Features, Reflections, Writing Archive

Recognizing and Responding to Racism

One of the common themes I have shared before in many of my writings is my experience growing up in a small rural community in Western Pennsylvania. While I had the opportunity to be raised next to rolling Pennsylvanian hills and lush green fields with a great multitude of wonderful neighbors around us, one of the things I did not experience as a child in my community was being surrounded by diversity – in terms of having neighbors, friends, and classmates who were people of color. In fact, in a high school of about 400 students, only two or three of my fellow students were of color.

Recognizing the community where my sister and I were raised as lacking diversity, my late mother did her best to introduce my sister and myself to experiences outside our small rural white town where we not only learned about other cultures than our own but also had us spend time with her friends of color, especially her friends in the Black community. It was only through those experiences and with other friendships with people of color I  formed after high school, that I started to hear about personal experiences of racism. And it was through these stories that I began to see the privilege I had as a white person.

Following the tragic death of George Floyd, there have been so many enriching articles about the injustice of systematic racism, the realistic truths of police brutality towards people of color, and the need for those of us who are white to be aware of our white privilege that anything I write cannot compare to what has already been written. But I do want to take a moment and reflect for anyone who does come across this blog about not only the need for us to demand an end to systematic racism, but for those of us who are white, to recognize our white privilege and do what we can to stand in solidarity with our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers who experience racism during this difficult time.

Sometimes I think when white people hear the words “white privilege” they automatically find themselves feeling the need to be defensive. And I must admit that when I first heard this term several years ago, my first instinct was to get defensive. For me, I felt as if when I was being told this term, it was being assumed that I was being lumped into the same category as those rich white kids on the television show, “Gossip Girl” that lived in Manhattan, had fancy clothes, and had parents who owned summer houses in the Hamptons. “Who is to say I am privileged?” I recall asking myself. “I grew up as a somewhat poor country kid!”

But even though I came from a lower-middle-class, blue-collar rural white family, I did (and still do) have privilege. I can walk into a store without having a manager look at me suspiciously, I can get pulled over by a cop without having to fear for my life, and I don’t have to worry about experiencing discrimination from a job based on the color of my skin.

“When I say you have white privilege, it does not mean I am saying you do not have problems,” one of my friends who identify as being African American once shared with me. “I am just saying this is one problem you don’t have.”

For those of us who are white, it’s important for us not only to meet people and form friendships with people from different cultures than our own, but it’s essential that we have conversations with people of color who are our friends, family members, neighbors, and co-workers about their experiences with racism. This not only allows us to see the injustice of systematic racism that goes back to slavery that we cannot experience, but it also allows us to see the need to stand in solidarity with people of color, especially those in the Black community that our society recognizes that Black Lives Matter. And for those of us who are white, we need to call out our family, friends, co-workers, and employers when we witness racism in words or in actions.