A White Woman's Thoughts About White Privilege, Police Brutality, and Racism in General
In a world filled with hate be peace.— "Be a Light" - Thomas Rhett
This isn’t an easy topic to discuss, but it’s been weighing heavily on my heart lately. Probably because the concept of white privilege has become wrapped up in the topic of police brutality, injustices within the judicial system, and race in general. I’m nothing more than an almost middle-aged white woman, which means to some people my opinion doesn’t matter. But I think love is the answer. True love for our fellow human beings means the same thing it does when we love a lover, family, or friends. It doesn’t always mean agreeing with one another. It doesn’t always mean we like one another. It means things like kindness, compassion, understanding, and respect. Respect is a prerequisite for almost everything else in a relationship. With that in mind, I respectfully hold true to my opinions until someone has a compelling enough reason to change them.
When I was young, it never occurred to me to ask my grandparents what it was like during the Civil Rights era. I learned about it and I recognized racism from extended family members, but I never questioned what it was like from a white family’s perspective even while simultaneously fascinated and saddened about the other perspective. As an adult living in the south, I have heard more about the white perspective than I ever wanted to know. I cringe when I hear stories about injustices that happened during that time, especially when I hear someone brush it off with something similar to “that’s just the way it was back then” like it was never morally wrong to begin with. I can’t say what it’s like to be in the shoes of someone whose family history passes down the pain of being victimized that way, especially when that part of this nation’s history is not ancient history; there are people still alive who lived through it. Relatively speaking, slavery wasn’t that long ago, either. I have an enormous amount of empathy for what happened in the past and the legacy it left for today. It all led to this point in time when what is happening in the world brings me to tears. How do we change things here and now while being truly progressive in regards to race relations if we keep perpetuating the same things and no one wants to listen to any other narrative than the one that seems to be most popular? Both literally and figuratively speaking, it isn’t a black and white issue. There are gray areas. There are areas of color.
That said, how can someone like me fully participate in anything meaningful with a sincere heart when I am told that my opinion doesn't matter? My thoughts are invalid and passed off as white privilege, as if I haven’t taken the time to think and to research before taking a stance and following my heart when forming my opinions. It’s frustrating, but what really stands out to me is that the people telling me these things are also white. Who are these white people to tell me that I am hurting my black friends or black people in general because of my opinions or because I dared to share them? My intentions have never been to hurt anyone. My thoughts are on healing friendships and crossing chasms, not creating more division. I realize the issue of race has always been around, despite vast improvements to the injustices of our past. I realize that being white puts me on what some might call the wrong side when it comes to history and race relations, but I have a voice that I intend to use.
Both literally and figuratively speaking, it isn’t a black and white issue. There are gray areas. There are areas of color.
Worldwide Beautiful - Kane Brown
Lady Antebellum/Lady A Controversy
I’ll start with the Lady Antebellum and Lady A controversy. For those of you who are unaware, it all started when Lady Antebellum, an all white country band, did some soul-searching and reached the conclusion that they should change their band’s name due to the word ‘antebellum’ having ties to the Civil War and slavery era. Before they made their official debut in 2006, they named themselves after the antebellum style homes in the south, never meaning any disrespect. But after more than a decade, they have decided to officially start going by Lady A, a nickname fans have called the band for many years. It probably seemed like a no-brainer, considering their nickname has been so well-known that even radio DJ’s referred to them by their nickname quite often. The trio did not anticipate any disputes after making a formal public announcement.
However, soon after the announcement was made, blues singer Anita White spoke up to say that she already went by the name Lady A and had been doing so at least twice as long as the trio has been a band. White’s initial reaction led her to proclaim that “for [Lady Antebellum] not to even reach out [to her] was pure privilege.” This prompted someone to post the above article on FB, along with a plea for white people to stop being so self-centered and selfish. It sparked a debate between myself and the person who posted it. A few other ladies joined in to take up a stance against me and it went round and round in circles. Their objective was to get me to realize that white privilege is a thing, except that I never said it wasn’t. They also seemed to want me to admit that I am part of the problem because of my superior attitude. None of these women appeared to pay attention to the point I was actually trying to make, which is what I have already said. Taking white privilege to extremes is a mistake and, in my opinion, more harmful to equality than transformative.
