Some thoughts about my own white responsibility, my white privilege and my unconscious racism, and a few peeks at living while black in Trump Country
(08-31-2017, updated 07-12-2018) Topic: white privilege and white responsibility for racial disparity in the Trump era. What is racism? Am I a racist? Are you a racist? Many whites say they’re not racist, but neither are they responsible for race problems they didn’t cause. Here are my thoughts, about historic Dutch responsibility, my personal privilege and responsibility, and more.
The Big Apple, 1992
When I was in New York with my now-husband long before I moved here, we walked past an African American man standing on a soap box, shouting about white oppression on our way to a well-known soul food restaurant in Harlem. This was not long after the cops who beat up Rodney King in Los Angeles the year before (1991) were acquitted, and there was rioting in the streets of Watts. As we walked past, I said to Tony that hey, I feel bad (I truly did), but it’s not fair to blame all whites. I for one didn’t do anything. I was in Holland when everything happened in America.
The Dutch and Slavery
But that was a first, knee-jerk reaction to a sentiment that I hadn’t been directly confronted with before. The Dutch were involved in the slave trade to the American colonies from the get-go, through 1863. The last slaves in Dutch colonies were freed ten years later, in 1873. So my country had a prominent role in establishing and maintaining America’s original sin of slavery, from which it has still not recovered. That’s my white responsibility. I feel guilty about it in the same way that I feel guilty about South-African Apartheid, the only Dutch word known the world over. But that still feels rather distant.
However, even though I may not personally be responsible for suppression of blacks in America today (that I’m aware of), I’m certainly part of white society, as it is experienced by blacks, and that has been brought home to me quite shockingly several times. Let me explain what I mean.
Rural Central Georgia, 2015
I was driving from Savannah to Austin two years ago, taking the small roads because, while I get sleepy after three hours on the highway, I can drive small and windy roads all day long. I was
speeding cruising zippingly along a pretty two-lane road in central Georgia, in the middle of nowhere, where a name on the map was no more than three houses and a little church at a four-way stop, when I saw a man on an old bike in the distance ahead of me.
As I was catching up, he drove his bike into the thigh-high grass, to about thirty feet from the road and got off. I wondered why, because there was nothing there. In my rear view window I saw him pushing his bike back to the road. And it hit me: where he lived, cycling while black, he must be afraid of cars coming up from behind him, especially if they were driving a bit faster than normal, and he was taking precautions. He risked God knows what kind of snakes and spiders in that tall grass, because I might be someone who would run him over just for kicks.
West Texas, 2016
About a year ago –Trump was already the Republican presidential candidate–T and the kids and I were stopped at a gas station somewhere in West Texas. We were walking toward the door of the convenience store, and a black man, clearly pretty poor, was there way before us, much further than anyone would expect anyone to hold the door open for them, but that’s what he did. I think T was ahead of the rest of us, so he said, Oh no, after you, but the man insisted, without making eye contact. He wasn’t just being overly polite; he seemed nervous. Inside, four old white farmer types in dungarees and baseball caps were having breakfast at a formica table. I know it’s prejudiced of me, but it immediately explained the black man’s apprehension. Not good to be black in Trump Country. When we were getting in line the same thing happened. The man again insisted we go first, nervously, avoiding eye contact at all cost.
Both times I felt terrible for these men, for their constant, daily fear that I had just become painfully aware of, a fear that I never have, nor ever have had, anywhere. I had a strong urge to say something, to somehow apologize for the fact that these men had to feel so apprehensive. I wanted to say something that would put them at ease, but what could I say? And of course the fact that my family and I are harmless was beside the point. I was looking to say something that would make both of us feel better, but nothing I could say would change anything for these rural black men. It wouldn’t change the precautions they take have to around all whites, or lessen the potential danger in every encounter.
It’s inconceivable to me that anyone can be white and experience this kind of thing and not feel bad, not be aware of their white privilege, not feel some kind of white responsibility, the feeling that you should do something about it, even if you don’t know what. Or don’t those folks see these things? Don’t they ever drive through Trump country? Maybe their privilege actually makes people blind. Either that or they do see it and they do realize it, and they just don’t care. I’d say that in those cases white privilege clearly equals racism.
At this point I don’t even presume anymore that I’m not racist. If ever there’s an appropriate use for the saying “The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know shit”, it’s in relation to race. All I can say is that I strive not to be racist, and that I’m still learning. I know I can probably improve, because I don’t know what I’m not yet aware of. Anyone who doesn’t in the slightest feel personally affected by the enormous chasm that exists between black and white in this country and how it got this way — anyone like that who at the same time says they aren’t racist, sounds incredibly insincere.
What are your thoughts? On racism in America or on your own racism or on the racism you experience?
(This post was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “Neither Racist Nor Responsible?”, 08-31-2017)
- Header image: mine