My White Privilege

by Katy on June 3, 2020 · 50 comments

It’s been a stressful and mentally demanding week. Not just for America, but our entire world. The murder of George Floyd by a police officer while his partners looked on has sparked necessary and important protests. Long held beliefs are being challenged and a lot of people are taking a good hard look at themselves.

I know I am.

I’m a liberal middle-class white woman raised in a family that abhors racism, and I end each blog post since November 4th, 2016 with a dig against Donald Trump. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t benefit from white privilege. This hard truth is a difficult pill to swallow. I grew up attending public schools, all of which were racially diverse, especially my high school which was in the “black neighborhood.” (I attended as it contained a specialized dance program.) I can’t count the number of times that people, both adult and my own age asked if I wasn’t “scared to go to school.” I always answered in the negative, but I didn’t have the language as a teen to hold an in-depth conversation about how this assumption was deeply offensive.

I grew up in Northeast Portland, but on “the right side on 15th Avenue.” Portland, Oregon has a shameful history of redlining, a history that doesn’t reach very far into the past. So even though I may have matriculated with black students, I didn’t live near any. I had one black friend. One. And if you want to get technical, she’s actually mixed race with a black father and a white mother.

Northeast Portland’s schools were diverse, but our neighborhoods weren’t.

Those racially diverse schools? They enrolled me in the advanced classes, although in retrospect I was a spectacularly average student. These classes in no way mirrored the school’s ethnic population, and I distinctly remember that my Advanced English class included just two black girls.

My current neighborhood is considered ultra-liberal, within a city that itself is considered one of the most liberal in the entire country. Heck, the entire premise of the TV show Portlandia is that we’re a politically correct joke gone too far. (I could only watch a few episodes as it was a little too much on the nose.) There are precisely two black people on my long street, both of whom are in inter-racial marriages. This may sound creepy, like I’m counting people, (and I suppose I am) but there’s no way to not notice. I retired from working as a labor and delivery nurse last year, a career I held for 24 years. A job where I worked with two black nurses out of hundreds who came and went. A couple of black doctors, but they also came and went. I was shocked by the whiteness of the nursing staff when I was hired in 1995, but gradually stopped noticing.

Suffice it to say that I rarely interact with any black people, but nonetheless felt comfortable putting a Black Lives Matter sign in my front yard as early as 2016, even mentioning it in a blog post to normalize this action. I make sure that my Twitter feed includes multiple accounts dedicated to race and social justice.

I’d done my part and could move on. A single sign in my front yard and a curated social media feed, it was enough.

It was a start, but it wasn’t enough.

I don’t know the answers, (and I’m certainly not the person that people should look to for them) but I can use my meager platform to let people know that now’s the time to take stock in one’s own background, face uncomfortable truths about ourselves and move forward.

I have white privilege, which means I can walk through the neighborhood carrying free curbside finds without anyone thinking that I’d stolen them. My high school took for granted that I needed college preparatory classes and I’ve never once worried about being killed by a police officer.

Admitting that we benefit from a system that’s inherently racist is an uncomfortable truth to face, but these are the times to stand up against inequality. However painful it is to our own self image.

{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

Amy W. June 3, 2020 at 12:52 pm

I love your site and always enjoy your posts. This is my favorite one you’ve ever written. I tend not to comment on blogs for whatever reason but felt compelled to comment here.

BLM

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Katy June 3, 2020 at 12:54 pm

Thank you.

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Jean June 4, 2020 at 1:39 pm

Agree with all of the above. I grew up in a town where the only black kid had a father with a PhD. But now what? How do we (meaning those of us drupping in privilege) move forward to help substantively change things? The best I have done so far is write letters to my elected officials protesting the recent use of tear gas on peaceful protesters in my nearby city…..and asking for change (in laws, work processes, accountability and criteria for use of force/chemicals). I am interested in people’s ideas.

