A child of the ’60s, I grew up in a world struggling to realize the dream of racial equality. At school, my teachers pried at the doors of my Wonder Bread world to show me the truth of a color-conscious reality. My family, active in the civil rights movement, counted among its friends families both white and black and some that were mixed. Playing with kids of different skin color and ethnic backgrounds, I quickly learned that these all were superficial traits and that, beyond them, we are all very much the same.
The black-and-white TV showed us black men and white men as they spoke, marched, fought, preached, protested, and prayed in an ongoing dialogue that was peaceful at times, violent at others. Then, in the spring of ’68, that dialogue turned deadly. My family watched as the news of blood and death spilled out into our living room. At one point, as cities burned and people ran riot, my father turned to me and said:
“You are one of the luckiest people in the world. You were born white, you were born male, and you were born in America. This gives you opportunities that others will never have. Always remember that, and be grateful.”
His words puzzled me and even scared me a little. They described a world with a built-in unfairness that I neither understood nor believed. Alerted to its presence, though, in time I saw that what my father said was true. I am lucky. I do have more than many, simply because I am a white American male. And yes, it is unfair. Deeply unfair.
This knowledge did not rack me with guilt, though. Rather, it heightened my awareness, taught me to see the opportunities before me, and to appreciate them. With regard to others, I learned to empathize with the less fortunate. Women, people of color, LGBT folks, immigrants, they all face challenges I do not, challenges maintained and bolstered by a society controlled by people who look like me. I became determined never to judge someone by appearance or background, but only by their individual actions and words. I also decided to support every proposal designed to even the scales.
This past year, though, I’ve learned something new. I’ve learned that my view of the world is still shaded by my own inherent privilege. Unequal treatment is still rampant, and white hatred of “The Other,” after lurking in back rooms for decades, is now taken up as a rallying cry. Any progress made toward equality in one area has been offset by burgeoning bigotry in another, and I despair.
I know we can be better than this; I’m just not sure we want to be.
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