The past few days, I’ve been mulling over what to write, and my thoughts always returned to the tragedy at Charlottesville. I couldn’t quite figure out what to say, and this evening, I was flicking down my Facebook feed when I saw my neighbor, Kim Tarver, posted something profound on the subject. Now, with her permission, I am reposting her words here.
It was a day of fun. A dear friend from California had come to Mississippi for a visit. We were invited to a Kentucky Derby party, so off we went in search of some giant hats to wear. We found a clothing store that we thought would have some big hats. So in we went. There were several racks of hats. We giggled and laughed like little girls in a kitten store and tried on as many as we wanted. I looked especially silly, because I had left my glasses in the car, and being half blind without them, I wore my prescription sunglasses into the store. A kind and beautiful black sales associate tolerated our silliness without a hint of annoyance. We finally settled on the two hats we wanted, purchased them and walked out wearing them with our hot summer day shorts on.
Since it was right next door, we decided to go into a frilly gift shop that I had visited many times before. My friend and I, still donning our giant hats, and me still wearing my prescription sunglasses walked in to peruse all the pretty gifts.
The salespeople in this white lady store, were of course, ALL white ladies. One of them hurried over to ask if she could help us find something. “No ma’am, we’re just browsing today.” We were still giggling and chatting together while we walked around the store looking at all the pretty things. Except that all the things there weren’t so pretty. The sales lady continued to follow us closely asking several more times if there was something we would like to buy. My friend and I looked at each other, a bit confused as to why she didn’t seem to understand the word BROWSING. We kept on looking, becoming more and more annoyed at this woman following us through the store with every step.
Then it dawned on me.
With my head and eyes covered, I posed a threat to her collection of pretty things. I whispered to my friend, “She thinks we might steal something”. I felt my face flush with embarrassment. Shame, really. I actually felt ashamed. I took off my glasses, thinking that she would realize that I’m a regular WHITE LADY, just being a little silly with my friend.
But she didn’t. She kept right on following. That pissed me off. And we promptly left. I hated her then. And vowed never to shop there again.
I was really angry for about 30 seconds. Until the thought crossed my mind that that’s what women of color experience time after time after time when they walk into a store in my beloved town. I knew that because I have heard some of them speak about it. On occasion I have witnessed it happening with my own two eyes. And up until that day, seeing women profiled in that way only mildly angered me. You know, because I hate racism and all.
But that day, with my giant hat and sunglasses I FELT it. I felt the ugliness of it penetrate the bubble of MY WHITE PRIVILEGE. And my eyes were opened a bit.
Until that day, the phrase “white privilege” existed in an ideological box in my mind. Something that I had taken time to think about. Something that bothered me, and made me wish that the world – my Mississippi world – was different. But that day. The day I accidentally covered up the tiniest bit of my privilege, it was reified for me.
I grieved all the regular every days that my friends with dark skin smile and politely endure so many ugly things.
I grieved all the times I just EXPECTED to be treated with the kindness and respect that the black associate in the hat store bestowed upon me. And how often I had received similar graciousness from so many other women, who themselves would likely never have the privilege of EXPECTING. How often I had taken that grace and not even noticed it. Because it just belongs to me. I wear it on my pale skin. It was stolen for me long before I was born and no one can really take it away.
I grieved at how very far I had to go in turning over the rocks in my head and finding ugly things there. Things like feeling ashamed of not being a regular entitled WHITE LADY for a few seconds one day. Things like reacting, internally at least, with disdain when I had encountered an angry woman of color. After all, I don’t say nigger. And I never owned slaves or condoned it. That was a long time ago. Get over yourself, angry black woman. You’ve never been a slave.
My own ugliness. My tacit compliance with the white power structures that systemically maintain my precious white privilege. My sense of entitlement to being treated with the utmost of respect by everyone I meet.
I don’t know the solutions. Those power structures are entrenched in our institutions, in our justice system, in our neighborhoods. In. Our. Churches.
It’s overwhelming. This week I was surprised at the number of angry young white men that showed up in Charlottesville, many of them waving our precious state flag.
But here’s the thing. The people of color I know aren’t surprised. They aren’t surprised at all. I have the privilege of being surprised at the ugliness that they have seen clearly and frequently their entire lives.
Would you do something with me if you are one of my white friends? Would you commit to looking inside for the weeds of prejudice that have grown up without your awareness? Especially if you were patient enough to read this lengthy post and something about it makes you uncomfortable? Or if you are white and your immediate internal response is to think “that’s right, Kim. Call out those other white people who are racist and don’t even know it!”
Prejudice is largely hidden to us. It is something that is hard to find in ourselves. But it is there. I believe it is ubiquitous in any dominant race. And if our world is going to change for the better, we HAVE to start with our own hearts.
Would you consider spending some time in thought about that today? I will. It is a work that I will keep doing with my own heart until the world IS better. It’s small in the grand scheme of things. But it’s the only place I know to start.