I woke up in the middle of the night and suddenly understood why, earlier in the evening, two of the strongest, smartest, most courageous women I know stood on the corner in the cold waiting for the “white man” to give them permission to authorize their crossing of the empty street.

It didn’t occur to me, however, while I walked across the street, against the light, playfully teasing my public defender friends that they were “rule followers.”  
Nor did my light bulb moment happen when they replied that they didn’t want to get a jaywalking ticket.  And we were in the South where the remaining vestiges of slavery still exist, especially when it comes to the application of criminal laws.   

No, my white privilege bubble burst in the middle of the night. As a white woman, my only concern is whether a car is coming, not whether I have permission from a stoplight to cross the street.  I have jaywalked in front of police officers without a warning, much less a ticket.  And it would never cross my mind to wait for the light to turn green in rain, snow, or hot sunlight for that matter.  

My friends, Patrice and Dehlia, are two of the fiercest women I know.  But their reality is different than mine, simply because of the color of their skin.  As black women, they were not going to set foot in the empty street until they saw the symbol legally allowing them to do so. They didn’t because not only do they typically follow the rules, but more importantly, because of their shared experiences, and the experiences of so many of the clients of color they have represented over the years.

Months later, I continue to reflect on why I did not understand what was happening at the time.  As a public defender for twenty eight years, I am quite familiar with the skin color of clients who have been cited for jaywalking. I give frequent presentations on race and the criminal justice system, as well as white privilege. I am intentional about checking myself for implicit biases.

But that’s the nature of white privilege, isn’t it?  For the most part, white people aren’t forced to think about the advantages our skin color affords us, until we are. We don’t live our lives constantly being reminded that our skin isn’t white. We exist in a sea of whiteness, crossing streets when we feel like it without ever stopping to think that brown and black people don’t have that privilege.

This is especially true here in Minnesota, which has a predominantly white population. Many Minnesotans, like me, grew up in towns with little diversity outside of the Twin Cities.  And if most of our friends and colleagues are white, we aren’t forced to face the daily reality of white privilege. Only seeing my friends standing on that street corner in Atlanta made me, eventually, recognize the privilege I have to disregard the traffic signal.    

That night in my hotel room, I spent hours beating myself up for being so insensitive. I obsessed about why I didn’t get it while it was happening.  And I agonized about what Patrice and Dehlia must be thinking about me. Then I realized that all of the thoughts swirling around in my head were about me, and that they had nothing to do with what Patrice and Dehlia might want or need.     

I first heard the phrase, “white grief porn,” at a conference on racism the weekend after the last presidential election. At a standing room only session for allies, a white woman sobbed that she was still grieving the election results. The facilitator, a black woman, suggested that she was grieving because she didn’t get her way, which was a very privileged way of looking at things. She went on to say that the day after the election was no different for brown and black people than the day before.  And, she told the woman, she could go figure out why so many white women voted republican if she really wanted to do something helpful. 

I had been witness to white people’s tears, shame and guilt over racism before, but I had never heard the behavior referred to that way.  What we call it is far less important, however, than recognizing the damaging nature of engaging in it.  Crying and shame-based behavior shifts the focus to the “grieving” white person, whose feelings have somehow become front and center. The black person is put in the position of having to decide whether to take care of the white person’s feelings. And the black person who isn’t having any of it is suddenly accused of being “angry,” or insensitive to the white person’s fragility.         

Another destructive reaction to someone who tries to point out some kind of racial insensitivity is defensiveness. I have seen some epic lashing out by white people who perceived that they were being called a racist.  They defended their intent by saying, “I didn’t mean anything.”  Or they pushed back by demanding to know whether the person was suggesting that they are a racist. Again, the focus is shifted to the white person’s feelings, only now they arrive in a tidal wave of anger.

Having once been the target of this type of anger, in front of my peers, was one of the most painful experiences I’ve had in recent memory.  While it was happening, an overwhelming feeling of shame and humiliation made me desperate to flee.  And none of my colleagues came to my defense, unless you count those who congratulated me for talking about race by whispering in my ear as I rushed to get out of there when the meeting was over.    

My initial reaction was strikingly similar to my experience in the Atlanta hotel room. Every single thought was about me.  And I wondered whether it was just too painful to put myself in these positions by continuing to talk about race.  But at some point, it occurred to me that I actually had the ability to remove myself from conversations about race – because I was white.  I had, once again, been forced to confront my white privilege.                  

So how can we have constructive conversations about race?  What if we try a new paradigm and agree, as research tells us, that most of us aren’t explicitly racist?  Let’s just assume that we are mostly nice people with good intentions. Let’s also acknowledge, as research tells us, that we are all flawed human beings who are riddled with implicit bias. Let’s agree that nice people who have implicit bias can say racially insensitive things that are hurtful, without meaning to cause harm. 
If we assume good intentions, perhaps we can focus on the impact of our actions and words.  That way when someone suggests that we have said or done something racially insensitive, we can avoid shame-based reactions.  Instead of saying, “I am sorry if you were offended,” we can apologize in an authentic, genuine way. And then we can reflect on how we might do better moving forward.    

I did apologize to Patrice and Dehlia the next morning.  They were kind-hearted and tried to make me feel better, but I was determined to have a different conversation. I told them that, while I knew my intentions were good, my actions were not. I was oblivious to my white privilege in that situation and I promised to reflect on how I could be more aware in the future. I asked them to tell me if they saw me engaging in any insensitive behavior in the future. 

I know that I benefit from white privilege every day.  I understand that I struggle with implicit bias.  I also know that the only way forward is to continue to do my personal work on those issues.  Owning our own flaws and reflecting on how we can to do better is the one thing over which each of us has control. And if we do our own work, we can have authentic conversations about race that will move us forward.       
|STAR|I want to thank Dehlia Umunna and Patrice Fulcher. You have both added a richness and depth to my life that I treasure.