Tuesday, September 26, 2017

White Privilege and the Weight of History

I love Billie Holiday, but I don't enjoy the song "Strange Fruit". It's the most powerful song I've ever heard, and I think every American should hear it at least once, but to be honest, I turn it off when it comes on. It's just too sad. I made myself listen to it tonight, though. It's on my mind because of a comment I saw on Facebook that I can't stop thinking about. The man who made it was white, and he said this:
We could be lynched today for having been born "privileged" never mind the facts of the hard work and sachrifices [sic] made by our loved ones to put us where we are today. 
Now, despite the title of this post, I don't use the term "white privilege" much, though I think it's a real thing. I lean liberal, but I shy away from recently-popular political terms like that. Saying them makes me feel like I'm jumping on a bandwagon and not thinking for myself. I also figure conservatives will stop listening to me as soon as I say them, and I want them to keep listening. I don't know if that makes sense or not. But I looked at that comment and thought, "If that's not white privilege, I don't know what is."

I hope it's mere ignorance that allows someone to say a thing like that. Surely this man had a faulty education, and he's never seen a photo of a lynching, even though many were taken. He must not realize that not so long ago--within the lifetime of people still living--white people could hang, dismember, and burn black people, with no consequences. He must not know that after many lynchings, those white people were so sure they wouldn't be punished that they would pose for a big group picture next to the broken body, their faces in full view. Only a person who doesn't feel the generational weight of a word like "lynched" could use it so lightly.

The worst such picture I've ever seen is of a black teenager who was castrated, dismembered, and burned to death near Waco, Texas while 10,000 people watched. They made a postcard of it, as was common at the time. One participant in the lynching sent a copy to his father, and wrote:
This is the Barbecue we had last night my picture is to the left with a cross over it your son Joe
The victim's name was Jesse Washington. I think every white American should force themselves to look at that postcard. I imagine most black Americans have already seen it.

As for that white man who thinks he might meet such a fate because he was born privileged, I agree with him. Not that he's at risk of being lynched, of course--that's outrageous, and truly offensive. I just agree that he was was born privileged. He was born to parents and grandparents who would never have met Jesse Washington's fate, because of the color of their skin. He may even owe his existence to that fact--how many babies were never born because their potential forebears were lynched? I also don't doubt that his parents and grandparents worked hard. But I know they never had to take an impossible-to-pass test before they could vote. I know they never bought a Negro Motorist's Green Book so they could take a trip and still eat in restaurants, stay in motels, and use restrooms. They never had to sit in the back of a bus, be called "boy" into their old age, or wait at a counter until all the white people had been served. They never earned lower wages for their hard work because of the color of their skin. They never listened to Billie Holiday sing "Strange Fruit", and thought, "That could be me."

My parents and grandparents never had to face those things, either. Yes, they worked hard too, and that's one reason I'm privileged. Another reason is that they were white, and so am I. Yes, things are better than they used to be. But I've never once been pulled over by the police and wondered if I would live through it. Yes, I think most cops are good, but I've never looked in the rear-view mirror and thought, "Is this one of the bad ones? One who hates me before he even knows my name?" If I were black--right now in 2017--I would know what that's like. I think that's something white people need to realize. Whether they agree with black athletes kneeling for the national anthem or not, they need to realize that they do so knowing what it's like to worry about running into that bad cop. They do so knowing what the word "lynched" really means. They feel the true weight of that word.

And I don't--not the way they do. Yet here I sit pounding angrily on a keyboard, even though none of this has ever affected me personally. And that's another kind of privilege. I'm sitting here livid about things I was never subjected to; things my parents and grandparents were never subjected to. I wonder how upset I would be if I were black, and saw that white man's breezy comment about a horror he can't begin to understand? I know I wouldn't handle it with the grace most African-Americans show in those circumstances. Maybe that's because I haven't had a lifetime of practice dealing with things like that. Like they have.

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