In 8th grade, a girl named Patricia attended our Catholic, all white grade school. She was beautiful; her Mom was American Indian, her father African American. She had eyes like Bambi. I wanted to befriend her but she seemed very reserved and withdrawn, more than just shy. I tried but couldn’t seem to break through. Her family moved after the school year ended, and I actually felt a sense of loss. It was later that same year that I began to understand how daunting and probably frightening the situation must have been for her. I would come to understand how she may have had many difficult experiences in a similar situation that I would not have thought about because of white privilege and my expectation of being welcome anywhere.
That summer, I was really introduced to white privilege in action through the community newsletter. It was announced that the first black family had moved into the community and wanted to join the pool. They were not going to be allowed to do so. I’m not sure from what place my anger came – I cried, I raged to and at my family and friends, and eventually wrote to the editor to try to shame the community. I railed against those calling themselves Christian who had preached to me about “love thy neighbor”. There was, of course, no answer to my letter. Some friends distanced themselves but said nothing, which said plenty.
In my early twenties I co-founded an environmental group working in poor communities impacted by toxic waste. In North Carolina I worked with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a gentleman who was instrumental in the civil rights movement. After a number of visits, protests, and arrests that we both worked on, I counted him as an ally and friend. I recall a visit where I saw him outside a community activist’s house, and went to give him a hug, as I would any good friend. He had very roughly pushed me away, and yelled “are you trying to get me killed?” He was angry beyond my understanding at the time; I was astonished and hurt. I still didn’t get it, not deeply enough. Later, being chased through back roads with my lights off, by yahoos in trucks with gun racks, it sank in much more deeply.
Latonya was a black woman about my age living in the town. We were working together as organizers. One evening we sat talking about what was happening around us, sharing hopes, ideas, and a little fear. We went to have a meal together at my suggestion at the only restaurant in town. As we entered the large, brightly lit room, all voices stopped (think EF Hutton commercials). We sat, but no one came to serve us. Hate, contempt and sneering amusement stared at us from most tables in a silence more frightening than screaming or shrieking. After ten full minutes (during which Latonya and I stared down at the menu, at least outwardly calm) I asked her if she wanted to leave, and she did. I wanted so much to slam my hand down on the table and yell “What the hell!” because I, full of white privilege, felt only outrage, anger and self-righteousness. She was wiser: she had to live there, and literally survive as a black woman organizer. But she also must have known what might happen there, and she went anyway. She was courageous and tenacious.
Our groups refused to allow the state to force the poorest area in the poorest county to drink poisoned ground water. After a week of civil disobedience and arrests– the State was going to pump toxics into an aquifer that served the area’s water wells – my co-organizer and I made a citizen’s arrest of the pump (read: lifted it off the construction truck, with workers present, and walked away with it). Feeling compelled to disable it lest it be picked up again by the workers and used, I cut the pull cord off with nail clippers. Felony charges ensued. Enter Attorney Floyd McKissick. He was the first African American to receive a law degree from University of North Carolina Law School. He had been badly beaten during civil rights marches many times and was still acting as an advocate for racial justice. I knew almost none of his history at that time. Not being from Afton, not being black, and having tried to do right, I was much less fearful than I truly should have been. I have to believe that subconsciously I was confident in my white privilege. Luckily for me and my overly inflated sense of self-worth, Floyd was an excellent defender and saved us from a decade in prison; we were freed. Many years later I realized that I never really appreciated back then the amazing person that he was; how he struggled and fought for racial justice. When I had lived and learned enough to know that, and went to tell him so years later, he was gone.
I worked as a defense paralegal for ten years, and now have been a criminal defense investigator for twenty years. I recognize the prejudice against people of color is too often a given. I hope for the best from people but expect a lot less. I understand that the playing field is sharply uneven, that there is pervasive ignorance and fear abounding, and that there is a sickening knee jerk response to skin color. And I strive to get even. Not in a violent way, but in a passionate, forensics-driven, information heavy way. And I do battle fairly well, possibly because I am often up against people who can’t see me coming because of white privilege.