It’s hard to live in color when you just see black and white.— "Be a Light" - Thomas Rhett
How Is It Harmful?
How exactly is the notion of white privilege harmful to racial equality? For starters, it is not feasible to expect that every time a white person makes a decision he or she must first consider if it might be construed as white privilege. For instance, in keeping with the Lady A example, in order for Lady Antebellum to have been acting out of white privilege they would first have had to believe there was a black artist somewhere out there already using the name Lady A. They might have thought to research better if they weren’t already known by their nickname as well as their actual name for so many years without a single complaint from any other artist by the same name, but that is not white privilege either. In order to act out of white privilege or any sort of ignorance to white privilege, one must first assume the other person or persons involved are not white. Why would they have any reason to assume this when they were unaware of her existence in the first place? One could say their original name might be attributed to white privilege (or maybe more accurately, white ignorance), but not their lack of knowledge about a blues singer by the same name as their nickname/new name. There were definitely no racist intentions.
Also, it is offensive to white people to be accused of white privilege when they have not lived a privileged life. Are we as white people still to this day supposed to assume that each time we gain a promotion in the workplace that it was due to being privileged. Are we to second-guess our hard work and ability to earn our successes? Vice versa, is anyone from another race supposed to second-guess their hard work as they climb up the ladder of success? Should they wonder if they really earned it or if they were just handed a new title due to the color of their skin? In the last couple of decades, you should have noticed there is a lot more diversity in the entertainment industry, both music and film. Even television commercials are showing more diversity in their ads than ever before. In the corporate world, there is also more diversity on all levels of the ladder. Law enforcement, too, has more diversity than it used to at the higher levels of command. Especially given all the diversity around us, no one wants to question their true worth. Success is earned and not given to you by nepotism or skin color - unless you truly have been privileged.
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Police and Racism
All that said, I do believe that racism exists and I do believe that it can be shown toward white people as well, although that isn’t as commonly expressed in ways that have sparked the nationwide protests. I have known people in dire need for housing that the government housing facility couldn’t offer a home to because of the mandated racial diversity quotas. There are more scholarships available to minorities, which makes it harder for poor white Americans to get assistance for education. But neither of these two examples speak to racism. They are two more examples of how privilege is not for all whites, especially economically. However, in close relation to that, I have also known people who went to an organization for utility assistance and were turned down only to learn that friends of a different race did receive assistance that same day at a later time. I’m not saying there is a racial reason for that, but in an area where whites are the minority, it’s not impossible and the question lingers at the back of the mind.
When it comes to the police, I do believe that racism exists most often in the form of preconceived prejudices that even they may not be aware of. I’ve experienced what I believe to be an example of that firsthand. I was with someone in a small Texas town. We passed an older black woman walking to work. The person I was with knew this woman personally, having worked with her in the past. She had maybe at least another half a mile to go to get to work, maybe closer to a mile, and the temperature was in the 90s, only getting hotter. We didn’t think twice about turning around to go offer her a ride even though there were a cop and his partner parked near where we turned around. Because that’s just what Texans do. It’s not uncommon to offer a ride to someone waking, especially in the heat, cold, or bad weather.
These cops waited until after we stopped to talk to this woman to pull up behind us. At this point, we’d only been talking to her about a minute or so and she was about to accept the ride. I’d even moved to the back of the vehicle to make room for her. However, the cops questioned her first and then sent her on her way. This encounter ended with the person I was with being arrested for an unrelated misdemeanor, but the original reason for being pulled over was because we supposedly looked suspicious. What exactly was so suspicious? That two white people stopped to talk to a black woman who walked up to our vehicle? It’s not as though we had exchanged money or baggies or anything appearing to be a drug exchange. There was no drug paraphernalia. No weed smell coming from the vehicle. Neither one of us do drugs and neither did this woman. Not that any of us would’ve been stupid enough to do that in front of a cop if we did.
