The Black Lives Matter movement is making me realize that I have been an unintentional do-gooder white woman soaked in privilege. Not arrogant privilege. Not better-than-you privilege. But a take-for-granted kind of privilege that has blinded my complicity.
I’m thinking back to the thousands of times I have shopped with no one watching or following me. I’m recalling all the times I have driven past a police car, feeling paranoid just enough to think he might pull me over for something, but not because I’m white.
Blindspots have materialized before me during the past few weeks as I recall incidences where I intervened or tried to remedy a situation. My actions have not always been helpful.
When I worked at The Branson School in Marin County in the 1990s, I was giving rides to a young black student. He was a freshman and was attending the school on scholarship. I was happy to give him the ride and was paid $3/day for gas by his mother, which the student handed to me each morning.
Rather than use the money toward gas, I started putting the bills in an envelope. It was my intention to save the money then open a savings account in the student’s name, surprising him and his mother at the end of the school year. I thought I’d start a college fund for him. When my plan was inadvertently revealed to him during a conversation in the car, he told his mother.
The response from her was one of outrage. She wrote me a scathing letter pointing out my presumptuousness and I was immediately dismissed from giving her son a ride to school. I was also reprimanded by the headmaster who received a call from the indignant mother.
Apparently, my gesture came across as a white woman “rescuing” a black kid. The mom wanted to pay me for my services, not have the money used as charity back to her. I had caused her a great indignity. Did I think she couldn’t send her son to college without the help of a white woman? I did not know the situation with the family and I'd made an assumption that my gesture would be received as an act of kindness.
This incident, which happened 25 years ago, reminds me of the presumptuous action taken by a friend of my mother’s in 1967. This friend had taken me aside, and in conspiratorial fashion confided to me that my parents were having money trouble. A fancy work event was coming up in which my mother would need an evening dress.
I was 14 at the time and was into sewing, The friend told me to pick out a pattern and material, make a dress for my mom, and she would pay for it, all without my mother's knowledge. I chose a McCall’s pattern, a scoop-necked, sleeveless design, and apricot-colored crepe fabric that I thought she would like. I assembled the dress over several days after school before my mother came home from work so that I could surprise her when it was completed.
When I gave her the dress and told her how it had come about, I saw the look on my mother’s face. She was horrified. She was embarrassed. She was disrespected. She teetered on a thin thread of love and adoration for me for having made the dress, and shock and violation at the friend who had made such an outrageous request of me. My mother’s teeth were clamped as I conveyed the whole story, making the friend out to be a caring and generous person. I didn’t understand my mother’s reaction.
She put on the dress. I saw the stress in her face. She wanted to squeeze me. Thank me for my efforts. But she was furious. “I would have had the neck lower” is what I remember her saying. Her cheeks were flushed as she twisted and turned in front of the mirror. The hem was a bit short with her heels. My mom, God bless her, wore that dress to the event. Not because she couldn’t afford a new dress, but because I had made it for her.
An act that I had believed to be kindness on the part of the friend was, in fact, an act of control. All these years later, I understand the distinction and I now know what the friend should have done. And it wasn’t that.
When I think back to the black student in 1995, I understand now how my gesture caused that mother so much anger and indignation. It was a big enough deal that her son was going to an elite private school that was 99% white. She didn’t need another reminder that they could receive help from yet another member of white society, especially when it wasn’t requested or discussed.
The student ended up leaving The Branson School at the end of his freshman year. I smarted and shook my head over the misunderstanding. These past three weeks have revealed to me how a propensity for kindness can be misplaced. I realize now that, in my white privilege, it is incumbent upon me to think through the reactions and unintended consequences my behavior might produce. I realize now how my intention, no matter how sincere they were through my white lens 25 years ago, was an insult to that very proud mother and her son. A blindspot has been revealed to me, and I am blinking hard to create clearer insight into an unprivileged non-white world.