About 15 years ago, an employee of the YWCA moved to the north side of Fort Wayne with her children and husband, a corporate executive.
The day they moved in, the wife knocked on each front door in her new neighborhood, introducing herself, making small talk and incidentally mentioning that her husband was a runner. He ran either late at night or early morning. This information about her husband was the main reason for the quick introduction of her family. They were one of the few black families in the neighborhood, possibly even the first. Fear caused her disclosure – fear of what their neighbors would think when they saw a black man running.
If you are white, you may be thinking: “Oh, for heaven's sake! That wife's actions were really over the top.” If you are a person of color, my guess is that you understand the wife's concern.
In my long life, I seldom have had to worry about such things as my skin color. I just don't have to think about it.
The advantage of not worrying about my skin color is an example of “unearned privilege” – also known as “white privilege.”
Only after participating in many diversity trainings – some excellent, some awful – and finally reading Peggy McIntosh's powerful article titled “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” did I begin to get it. The article totally changed the paradigm I had imagined. I soon realized how wrong my assumptions were about people of color and how many mistakes I had made along the way.
Understanding white privilege is not about assigning guilt but about providing opportunities for awareness. I am forever grateful to Sandra Brothers, a business owner; Sharon Banks, retired Fort Wayne Community Schools administrator; and Rosetta Moses Hill, retired IBM executive; who shared their personal stories as black women to help us become better educated. Their patience and generosity allowed me and many others to learn about the difference in daily experiences here in Fort Wayne between people of color and whites. The following are just a few of the many things I learned by finally listening instead of arguing.
Because of my white skin:
• I have seldom felt unseen or ignored by a clerk or waiter.
• I do not feel the fear of going into small towns or suburbs off the beaten path.
• I have never answered a job advertisement, only to be turned away when I appear at the business that is hiring.
• I have never, after a speech, had anyone say to me in a surprised tone: “You are so articulate!”
• I am not assumed to be on food stamps, even when I dress in sweat clothes.
• I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
• I can do tasks well without being called “a credit to my race.”
Those of us with the unearned privilege of having white skin can continue learning by:
• Becoming an ally: step up and ask whether we can help someone who is being harassed or ignored. Always ask permission first.
• Avoiding taking part in racial jokes or gossip.
• Becoming aware of situations around us, welcoming everyone equally into our sphere of influence so we can learn from one another.
• Asking forgiveness of any person we may have offended and asking to be educated about why what was said was an affront.
• Seeking opportunities to meet people who are different from our own clan.
• Listening! It is one of the best ways to learn. Only after we stop arguing against the reality of racism and start accepting the personal stories of those harmed do we advance our understanding of our own privilege and what to do about it.
• Checking our assumptions; often they are wrong about most people and most situations.
• Studying the issues of institutional racism so we can advocate at our places of work, school, worship and play.
• Widening our lens. We tend to be narrowly focused on our own background and rituals. A great deal more is going on in the world that will enhance our own life experiences.
Fort Wayne is blessed with a diverse population. Not only African-Americans, but also many of our citizens from other countries have experienced racism in our city. We can do better. A black man running should be just that, not an assumption of anything else.
Becky Hill is retired executive director of the YWCA and former member of the Fort Wayne Community Schools board of trustees.