Dear Drama Observers,
I’d like to tell you a story and then make a point about white privilege.
Several years ago, a friend of mine stumbled into therapy. No, I don’t mean she accidently walked into a counselor’s office. She and her husband went to see a counselor for a marital check-up the same way you might take your car in for a tune-up. They’d been married for seven years and were having some tensions so they thought it might be wise to let a counselor poke around under their marital hood.
Toward the end of the first session, the counselor looked at my friend and said, “Actually, it might be best for me to spend some time talking with just you.”
That was my friend’s worst nightmare because she knew something about herself that most of her friends failed to see. That is, she came from a disordered family that was rifled through with dysfunction. She’d left her family and moved on with her life but, unbeknownst to others, she carried some deep wounds inflicted by her family of origin. But she covered those wounds so well that her friends—even her husband—were none the wiser. The thought of uncovering them was terrifying to say the least.
She later put it this way:
“I had stacked my apples up on a cart in such a way that they were perfectly balanced and oh so pretty. But I had this fear that if I ever walked into a counselor’s office, he’d see right through me, shake my cart, and all my apples would come tumbling down.”
And she was right.
What began that day in the counselor’s office was several years of painful introspection and gut-wrenching work. James A. Garfield, our twentieth president, once said, “The truth will set you free… but first it will make you miserable.” Indeed, my friend experienced the emotional upheaval of facing truths she had previously determined to sidestep. But with time, the truth “set her free” from the chains of her dysfunctional past. And she’s now glad that she did.
In hindsight, she described it this way.
“I knew that I had scars from my past. No one can be raised in the sort of family I had and not be scarred. But what I came to realize was that those scars were actually wounds that had to be cleaned out so they could heal. Cleaning them out was painful but it saved my life.”
(You’re wondering right now what in the world this has to do with white privilege. We’ll get there soon, I promise.)
I had the utmost respect for my friend’s brazen courage–for doing what none of us is inclined to do. Right about this time, an author had written several books about how to deal with the damaging effects of growing up in dysfunctional families. He was a good author and an excellent communicator. If you didn’t want to read his books, you could watch his video series and learn just as much.
I’m not mentioning the author’s name, because that’s beside the point. I don’t have any criticisms of him. His content was right on target and lined up very well with the hard-fought discoveries my friend had made along her journey toward emotional health.
My beef wasn’t him but with what some people did with his content. There were those who presumed that by reading his books or watching his video series, they could accomplish the same things my friend had accomplished the hard way. It was therapy on the cheap.
- My friend bared her soul; they read a book.
- My friend ran the entire course; they crossed the finish line by cutting across the field.
- My friend endured the pain; they anesthetized the discomfort.
- My friend developed heart knowledge; they increased their head knowledge.
I’m not saying that what these people gained was of no consequence. But the way my friend did it was deeper and more long-lasting. You can grow a squash in a few weeks, but it takes years to grow an oak tree. My friend did it the oak tree way.
I’ve told you all this to get to my point about white privilege.
A lot of white people lately—myself included—have been engaging in some much-needed and long-overdue introspection. Perhaps we previously bristled at the term “white privilege,” thinking its use was unwarranted or descriptive of some small and vanishing cohort of whites clinging to racist ideas. But with the events of recent days, some of us have re-thought our positions and concluded that white privilege is not a made-up construct after all. It does in fact exist, but our eyes have overlooked it the same way we might fail to notice termites chewing up an otherwise beautiful house.
So, it’s good that our eyes are being opened. But it would be bad if we concluded that we now fully understand white privilege simply because we’ve read a few articles about it. Just as my friend’s understanding of healing was forged in the crucible of her hard-work experience, Black people and People of Color understand white privilege because they’ve spent their entire lives on the receiving end of it.
The realization and acknowledgement of white privilege by white people must be gratifying to those who’ve been hurt by it. But an understanding that stops at the superficial level is not gratifying at all.
Concerning white privilege, the stance of whites toward Black people and People of Color should be one of humility and capture the following spirit:
“You’ve seen all along what I’m just now seeing. You’ve experienced it and I’m just now learning about it. Yours is an oak tree understanding and mine is still a squash. I’m gaining some head knowledge, but I want this knowledge to travel from my head down into my heart. Thanks for being patient with me.”
Till next week.