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Tonya June 3, 2020 at 1:35 pm

Thank you, Katy.

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KJD509 June 3, 2020 at 1:36 pm

Thanks for this, Katy. I grew up in Portland too, and I had kids of my own before it occurred to me that there’s nothing normal about, for example, students dividing themselves by race in the school cafeteria. Liberal does not equate to just.

Since moving back here recently I’ve worked to describe to old friends and family how privilege works – your free pile example is spot on.

Another one: as a middle-aged white woman with clean clothes, I’m free to cross the street whenever I want, even in front of the police HQ, which I pass between my bus stop and office. Black commuters who take the same route at the same time stop at every Don’t Walk sign, even if the street is empty of cars. I’ve timed it – the need to follow the absolute letter of the law in order to stay alive costs 7+ minutes each way, or 15 minutes per day. That’s more than an hour per week, or two full days of time tax per year on dark skin. It is unconscionable.

It’s not much, but we’re eating from Willamette Weekly’s list of black-owned restaurants this week. And we will Vote. So. Hard.

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Jess June 3, 2020 at 1:36 pm

Katy,

I appreciate your frank assessment of your history. I had been thinking similarly about my own and even more so now. I’m hoping that lots of liberal, white people, myself especially, use this time to dig deeper into a whole range of issues of how we benefit and how to dismantle those systems. (I definitely am regularly surprised that I think I know a lot about a topic and then learn even more, like most recently that the police are an evolution of slave patrols.) There is so much that we have become used to that can be changed to dismantle the whole systems this country was founded on that harm Black people and other minority groups.

Thanks again for giving your voice to this topic!

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Heidi Louise June 3, 2020 at 2:03 pm

Whites rarely have to think about what it means to be white. People of color in the U.S. do. This is a huge and beyond long overdue starting point for change.
Thank you for sharing your story and welcoming those of others.

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rose June 3, 2020 at 2:10 pm
Katy June 3, 2020 at 2:23 pm

And then the Portland police sent flash bombs and tear gas into peaceful protestors after the sun went down. There was no curfew.

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Susan Robinson June 3, 2020 at 2:13 pm

As always you hit the nail on the head. The fact that we are daily so unconscious of our privilege is part of the problem. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, when we know better, we need to do better.

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Lucy June 3, 2020 at 2:51 pm

Have you seen the white privilege put your finger down tiktok? I’m of native american descent and as I read it I found 10 of the 12 discriminatory experiences were things I have experienced. So, I think Black Lives Matter is bit too narrow.

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c June 3, 2020 at 4:00 pm

No one is arguing that other races do not experience oppression. Your experience is absolutely valid and horrifying. The focus at the moment is the BLM movement.
Just as no one is arguing against the slogans “Blue lives matter” or “All lives matter”- yes those lives absolutely matter.
But we need to focus on these specific injustices now. This is their time.

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Lucy June 3, 2020 at 6:13 pm

My reference to BLM was in response to Katy’s sign, erected in 2016.

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Mimi June 3, 2020 at 5:42 pm

I heard a great example to illustrate all lives/ black live comparison.
Imagine your baby died and you are giving the eulogy about how special your baby was, someone grabs the mic and shouts all babies are special. ‍♀️

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C June 3, 2020 at 3:44 pm

I teach humanities at a community college with mostly minority and underprivileged students. Once they gave me the great compliment of saying that I reminded them “of the teacher from dangerous minds” 🙂
These kids are scared. That is not an exaggeration. They know the deck is rigged. They’ve accepted that as part of their reality. Cycles of poverty, hunger, abuse, crime, imprisonment… it’s familiar.
there needs to be more conversation at the family level and the classroom level about what privilege really is, what justice looks like, what the word ‘systemic’ means. There needs to be more blatant antiracism. more disgust for the broken system. We need to teach young people now to have these conversations diplomatically and productively because THEY are the ones who will be dealing with this mess. It’s tragic, but at the same time this could be our moment. Our collective moment to raise consciousness.
Thank you for bravely acknowledging privilege. We all need to.

