I am of the belief the majority of white people in this country — who care, that is — believe they understand what white privilege is. The majority of us do not.
There are many teachable moments in life, and some will clobber you over the head trying to make you see. They appear every day to everyone, but if you are blinded by your biases and preconceived beliefs, you’ll never learn, never fully grow.
I was born and raised in Alabama. My parents and their parents were some of the least racist people I have ever known. I can also say without a doubt every kid in my crowd was the same, parents included. I have fiercely defended this for 50 years.
When our school was integrated in the 1960s, we were thrilled. Arguably, though, it was for the wrong reasons — we could finally learn to dance to that very cool Motown music, we’d have competitive sports teams, and most of all, we would finally be able to get to know these fellow Americans we had been denied knowing.
This was of course my own small enclave of Alabamians; I was a kid and this was my world. And if we welcomed these strangers into our lives for the wrong reason, I say, whatever it takes to make change. I’ll stop here and make an important point — it was us allowing them in. This is white privilege thinking.
When I was barely 14, I made a trip by bus from Huntsville, Ala., to New Orleans — my aunt needed help caring for her kids. Along the way I bought a book in the bus station. It was written by Martin Luther King Jr., and his headshot dominated the cover. Throughout the entire trip, on the bus and inside every bus station, I had that book out pretending to read, in hopes someone would make a remark. I was eagerly looking to piss off some redneck, and I felt safe in doing so. This is white privilege — feeling safe and free from repercussions when being politically and socially provocative. Try putting a Black person in my place in that situation in the South in the 1960s. Not pretty.
Two years ago I was clobbered over the head with a white privilege moment by an African American friend and longtime customer. She told me of her plans to visit a beautiful town in Mexico, one I also had plans to visit for a possible place to retire (OK, the cat is out of the bag). I asked her to send me photos while down there, and to promise when she returned to the States she would tell me all about it.
After I pestered her a bit — I know now why she avoided me — she finally called. I said, “So tell me everything, what was the town like, what were the residents like?” I knew what it looked like, but more important, I wanted to know what it felt like. She stopped my inquisition after a few minutes, and said, “Lorraine, you don’t understand, I’m Black and you’re white, our experiences are never going to be the same.”
I was gobsmacked by my ignorance. Why would I, how could I think any differently? How have I missed this glaring fact all of my life? This is white privilege, everybody, and it was served up to me on a silver platter. I shared this story with another African American customer. She said, “This is what we live with every day.” This was a transformative moment for me, one I will never forget.
I am a live and let live, stay in my lane, I won’t bother you if you don’t bother me kind of person. But if you get in my lane, try to bully me; well, I’ll leave it at that. I am telling you this for a reason. A major cobbered-on-the-head moment happened to me this past Labor Day weekend on the Vineyard.
My car seriously needed air in one of its front tires. So I drove down to the back of the Shell station for the free air they offer. It’s a large, very wide graveled area. There was a big truck with two men negotiating a Bobcat onto the back of its trailer. A black SUV with beach chairs tied to the back next to the truck was blocking the entire area in front of the air machine. For no good reason, mind you, none.
I called out, “Could you please move up? I need air in my tire.” The response I got was pretty ugly, so I politely (honest) asked again, the same response. Giving them the benefit of the doubt (I thought they must not understand what I’m saying), I got out of my car, walked a good seven feet away from their window, and asked again.
Vitriol spewed out the window. I was shocked, but what was more shocking — the couple was Black. Maybe anywhere else it would not seem so shocking, especially in these tinderbox times, but here on Martha’s Vineyard? Here where we consider ourselves racially homogenous, where whites, Blacks, Brazilian, Croatians, and more live peacefully together? So I thought, maybe I have been wrong.
This couple continued hurling their insults and name calling, like “Karen,” and other things this paper would never print. The man then said if I got any closer to his car he’d get out and take care of me. OK, he has clearly crossed into my lane; all bets were off. I said, “Come on, get out of your car and let’s have at it.” One, I knew he would not do it, two, there were two big guys 30 feet away, and three, white privilege subconsciously kicked in without me realizing it — I won’t be in trouble, he will, right or wrong. Those words never actually consciously ran through my mind, but I realize now it was built-in white privilege at work.
I looked at their license plate to see what state they were from. I could not fathom these two people being from the Vineyard. Seeing me do this and thinking now I had their license plate number, they quickly left. I was shocked.
I was shaking; it was surreal. What had happened? About an hour later when I was back in my store, a car pulled in. An attractive Black lady with some very serious credentials on a cord around her neck came in.
I asked her what they were for, she said she was Secret Service, and understandably, I assumed she was part of the protection for the Obamas.
Here I was, still shell-shocked from the incident, and the most appropriate, perfect person who I could share this experience with walked through my door; she could not have been kinder. She soothed my nerves; she stroked my arm, ignoring the virus I could possibly have. Her words, besides “I am so sorry,” over and over, were, “Ignorance comes in all colors, Lorraine.”
Later that day the great clobber-her-on-the-head God struck again. I finally had put my feelings aside, had become more objective, and could now see the forest from the trees. This — this is exactly what African Americans deal with daily — vitriol, name calling, denigration, and threats of violence for doing NOTHING.
I do not care anymore who these people were, nor do I care what their motive was. This was an amazing, teachable moment. I was shown a powerful example of what ignorance and racism looks like when it comes at you, but more important, I was shown what it feels like.
It. Feels. Horrible. It. Hurts. It. Is. Wrong.
published Feb. 3, 2021
Martha's Vineyard Times