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Race in America

I recently watched a program on a daytime talk show, Dr. Phil, called “Deconstructing Privilege,” an emotionally loaded though very important topic regarding race in America. On it, he had a panel of distinguished guests and included audience members. There was a white professor from Wellsley who coined the term “white privilege,” a black professor of sociology from Georgetown, a black civil rights attorney, a white police officer, and a Latina professor of law.

Phil had a young man perform an exercise where college students were given a set of 35 questions, and were instructed to either step forward or backward on the stage, depending on whether or not they had experienced first-hand racism.

The show was quite fascinating, and a critical subject for nationwide dialogue. Questions ranged from whether one was ever stopped by police, either on foot or by car for no apparent reason, were followed upon entering a retail store, or surprised a white person by being well-spoken and articulate, etc.

I can say with absolute certainty that many of these aggressions are outside of my everyday experience, as a Caucasian woman. I often pay close attention and observe scenes when I am in public, bearing witness to how people of color are treated.

There was a white woman whose job was to make sure street vendors had or applied for a license to sell their wares. Some bystander accused her of racism and posted what she was doing on a social media site. That woman lost her job. She was there with her attorney. No one on the panel seemed to empathize with her, so Dr. Phil commented on it. The sociology professor then pointed out that this was typical: a white person defending another white person.

At one point, there were two audience members who were both Caucasian, and who stated that they did not believe they were recipients of “white privilege,” that they had both worked hard to achieve the life they had.

One or two of the black panelists, in responding to these two audience members, appeared very heated. One of the panelists called the audience member defensive. But she behaved defensively as well. She raised her voice and stressed, “LISTEN!” Yet she wasn’t listening to them.

I find the phrase “white privilege” offensive. I literally bristle when I hear it. The term makes enormous assumptions about white people. If the goal is to get Caucasian people to understand the obstacles and experiences of people of color, it does not help to use an expression that makes them feel blamed or guilty. This will only shut people down.

Additionally, it doesn’t seem a good idea to me to compare whose group has suffered the worst atrocity. For blacks it’s slavery, for Jews, it’s the Holocaust, for Irish, it’s the Famine. Many whites struggle with poverty and class discrimination.

It is thorny to start a dialogue when one group claims their victimhood is more damaging than another’s. However, I think it is extremely important to listen to each other. And I think it is equally important that people need to be able to disagree without being shouted down.

I will never know what it is like to be a black man or woman in America. And we’ve seen case after case on the news of white people calling the police, such as when a black man went into Starbuck’s waiting for his friends and the manager made him leave. This is outrageous. It happens far too often. As a deeply caring individual, I want to know what that feels like. But I don’t want my own experience of being female and invisible as a 67-year-old to be dismissed.

We all want to be listened to, and deeply understood. And it behooves all of us to listen.

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