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meaghan June 4, 2020 at 11:07 am

If you think that it is a “great compliment” to be compared to the teacher from dangerous minds, I encourage you to google “white saviorism” and look deeper into some anti-racist self learning.

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C June 4, 2020 at 11:52 am

I don’t consider myself a savior. Those were not my words at all. I am an ally. Thanks for your input- could have done without the accusation.

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Christine June 4, 2020 at 3:23 pm

You most certainly did not come off as one who is identifying herself as a savior. As you stated, it was a great compliment. Nothing more, nothing less. You have nothing to be ashamed of here.

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c June 4, 2020 at 3:37 pm

Thank you. I must say this threw me for a loop. I honestly never saw dangerous minds- it was implied as a compliment when my class told me so I took it as one.
The idea of white saviorism is an interesting one though. And yes- I did google it. Pictures of white women “saving” poor starving black children in remote villages. White evangelicals delivering morality to the forsaken. The thought disgusts me, but hey- I’m always up for self evaluation.
I did check my motives- and no, my actions are not self serving.
I’m sure we’ll see a lot of this in the coming years though. I see it now with the social media posts, memes and newsfeeds.
I want to always check the motives behind my actions. It’s far too easy to be complacent and enabling to privalege and supremacy.
I am not above any of that, none of us are- we must always be vigilant.

Morgan June 3, 2020 at 3:46 pm

Thank you. As a fellow Portlander, thank you for writing. Thank you for knowing that we aren’t doing enough. And that we have a lot to learn. Thank you.

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Marie from the Midwest June 3, 2020 at 4:08 pm

Great post Katy… I’ve been on the same thought train. I too grew up with immense privilege, in a rural area of Illinois where I had ONE black student in my entire high school. I feel as if I have so much to answer for and I’m so late to the party, but I am here now, I’ve shown up and I’m ready to listen. As a very liberal, middle-class, middle-aged, college-educated white female, I’ve always talked the talk and now I’ve got to walk the walk. There’s too much at stake, and at the end, I’ll be accountable to answer why? Why didn’t I speak up? Why didn’t I do more? Why didn’t I shut racism down? I’m scared but I’m ready, I swear…

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tia June 3, 2020 at 6:47 pm

Protests get people’s attention, then what?
What is the solution?
Policing is the immediate problem but their personal attitudes are a reflection of society in general since they are hired from the population. You would think generations dying off would get rid of historic prejudice and hate. Hasn’t happened.

Morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated. Judicial decrees may not change the heart, but they can restrain the heartless. Martin Luther King Jr.
That was 57 years ago.

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John R June 4, 2020 at 8:34 am

In general, city police forces are not hired from the population… they live outside the city and do not represent the population or share values of the community.

https://www.startribune.com/few-minneapolis-cops-live-inside-city-limits/441581413/

The same is true in Portland and many other large cities. Community policing is not viable when officers do not live in the community.

Many, many structural problems exist but lack of community engagement is one of the big ones.

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tia June 4, 2020 at 6:03 pm

I’m sorry I was vague. By “hired from the population” I meant the United States.

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Mara June 4, 2020 at 9:56 pm

From my experience working for a crime lab (I’m a DNA analyst) run by civilians but under the umbrella of a police agency most cops are Undereducated, scared/mistrustful of darn near everyone, SEVERELY undertrained, and encouraged to see minorities as the enemy. Those are issues that can be addressed. I’m a big fan of tearing it all down and startIng over but that’s unlikely. We spend a lot of our time explaining to cops that the evidence just does not support their assertion of someone’s guilt. And I think it is possible by choosing an overwhelmingly diverse and not military trained police force we can strike a balance. Eventually. Hopefully.