That is not the only time I’ve been questioned by cops about what I am doing. I’ve been questioned for things like walking in the neighborhood late at night and easily attributed that to a cop just doing his job. That was, however, the only experience I’ve had with a cop that I would attribute to racism. It was an eye-opener, for sure. I cannot honestly say that I know what it is like to witness it happening often to people that I know. I do not know what it is like to worry about being treated unfairly every time I am pulled over for a routine traffic stop or to be questioned about what I am doing and why.
So I do understand why people are protesting for changes in the justice system. Although, I don’t know that changes will alleviate racism. In fact, I think it won’t. I am inclined to believe that those people like two white officers that questioned us had underlying prejudices that they need to address on a personal level. However, I think reform has the potential to make a huge difference in police brutality issues even for those that argue more white people are killed by cops than any other race. I won’t quote numbers, though, or even bother to research them for myself because when an entire race regularly experiences what I experienced only one time over a decade ago, the fears over police brutality are understandably amplified. Even though I think racism is better addressed on more personal levels, I do think that changes in laws and changes in training would help lessen the incidences of police brutality for everyone.
But that also requires support from the average citizen. In addition to reform within the system, we also need to find ways to support the officers trying to keep us safe. Americans have raised their voices louder than ever before. It seems that enough noise was made to spark change and discussion. It appears to be sincere. And yet there are still cries to defund the police and, worse, cries to kill the cops. Please don’t tell me that it is just my white privilege talking when I say that has to stop. There are cops from every race. How can we expect systemic racism to end if we don’t let the voices be heard? If we don’t allow the discussions within the individual departments, cities, and communities to happen without fear of anyone being injured in the process?
When I was in the discussion with the women about the Lady A controversy, I was told that I don’t get to define the boundaries of white privilege; it’s not my job. I disagreed, stating that it takes everyone discussing the issue before true change can happen. There’s enough division already. This isn’t a white against black thing. We can’t keep going forward if we stay stuck in the past or even the present. And we can’t eliminate any remaining roadblocks to equality if people are quick to jump to conclusions and if the definitions of the boundaries keep changing on a daily basis.
I get that the ladies hellbent on pointing out my supposed inherent racism are simply trying to be supportive in the call for social equality and justice. They want to prove that they are listening to the collective black voice. There is nothing wrong with that. All I am asking is that it not be taken to extremes in every other part of life. I even had a black friend make a post today pleading for people to stop taking the race thing too far. She stated that white women were calling her racist simply for defending a different white woman who said that she wouldn't date a black man. She defended the woman’s statement because everyone has their own tastes when it comes to who they are physically attracted to and what they look for in a dating partner. It doesn’t mean that anyone hates anyone else. It doesn't affect things like friendship or general social equality. It’s a legitimate preference.
At what point do we all help one another heal from the past enough that we can learn about it and learn from it without allowing that pain to control every aspect of our lives? Personally, I think that history of white slavery (the Irish history in America, for example), history of Native American atrocities, and black history before slavery in America all need to be taught better than they have been. Beyond that, we as a collective society of Americans need to stand united in teaching our children that the past is not the present. We need to teach our children to keep those pure hearts they had as children so easily befriending people of all races. ThWe can break the long standing habits of certain prejudices by choosing not to pass them along to the next generation. We do this through leading by example. People of all colors need to be open to recognizing our personal prejudices and then working to correct them. Don’t allow bad experiences to taint our attitudes toward fellow humans. Instead, we should all listen, learn, and be careful not to overthink every aspect of multi-cultural interactions. Doing so leads to more anger and more resentment. We can and we will do better. I choose to not be discouraged by all the negativity happening in this country.
"Be a Light" by Rhett Thomas
© 2020 Shannon Henry