I grew up in a white town. Not 100% white — no. More like 97.5% white.
I’m not saying it was a savvy white town — my almond-shaped eyes handed down from my Hungarian great-grandmother earned me a lot of racial slurs when I moved here as a second grader. And I’m not saying it was a kindly white town. One of my neighbors was a Japanese immigrant; she used to hire me to help her care for her yard. She taught me to blow eggs. She erected fences against the asshole neighbor kids who threw dog waste in her yard, said hateful things to her, spray painted her property.
But I am, undeniably, white. I grew up in a white family surrounded by my family’s white friends. I spent a few short summers with my father who was stationed on an Air Force base in Montgomery, AL, and got my first small taste of living somewhere not surrounded by white folks with white picket fences and whitewall tires. I grew up with a taste for social justice and a hunger to understand race, but I grew up in a community where racial diversity was barely a phrase you could justify speaking.
I got to taste hot, salty blood when I was beaten and strangled over a friendship with a boy who was not white, but in the end, I was still white, a white girl with scars in her mouth but who carried her privilege all around her. I attend a predominantly white church where we talk about issues of race but can do little but talk from our white community, wearing our privilege around us as we talk with our children about their white privilege, the importance of raising their voices and their eyes and how parenting would be different should we ever adopt a child of color, because we would have to teach that child not only how not to be abducted by strangers or raped by rapists but also how not to be shot down by police or accused of shoplifting for putting his hands in his pockets.
I seek to recognize my privilege — the many different kinds of privilege I wear — to unpack it, to examine it, to ask myself how I can turn it into a tool to lift those without that particular privilege. I try to listen when others talk about what it is like to be discriminated against simply because of a name, a faith, the color of their skin.
I have watched my nation come undone and listened to the #blacklivesmatter voices shining an unflinching light on the horror that prejudice, that our inherent racism, inflicts upon children, upon families, upon women and men in communities across our country. I read “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell and tripled my efforts to seek out families of diverse background for photo shoots because of what he taught me about neuropsychology and prejudice.
As more and more reports of men, women, and children shot inexplicably dead flooded my news feed, I wrung my hands and spoke to my children and tried to listen — to LISTEN — listening for what I could do, what small voice I could have to make any tiny difference in ensuring that perhaps one fewer person would be discriminated against in this country for appearing Other than White.
I have been working on a wrap — a wrap celebrating music — off and on for the last few years; I had scrapped it when my colleague designed a beautiful wrap to be released at the same time mine would be, and a sermon preached by my minister at the Sanford Unitarian Universalist Church began to shape itself in my mind — a sermon that told the story of the origins of the song, “Amazing Grace,” of a slaver who suddenly one day realized the enormous horror of kidnapping and enslaving people, of stacking them like lumber in ships, of tossing the sick and dying overboard. He turned his ship around, the story goes, and went on to write “Amazing Grace.” (And since hitting this wall of privilege, I’ve read more and learned the story has been built into myth, a half-truth, not even the story I thought I knew.) I heard in that story a hope. Police departments with ingrained cultures of racism could be changed. An unjust judicial system could be overhauled. I began to envision one of our “pay-it-forward” wraps, which don’t earn huge amounts of money, celebrating the work of so many to change our underlying culture, to make conversations about unpacking white privilege a thing I tell my grandchildren in stories. I started thinking about which bars of “Amazing Grace” would be best for the project.
In the midst of this, I borrowed the movie “12 Years a Slave” from our public library. I watched it, and I thought on it, and I chewed on it, and I thought on it some more. Something began picking at the edges of my brain as I sketched my design. And suddenly, I felt it — the crack of my spirit beating against the wall of my white privilege, the wall I can never really understand, the wall that protects me from harsh truths.
I was LIFTING UP A SLAVER. As if that was as good as it got — a white slaver suddenly realizing he’d done wrong. And I realized it was like lifting up a reformed rapist to raise money to prevent rape. As if celebrating the epiphany of one man — one man who carried countless men and women across an ocean to be beaten, enslaved, raped, torn away from their children and husbands and brothers and wives — was a positive thing. Knowing the names of not one of the people he carried in cramped slave ships.
To be sure, I’d considered spirituals sung in freedom marches, songs sacred to the Underground Railroad, and similar music. I backed away from that idea because it felt very much to me like cultural appropriation, taking something full of hard-won significance and wearing it like a comfortable coat to feel as if I was doing something. So I turned to a more white hymn, to this song of one man’s epiphany, working it over until I crashed against this wall.
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I am a survivor of attempted rape. And if someone were to hold up to me a song written by a child abuser, years after his last assault, about the freedom and grace he felt when one day he looked at the children he’d hurt and had a change of heart, I might spit on them. Certainly, I would recoil, I would reject it, no matter if they were raising money to help the families he’d hurt.
So instead of my wrap, I offer this apology and this question. Am I wrong, to feel as I do, or wrong to have taken so long to see it? Would it have been better to hold up “Amazing Grace” than to risk appropriating a hymn belonging to a movement that I support but have not lived? What symbols exist for white people to hold up respectfully in an effort to raise money to help those doing the dangerous and important work of shifting perspectives, saving lives, and changing minds?
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading. And please accept my apology that in my desire to make some small contribution, I instead found myself lifting up the very system of oppression that would make such a contribution necessary.
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