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Op-Ed Fri Dec 05 2014

White America's Silence Enables Black Deaths

By Dave Stieber

Let's be honest, the word white often makes white people uncomfortable. Many of us who are white, when asked to describe ourselves, do not include our race in our personal descriptions. A typical white person's description of their self will likely include their gender, their ethnicity, and their looks. For example, my description would sound something like this, "I am male, of Italian and German descent, 5' 8" and bald." Notice how race is not mentioned.

The reason many white people don't often think in terms of our own race is privilege. It is privilege that makes it so we don't have to think about our race every single minute of every single day.

In 1989 a professor named Peggy McIntosh wrote a paper titled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. [PDF] In this document she lists many privileges that white people have been taught to ignore and just accept as normal without even thinking twice about them.

Here are a few I selected from her list that are incredibly relevant for today:

I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.

If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.

I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.

If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race.

I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.

ferguson protest chicago
Photo by Scott L

Her list goes on. She wrote this piece 25 years ago and all of the items on her list still ring true today. In light of the events over the past few years in Ferguson with Mike Brown, Sanford with Trayvon Martin, Cleveland with Tamir Rice, Brevard Country Florida with Jordan Davis, Beaver Creek Ohio with John Crawford and New York City with Eric Garner, I added a few more to the White Privilege list:

I (as a white person) can wear a hood, buy Skittles, and walk down the street in the evening without fear of harassment from police or "neighborhood watch."

I can listen to loud music in my car without being told to turn it down.

If for some reason I were told turn my music down, I could be assured in knowing that no one would shoot at me because of it.

My son could play with a toy gun in the park (even though I hate toy guns) and I know no one would call the cops on him.

My son could play with a toy gun in the park and if a police officer saw him playing with a toy gun he would not shoot and kill my son in under two seconds.

I could rest assured knowing that if ever my son were shot, someone would attempt to perform CPR on him.

I know I could walk into a Wal-Mart pick up a BB gun since they are sold there and walk around the store and not be shot.

I can choose not to speak up when black people are being murdered by police and racist "Stand Your Ground" laws in this country and go about living my daily life, like America really is the land of equal opportunity.

It is this last privilege that I really want to focus on. We white people have the privilege to live in a bubble. We can choose to live in areas that are all or nearly all white.

We can share stories of that one time when we were in a "dangerous" (i.e. black area) of a city and how we made sure to lock the car doors and not get out of the car and then afterward joke about that "scary" situation back in the safety of our suburb, rural area, or safe (white) part of the city that we live in.

Beverly Tatum, a scholar on race, compares racism to breathing smog. "Sometimes [racism] is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in."

Whether we accept it or not, racism is very much alive and going on at all times around us. By not choosing to actively resist and fight back against it we are actually promoting racism and prolonging its very existence.

Lisa Delpt another scholar on race wrote a letter to her daughter when she was eight years old titled "Dear Maya." In the letter she says, "As much as I think of you as my gift to the world, I am constantly made aware that there are those who see you otherwise. Although you don't realize it yet, it is solely because of your color that the police officers in our predominantly white neighborhood stop you to 'talk' when you walk our dog. You think they're being friendly, but when you tell me that one of their first questions is always, 'Do you live around here?' I know that they question your right to be here, that somehow your being here threatens their sense of security."

In much the same spirit, I now will write a letter to all of the white people I know who are not or don't know how to speak up about the legalized killing of black people in our country.

Dear White People,

Over the past two years very extreme and public examples have come out about police and regular citizens using certain laws to kill unarmed black people in the name of self-defense. Some of you have expressed outrage, some of you said nothing, while others of you advocated for the police and the laws that allowed these tragic events to happen.

Just because a something is legal does not make it just. Just because it is a law does not mean it should be allowed.

Most of us are not comfortable talking about race since it is not something we often need to talk about. We get defensive or afraid we might say the wrong thing. But we must start talking about race as uncomfortable as it might be. It cannot wait any longer.

We must start reading authors and educators who are helping to teach us about our own whiteness. We must sit down and read Lisa Delpit, Theresa Perry, and Beverly Daniel-Tatum as a start.

We must actually spend real time with people who don't all look like and have the same experiences as us.

And once we actually sit down and talk and listen to someone who does not look like us we actually have to listen to and not dismiss their experiences.

I'm writing this as someone who grew up in a small town that was nearly all white outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan. I'm writing as someone who chose to work at a YMCA in a predominantly black area of Toledo, Ohio while I was going to college. I'm writing as someone who chose to live on the South Side of Chicago in one of the few racially diverse neighborhoods of the city. I'm writing as someone who has spent the last eight years successfully teaching in schools that are nearly all African-American.

I'm writing this not to say I still don't have a lot to learn about race, institutionalized racism, and my own whiteness, but I am writing to say that if we really want too we can start to truly understand how our skin color impacts our daily existence.

This letter could go on, but this is a start.

We must start and we must start now.







David Stieber is a father, husband, CPS teacher of History. Dave is passionately committed to promoting and improving urban public education, while simultaneously improving the lives of his students. He earned his masters in Urban Education Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago. You can follow Dave on Twitter at @D_Stieber.

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Rick Steves / December 5, 2014 1:32 PM

Thanks for your letter.

There's a lot for us whites to learn about cultural sensitivity and understanding the points of view of the blacks.

The blacks have one experience and history as a people in this country; we whites have a completely different one. Sometimes we forget how far apart they really are.

We whites need to get over our irrational fear of the blacks. We need to stick together and educate ourselves, e.g.: "No, Mrs. White Woman, black men are not out to mug you!"

White people don't get it, they really don't.

Other races, however, do get it. They transcend racism. They don't see color, don't stereotype, don't judge. When have you ever seen a Korean speak in racial overtones, much less a Hispanic man?

At my next white dinner party, I intend to scold my friends and implore them: White people, wake the hell up!

- Rick (white)

Dave Stieber / December 5, 2014 5:09 PM

Thank you Rick for reading what I wrote and responding.

I appreciate your comments. The only thing I would disagree with is the part about other races not seeing color.

Everyone sees color. Our (white) race has just been taught that talking about race is bad and our privilege lets us be able to ignore our own race.

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