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cathy June 3, 2020 at 7:16 pm

I’ve always thought of myself as not racist. What I’ve learned in the past week is that a) that’s not the same as anti-racist, and b) white privilege is a whole other thing. It wasn’t until I started seeing the list of common, everyday things I never even think about that have cost Black Americans their lives, or at least landed them in handcuffs. I always thought of white privilege more in terms of wealthy white (mostly male) folks who felt entitled. The insidious thing is how those of us who are white, middle class, and (often) female benefit from things we never even think about. I’m Jewish, and I grew up in Utah, not exactly a hotbed of religious diversity. And there have been times in my life when I’ve been nervous to let people know about my religion. But all that required of me was not saying anything. The fact that Blacks face discrimination and hatred and fear every. single. day for something that cannot be hidden is horrifying. I am so hopeful that Americans can take this moment and make meaningful change, long past the daily protests and solidarity events like #blackouttuesday. We have to insist on permanent change, in ourselves, in our communities, in our government.

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Jean June 3, 2020 at 7:20 pm

Well said and amen!
I am somewhat older than you, and grew up in a lily white suburb of Cleveland during the race riots of the sixties. There was one Asian girl in my high school at the time-the daughter of a white military man and his Korean war bride. The first time I encountered black students was in college, and they kept themselves strictly apart from the white students except on the athletic field.
The city I live in now does not have a large black population due to some shameful events in its past, but appears to be trying to change the culture. I don’t know how we open the blind eyes of many in my generation, but pray that there are many examining their consciences in the wake of the events of the past few days.

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Sandra June 4, 2020 at 1:29 am

I read your weekly postings, but don’t often comment. I will tonight because I want to add my support . Like others who have left comments, I had a very similar discussion with a friend today. I know that I am only one, but I will say the truth as I know it whenever I can. There are fair minded people in this land, we have to raise our voices and vote our conscience.

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janine June 4, 2020 at 5:58 am

I’m from Minnesota where the spark that lit the protests occurred. It was fairly common knowledge that the Minneapolis Police Department had problems but a series of mayors and city councils were unable to make solid improvements. In addition, our prosperous community suffers from a large income disparity between the “haves” and havenots” Now, we are quickly taking steps to alleviate some of the problems. Our newly elected African-American attorney general has agreed to head up the prosecution of the officers involved in the murder. $30 Million has been raised to help out the small business which were burned down during the protests. ( Most of the protests were absolutely non-violent.) A new state initiated investigation into the troubled police department.department has been opened. An army of neighbors showed up to volunteer with the clean up in both Minneapolis and St Paul. Hopefully some good will come of this yet! Thanks, Katy for a thoughtful post.

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Bee June 4, 2020 at 6:07 am

“By demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try to understand each other, we may even become friends.”
From
Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now
By
Maya Angelou

On Sunday, I was thinning my book shelf and I came across this wonderful book by an exceptional African American writer. I have read these words over and over.
We are more alike than different. We must seek to understand. We can live in peace.

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Jill D June 4, 2020 at 7:40 am

Thank you, Katy. And thanks to all the commenters above. One common theme is that so many of us grew up and lived in segregated communities. I, too, went through my first 13 years of life not meeting or knowing a single black person until I started high school, and then went to college in New Orleans and went on to work in Philadelphia, all of which opened my eyes. We need police reforms around the country, but we also desperately need to end housing and economic segregation. When your next door neighbor is black, not only your eyes but your heart open. And yes, all of Oregon has a troubled racial history, having been founded as a whites-only State, which I only learned about after flying into White City (really) in southern Oregon.

