To understand what black people (at least in America) have in common, white people must recognize what we ourselves have in common: our privilege. From childhood, I knew I was privileged because Mother told me I was an aristocrat and better than even most other white people. As a child, I believed her. Although we were poor, I went to the best private schools on scholarship—in hand-me-down uniforms. And, when Greenwich friends invited me to their mansions and country clubs, where the only black people were employees, I learned I was more privileged than black people, too. When my grandmother died, we inherited wealth amassed by generations before us, including wealth from an ancestor who, though a Northerner, had sold tent canvas to Southern rebels during the Civil War. Inheriting is like winning the lottery, but it is an advantage, like education, denied to a people who started as slaves and were later limited to share-cropping and menial jobs.
Many white people don’t enjoy my particular privileges, but, whether or not we realize it, we whites all enjoy privileges black people don’t. Peggy McIntosh’s well-known White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack lists 50 examples, such as, “Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearace of financial reliability” and “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.” My favorite is, “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” It mirrors my last post about white people’s misguided eagerness to “understand” black people based on characteristics.
Black people don’t share characteristics any more than white people do. But black people do share experiences—the experience of being second-class citizens, just as white people share privilege. To understand black people we must recognize that all have experienced—or anticipate experiencing—an inequity based on color. Some are blatant lies—”Sorry, the apartment was just rented.” Some are what are now called microagressions—”I never see you as a black girl.” Each item on Peggy McIntosh’s list represents an instance in which a black person is not treated as well as someone who’s white. Her list reminds us that, in a society still dominated by white males, only white men can feel entirely comfortable. If we want to understand black people, we must acknowledge the truth of these experiences.
The black experience is unlike that of other immigrants in America. Black people were the only immigrants to come here against their will rather than to escape famine and persecution or to find better jobs. Marriage among slaves could be forbidden; mothers, fathers, and children could be split apart and sold to different slave owners; learning to read was risky. Their color made them stand out. Few blacks could elude the slave catcher. Nor could they elude the prevailing myth, designed to justify their enslavement, that black people were inferior. The free labor provided by slavery was the foundation of the South’s economy. Southern cotton fed Northern mills, and America profited. The economic benefits and social evils of slavery, whether in America or elsewhere, cannot be denied.
The painful legacy of slavery and its economic benefits persists in the perception that black people are different from, if not inferior to, other groups—even that they require well-intentioned “understanding.” And, not surprisingly, the people in power since colonial times—white men—want to keep their power. Thus racism persists as a strong undercurrent in politics and the economy. Black people know they can occasionally expect to be treated as second-class citizens. And Africans who’ve just arrived in the States, even those who are wealthy and unfamiliar with racism, learn the same lesson. After all, only white men can feel entirely comfortable, knowing that they will be considered for employment and certain they will never be told that towels are needed in the restroom.
Understanding black people means acknowledging America’s history of white power and black enslavement. Some black people emphasize our painful legacy: “America was built on the backs of our people.” To them, I can’t say “Get over it,” even though I’d like to spare myself a guilt that I, as an individual, feel I don’t deserve. I can’t dismiss those individuals who see themselves as victims because black people, by virtue of their color, are victims of America’s history, just as white people, like me, are beneficiaries. Other black people adopt a “Let’s move on” attitude. That attitude is easier on me, but I shouldn’t assume it means we’ve reached a post-racial society. The past remains alive in Ferguson and on Wall Street. The “Let’s move on” advocates know that much work remains before black people are assured of first-class citizenship. If we want to understand black people, we must be prepared, as we listen to each black person we meet, to accept the validity of either perspective.