The extension of white privilege to those without it can be pretty exhausting when it's still on the terms of those in power.
By Khalil LeSaldoYears ago, I was walking through the Bowdoin College quad with someone I was seeing at the time. She was European, a few years older than I was, and had been in Maine four years already. We walked by the Af-Am house — a building designated as a black space.
“I don’t get it,” she said. “There should be a white-people house too, right?”
“Every other building here is a white-people house,” I said.
She didn’t say anything else on the subject. I didn’t either.
Probably should have, but I didn’t think one conversation would shift her perspective to one that, y’know, recognizes an African-American house as a refuge for those needing solidarity and fellowship. That it’s there to celebrate their sameness and show there are resources on the Bowdoin grounds. That it’s okay for black people to be there.
I get it. If you’ve never been to a place that historically excluded your ancestors, you may not understand this scenario. It’s a flawed system that benefits some people more than others and we’re all operating in it.
But I didn’t want to shoulder the burden of that lesson just then. Growing up as a puzzle-faced, racially ambiguous boy in a small rural Maine town lacking in diversity — and, arguably, tolerance — meant I learned to tread lightly on topics like these.
But there’s a reason I recall the conversation today, two weeks after the presidential election. How do we make the decision of whom to engage with about racial justice?
Here’s another one. A few months ago at my 5-year reunion, I was approached by a Bowdoin College senior. She was bright, blonde, and talkative. It was a one-sided conversation, the subject quickly drifting to how her eyes have been opened while at Bowdoin. She has black friends now. I broke eye contact and scanned the rest of the room. Was I? Yes, I was the only person of color there, being manhandled by a white person five years my junior.
I realized that out of everyone there, she was talking to me, and about this. About how “with it” she was. Why? For validation? To flirt (poorly)? Because race relations was the only thing she thought two strangers of different races could talk about? I should have asked, but instead I created an opportunity for me to exit the conversation. I had listened for long enough.
A friend of color, C, recently shared his thoughts on a particular gay bar in Portland. He talked about feeling exoticized, that he couldn’t exist there without being objectified by forward men, and as a result he and his friends would avoid the place.
I asked what he thought the resolution was — how could a place like that be changed for the better? How could gay men who weren’t older and whiter feel like they belonged there?
He’d said it wasn’t on him to try to change it. There were other places he could be, and he’d rather not endure a thousand tiring conversations in order to maybe change a place. He and his friends could easily be somewhere else.
These are each conversations that occur on the terms of the person in power, and while they are ultimately helpful, the person of color is still operating within a power dynamic and hierarchy that can be difficult, painful to acknowledge, or most often, tiring.
Not that these conversations are only difficult if you’re the one being short-changed. I’m sure that to anyone with privilege, it can be tough to acknowledge that part of your success is due to favorable life circumstances outside of your control. Kind of pisses in the cornflakes of the American dream, doesn’t it?
The reality is that white privilege is a necessary tool in tearing down white privilege. The platform provided by those in power can be extended to those who are not.
But while it’s important for privilege to help in its own dismantling, the extension of white privilege to those without it can be pretty exhausting when it’s still on the terms of those in power. We appreciate the efforts of those with privilege who have the conscience to help, but marginalized groups have been dealing with uneven power structures all our lives. We’re tired. Some take up fighting for equality at age 20; many people of color have spent their entire lives dealing with the sticky end of racism.
I remember being made acutely aware of my race in the fourth grade, walking home from school with my brother. I was called a nigger and hit in the face with a rock. I went to my teacher, who took care of me, and identified the kid who did it. Their defense (“I thought he was a crow.”) resulted in a sentence of one hour of in-school suspension.
One hour for throwing a rock at someone’s face? I once got suspended a week for throwing an orange at a teacher.
It hurt to be attacked solely because of my skin, but it hurt worse to see that the people around me can’t have understood how incidents like these affect developing youth. They weren’t equipped to help, or to have the conversation necessary to empathize with me. I felt alone. I felt like nobody understood.
Let’s change the subject.
I’m a big fan of two-sentence horror stories. How much can you scare someone in two sentences? Here’s an example: “There was a picture in my phone of me sleeping. I live alone.”
Here’s another: “I begin tucking him into bed and he tells me, ‘Daddy, check for monsters under my bed.’ I look underneath for his amusement and see him — another him — staring back at me, quivering and whispering, ‘Daddy, there’s somebody on my bed.’”
What’s scary about these stories? They set a universe, then betray the rules of that universe. My focus is undone and my imagination runs wild. It’s terrifying.
There’s also so much left unsaid. They’re simple, and the mind strains for meaning. They evoke the state of hysteria many feel when faced with the unfamiliar.
It’s how a lot of us feel right now with the election of Donald Trump. Trapped in one of those stories. Trump capitalized on the fears of many Americans with lines like “There’s something going on,” and “It’s inconceivable.” Us = in danger. Trump = the savior. This man let our imaginations run wild. He’s appealing to our emotions and makes us do the work for him. Lovecraft would be proud.
We must dispel the notion of being the one to solve racism. There is no single savior. There are only millions of battered warriors fighting a war they’ve had to fight for too long. We’re tired, often unheard, and worried that the next person we talk to isn’t really listening. If I need an ear, it’ll be on my time, to someone saying, “tell me how it’s been for you,” and I will be bursting with gratitude.
My recommendation for how to have difficult conversations about power or paralyzing fear (both political and under-the-bed) would be to take a breath. Sit with it. Move through it. Find out what’s going on. Dispel uncertainty. Greet your neighbor. Engage a new culture. Never stop learning. But most importantly, listen more. Listen without expectation. Somebody once said we have two ears and one mouth so we could listen twice as much as we talk.
The unknown could be anything. Keep listening. Keep learning. Ask for help if you need it.