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Cindy in South June 4, 2020 at 8:50 am

I live in a town that is over 90% black. I am the only white currently working in this courthouse. There are other white members of our office who work in other courthouses, but the majority of our employees are black. My boss, the DA, is black and he is awesome. All of my close friends are black. I use the term black, rather than African American, because that is the term my friends prefer. I visit their homes, and they visit mine. I do not have any close white friends, I guess because I don’t know any very well where I live and where I work. My church is about 50% black and 50% white, but I don’t know them very well because I don’t live in the larger town that most of the congregation members live in. I do have one white neighbor, whom I do not know very well. When I travel outside of this area with my black friends and spend the night in a hotel, stay at the beach, and go into restaurants, I am always shocked at the looks we get. Yeah, racism is still real.

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Cindy in South June 4, 2020 at 9:52 am

I should add that my boss is over five counties in this very rural judicial district, so that is why he has employees in each courthouse. I have also lived in my current town for nine years, and since I didn’t grow up in it, is probably why I don’t know many white folks here.

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ouvickie June 4, 2020 at 9:07 am

Thank you for your, always, honest posts and insight.

I think about this more now than I ever did before. My young granddaughters are tri-racial (African/Native/Euro-American) and I worry about what they face everyday. Most schools in our urban areas are very diverse, but we live in the mid-south and racism is still rampant in areas of our cities and, especially, the rural areas.
I’ve never faced racism myself. I grew up in the capital city, in the late 50s throught the mid-70s. Our city was definitely divided, until busing was enacted and kids in the inter-urban schools were reassigned to mix races more evenly. When the fair-housing act was put in place, the city became a lot more culturally diverse.
I’m thankful that happened before my daughter and granddaughters attended schools in the urban areas.

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Texasilver June 4, 2020 at 12:37 pm

Interacial, ethnicity diverse marriages, relationships, offspring are much more prevalent now than in years past. My state, Texas, will become majority minority in 30 years. Perhaps demographic change will assist our society to be on more equal footing. (I agree 30 years is too long to wait but I am hopeful.) I teach in a community college. During some semesters I am the only white person in the class. I am a senior conservative leaning female who abhors violence & celebrates my diverse students.

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MB in MN June 4, 2020 at 2:55 pm

Katy, I really appreciate your heartfelt and intelligent post and for providing a way for all of us to comment in community and love. Having my state at ground zero makes me even more committed to using my voice to help create the changes that are so desperately needed and way overdue.

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Li June 4, 2020 at 9:01 pm

Thanks for your post. I also live in an ultra-liberal neighborhood in Portland, and it’s great to acknowledge that putting a BLM sign in the window, doesn’t mean someone has finished the hard work of questioning assumptions, etc. One of the accounts I follow on Instagram is Vanport Mosaic, (because my family came from Vanport), and I think it’s a really good organization, and very Portland, but not white liberal Portland, if you know what I mean.

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Katy June 5, 2020 at 10:20 am

Yes, Vanport Mosaic is my friend’s project!

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Roberta June 5, 2020 at 8:09 am

I grew up as a military brat, and my schools were mostly very racially diverse. I had black friends many places I lived. But, as adults, we bought our home in an area that is almost all white, with a history of white supremacy (we did not know that at the time, it was where we could afford). My kids’ school is very white — in a school of 300 kids I can think of three black girls, one Hispanic girl and one girl who wears a hijab. Our church is very white (and very liberal, and very gay). Extracurricular activities tend to be very white (in part because of economic ineualities).

I have regretted this for a long time — since my kids were very small. But I don’t know how to fix it! I can’t walk up to a person of color and explain that I want my kids to have a more diverse experience. I can’t begin to attend church in a predominantly black area *just so my family can be more diverse*. Using people as a means to a more diverse end is still using people. I want to move beyond the white privileged world, but I don’t know how.

I hope this note won’t get hate. It’s meant to be an expression of my frustration in the world that keeps us segregated, even when we don’t want to be. If I have not expressed myself well, please delete this, Katy.

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MB in MN June 5, 2020 at 10:32 am

Roberta, I think you expressed yourself well and offer a thoughtful perspective. It’s helpful to hear everyone’s experiences and frustrations so that we can move forward together.

