily could be us, might as well be us, so that a friend’s betrayal of our (everyone’s) common humanity became a betrayal to us, even though we’re white? It’s just that betrayal seems a bit of an odd feeling to have, since they didn’t reject us/ignore us/leave us on the side of the road because of our race. But that they might have, if our biology were different, indicates a degree of seeing us as members of a certain class rather than just as people. And while being of the “right” class helped on this occasion, it is still ultimately not about just helping us as people. But about helping other white people.
The more I think about it the more appalled I get.
I’m not really sure, and I’m still trying to sort out what’s behind these feelings. I feel like I’m stumbling around in the dark somewhat – that there’s a dynamic that I’m missing or not explaining well. So I’m processing aloud, for all the world to see. I’m not attached to any of these feelings – meaning I have no problem in thinking that my response is connected to the problems of white supremacy itself; I’m not going to defend it. Maybe this is me being full of shit? Could be, and I’m willing to take the lumps for that and hopefully grow. I do think I’m leaning towards a both/and scenario. I think it is both my white privilege at work when someone’s racism feels like a betrayal to me, a white person (kind of like co-opting an oppression, in a weird way, if that makes sense). But I also think it’s a betrayal of our common humanity. If you feel differently, by all means feel free to tell me. I certainly don’t expect anyone to educate me about anti-racism, and I will continue to think about this and process it. I just want to make sure you knew that y’all are welcome to call me out on my shit. Hell, you’re always welcome to call me on my shit.