Since moving to Atlanta I’ve become more conscious of race than I hve ever been before. Because I’ve grown up in predominately white institutions (from 4th grade until I graduated high school my classrooms and sports teams were comprised of mostly white peers, and there has not been much diversity in the church communities that have nurtured my faith either), I’ve also grown up with a peripheral awareness of race, blithely blending in to environments in which I did not reflect on race too often, not so much because I did not want to care about racial issues, but because it was not a personally pressing concern.
In Dr. Peggy McIntosh’s article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” she enumerates ways in which white privilege has benefitted her life, noting at one point, “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.” In a society where the government, the T.V. screens, the history textbooks, dolls on the toy shelves and children’s books are all inundated with whiteness, it can be insidiously easy for white people to be blind to societal issues revolving around race. The news of the senseless murders of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and too many other innocent victims of police brutality will jolt me into awareness, but the awareness fades much sooner than it would if I had to worry that I might lose one of my own family members at the hands of the police due to their skin color.
Because I’m not surrounded by white people during my daily commute on the bus and train or while I’m working at the Furniture Bank, I notice my white skin. While this characteristic may seem too apparent to overlook, when I’ve been in crowds of other white people it’s not always so visible to me, and neither is the unearned privilege that comes along with it. Noticing my whiteness has been pivotal for more deeply examining the “invisible knapsack” of privilege I carry as a white individual.
Before I lived in Atlanta, sociology lectures, sermons, and various online articles had made me mindful of white privilege, but I did not recognize the full scope of racial inequality in this country until my housemates and I became intentional about better understanding issues like racial profiling and mass incarceration through watching documentaries, reading books, and sharing conversation. For example, I’ve never thought about how, although the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional in 1954, segregation persists in the United States educational system today through an inequitable allocation of resources that pours more funding into already affluent public schools while leaving students in low-income areas struggling to succeed. 1 Or how, although the thirteenth amendment abolished slavery in 1865, the prison-industrial complex disproportionately targets communities of color, rending families apart via a modern day reconstitution of enslavement (white males in the United States have a 1 in 17 chance of facing incarceration during their lifetime, while black males have a 1 in 3 chance).2
In Ralph Elison’s novel Invisible Man (a book published in 1952, with themes of racial tensions and injustices in America that still resonate today), the narrator writes about being a black man in the United States:
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination-indeed, everything and anything except me.”
After clients finish shopping for their furniture at the Furniture Bank, they have an opportunity to pick out a few pictures to decorate the walls of their homes. Though the majority of clients are African American, the bin of wall art has been full of portraits of white people, mostly of white presidents and generals with their chests pompously puffed out. At one point there was a whole stack of pictures of powerful white men, and not a single representation of black heroes and heroines who have influenced United States history. From the bin of wall art to history textbooks and school reading lists, to school boards and government agencies, representation matters.
Misrepresentation of race breeds racial biases and division, as well as a racial invisibility that prevents individuals and communities from celebrating diversity and understanding one another’s experiences and identities in a profound way. Not only am I less open to understanding other people through the distorted lens of misrepresentation, I have a hard time understanding myself. As I noted earlier, when I do not see my whiteness because most everyone else around me is white, I do not see my privilege clearly. I think racism is such a pernicious social disease because it’s often invisible to white people like myself who do not experience it, and it’s impossible to treat a disease if people refuse to acknowledge its existence, or believe the civil rights movement has already cured it. White people still have a long way to go to heal wounds inflicted by a history of white supremacy, (and I’m not sure if we will ever be able to) but I think if I am going to be a part of the movement to build a more just society, I need to first be able to plainly see injustice.
1. Watch documentary “Teach Us All” directed by Sonia Lowman for more
2. Watch documentary “13th” directed by Ava DuVernay for more