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christina June 5, 2020 at 1:46 pm

That’s a really great post. I live in a small northern California town where I think there is 1 black family. I’m not even sure. In the closest bigger town there are only a handful of black people. Many more Hispanics. But it is a politically incredibly Republican town. But when we go down to UCD med center in Sacramento, I am always so impressed with the diversity. And it seems white people are the minority. It’s actually very refreshing. I don’t know the answers and sometimes I feel ‘old’ that I can’t go our and protest for fear of Covid -19. But in my heart I’m with them and I also speak out on my blog.

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Susanne Galligan June 6, 2020 at 12:30 pm

I am right there with you Katy. Thank you for continuing to prod the inquiry into our own biases.

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April June 6, 2020 at 4:09 pm

Thank you. I have been reading you for a long time and this one moved me deeply.

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Joyce June 7, 2020 at 6:46 am

When I learned the lessons black moms had to teach their sons so they can survive in this world, it broke my heart. It still does. I just told my mostly Euro-American kids not to take candy from strangers….different worlds.
Thank you for the post.

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Joanie June 8, 2020 at 9:26 am

This may come off as snarky, but it is offered as one of the many changes that could start turning things around for blacks — it is sad that mothers have to teach their sons how to survive, but it is even sadder that their fathers don’t stick around to give them the talk.

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lisa June 8, 2020 at 10:40 am

This came off as much worse than snarky. Just stop please Joanie.

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Jann in Maine June 7, 2020 at 2:07 pm

Thank you for posting this Katy. Your post and the comments have made me think and re-think. I live in rural Maine where there is little ethnic diversity or racial diversity and this is one of the thing I like least about my area. I wish I had black friends and Asian and hispanic but I don’t have that option.
And so much sadness on so many levels.
Thank you for putting into words some of the thoughts I am struggling with…

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Carlen June 8, 2020 at 7:29 am

I’ve been taking stock also. I grew up in a similarly diverse school system, with progressive parents who didn’t stand for racism. But, somehow, as I take stock of my friend group, there aren’t any blacks… Sure, I’ve been friends with black coworkers, I have black facebook friends, I volunteered in a black church for years. But I’ve never built a deep, lasting friendship with a black person. Why? The answer makes me feel uncomfortable and ashamed. The answer is that there must be some barrier preventing this- and that barrier exists within me and within society. It’s the unspoken, perhaps unidentified barrier, that is preventing blacks from being fully free and fully alive members of our society. It’s that barrier that some white people can’t bare to admit. So, instead, we get defensive. “I’m not racist, I have a black friend”, or “All Lives Matter”, or “Race Wouldn’t Be an Issue if We Stopped Talking About It”. I don’t have a solution to systematic racism. As for me, I will be diligent in my effort to support minority professionals and minority owned businesses. I’m going to be more diligent about examining my friendships- and cultivating friendships with people of color. I’ll never again vote for a upper- middle class, straight WASP man. We’ve let that narrative shape our country for long enough.

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Silvia June 9, 2020 at 2:07 pm

Hello! First time here , I think your post is so clear, I share in FB. It’s a good moment to be introspective about this . Thanks a lot!!

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K D June 13, 2020 at 4:34 am

I have wanted to comment since you posted this but was not sure what to say. Not only have I been blessed with white privilege for 60+ years but I was also recently been told that I am receiving an inheritance (which reeks of white privilege). It is not a life changing amount but it not insubstantial either. It makes it difficult to feel good about this at this time.

I live in a racially diverse county/metro area yet my day-to-day life does not reflect the diversity. I suspended my volunteer work that was diverse when Covid-19 was raging in our area. It is time to plan to go back to that as well as how to actively place more diversity in my life. I also plan to donate a good portion of the inheritance, when it is disbursed, to causes I have not donated to before.

Thank you for addressing this issue Katy. It saddens me that people are more willing to share their frugal actions than comment on a post about serious social/economic/justice issues.

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