The home I grew up in did not seem racist. My mother had a recording of South Pacific, and consistently endorsed the message of “You Have to be Carefully Taught.” She spoke about the time her parents opened their home near Eugene, Oregon, to the singer Marian Anderson when she was not welcome in local hotels.
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My father, though, voiced what seemed to me as a child to be harmless anachronisms—a Brazil nut was a “nigger toe;” the African American kids in the Little Rascals were “pickaninnies.” My brother and I were taught that this language was offensive. We were not to use it, especially “the N-word.” Dad was good-naturedly called on it when he did. We were taught that Negroes were not inferior people, they had rights equal to others’; they were to be respected as people, and that it was wrong to discriminate against them. A boy in my scout troop was Japanese-American, and his family had been interred during World War II. Even though my father “spent three years of my life trying to kill as many of those people as I could,” that did not apply to our friends and neighbors, the Takahashis. Grounded in this personal relationship, we knew that displacing and imprisoning American citizens was wrong.
We never had a version of “the talk” in which Black and brown parents explain to their children how to dress, speak, and behave so as not to put themselves at risk out in the outside (white) world.
My brother and I were assured that we could be anything we wanted to be. That seemed appropriate. We were smart. We did well in school. Our parents and their friends were civic-minded and politically active. We did not get into trouble. We never felt financially insecure. We went to good colleges, graduated, and got good jobs.
I felt a sense of entitlement based on educational achievement and assumed competence, not because I was white. I expect I communicated that kind of entitlement to my sons.
Through recent conversations with friends and colleagues of color with similar or better educational backgrounds and career achievements, I have come to understand that my skin color was part of the reason I was afforded those opportunities. They had to think daily about their skin color, and they experienced what one of them calls “everyday racism.” I did not. For them, education was a way to combat these things. However, some of them also experienced pressure that I did not. They were told that they had to be better at academics and athletics than white students because, when all things were equal, the white students would be chosen.
Although I now can see the impact of white privilege on my opportunities, I don’t feel guilty about that. I don’t feel that my life experiences were undeserved. However, I do better appreciate that deserving others were denied similar opportunities because they were not white. Understanding how I benefitted from white privilege, I see that I should use my privilege to help elevate people of color: calling out racism when I see it; serving as a mentor or sponsor to someone; working to dismantle racism in organizations I am a part of, by recruiting people of color to their boards, for example.
My Black and brown peers had to overcome barriers that I did not to obtain opportunities similar to mine. However, it should not be a zero-sum game; it can be additive. We each can bring insights to the other—in relationships, at work, and in the community.