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.
Ghost Fish swam slowly across the pond. If koi could waddle, she would have. Her normally bullet shaped grey body spread wide with eggs.
She felt like something big was going to happen, she just didn’t know what.
Victor and Shadow, two large male koi, swam next to her, possessively flanking her and steering her away from the other koi. She felt threatened but didn’t know why.
She felt a spurt and a need to swim wildly. Behind her, the pond water clouded with hundreds of tiny eggs. Victor and Shadow pushed Ghost Fish to the side of the pond, then chased her as she zigzagged away from them. The two males swam aggressively through the cloud of eggs, furiously spewing sperm in an unconscious need to fertilize those eggs.
Ghost Fish swam behind a water plant and hovered to rest and hide from the male koi. She was exhausted.
She looked at the eggs floating on the water but didn’t know what they were. She wasn’t wired to have maternal feelings. Most fish spawn and swim away. Eggs are fertilized or they aren’t. They develop and hatch or they don’t. They’re on their own.
Two days later, the water in the pond was clear again. There were no more eggs. The koi had eaten them.
Ghost Fish had no memory of spawning. Victor and Shadow stopped flanking her. All was normal in the koi pond again. Until next summer.
What if police didn’t target black men
What if those targeted didn’t die
What if we all took a knee, not out of protest, but out of respect
Respect for each other
For our similarities
And, more importantly, for our differences
What if we stood side by side, hand in hand
And saw the beauty in each other
And celebrated it
Skin color from ebony to cream
Eye color from black to blue
Hair from black to blond to grey to white
A beautiful rainbow of humanity
What if we respected each other’s lifestyles
And were curious
And asked instead of assuming intent
What if we worked to erase systemic racism from all aspects of our world
What if we treated each other as individuals with something to give
Each of us equal
I am white
I am privileged
I can’t know what its like to live in black skin
I can’t know what its like to be male
To be feared or hated because of my looks
To be suspected of crimes because of my skin
But I care
And I stand with you
What if we all stood together
Not to pretend we’re all the same because we aren’t
Not to be colorblind because we can’t
But to celebrate the rainbow we create
And to listen to our hearts beat as one