By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
The neighborhood in Philadelphia in which I grew up was made up almost entirely of working class and lower-middle-class whites, mostly Jewish with enough Catholics to support a church and parochial school that went from first through twelfth grade.
The only racial prejudice I knew of personally as a child was directed against me, and it came from whites, not blacks. I’d had rickets (a Vitamin D deficiency that, among other things, causes weak bones and deformed legs) as a small child. Milk is now fortified with Vitamin D, but it wasn’t then. Since the best source of Vitamin D is sunshine, the doctor ordered my mother to keep me out in the sun as much as possible. So she rubbed me with baby oil and made me stay outside all day frying in the sizzling city sun. By the end of July my skin was a rich brown tone and my back so dark it was almost purple. When my mother and I had to go downtown where nobody knew us, white women would look at me, glare at my mother, and spit on the sidewalk. My mother explained that they took me for a mixed-race child and thought I was disgusting.
When I was 24, with two children a year apart and a third on the way, for a few months I hired a black woman to come once a week and help me with the housework. The woman’s name was May; she worked for my mother the rest of the week, so my children got to know her pretty well.
One day my daughters and I were in our car, stopped in traffic next to a bus chock full of black women. Most were probably on their way home from a day doing housework for white women, as May did for my mother and me. (I did medical transcription from Dictaphone tapes after my children went to bed in order to pay for May’s help, but I never cleaned anyone else’s house.) Sitting beside me (no car seats in those days and no seat belts, either) my older daughter, who was three, was pointing at the women on the bus and chanting, “There’s a May and there’s a May and there’s a May….”
I still haven’t finished sorting out the implications of that. But it was the beginning of my children’s education in social justice, something I hope I’ve done better than a lot of the mothering things I didn’t do all that well.
“Honey,” I said to my daughter, “May is the name of the woman who helps mom-mom and me. Those women on the bus have different names, just like you and the children you play with have different names.”
Years later, in 1972, I was in Tanzania with my now late husband. On the bus from the airport to where we were to meet the friends we’d come to visit, Swedes who were teaching there, my husband and I were the only white people. For the first time, I knew what it meant to have an appearance far apart from the norm. A couple of weeks later, when I’d picked up enough Swahili to want to test my skill, the four of us went to an open air market in the rural town of Ngoro ngoro (it’s actually one word; I split it to help you figure out how to pronounce it.) I wanted to buy some fabric, the likes of which I could never have found in the States. Dickering over price was expected, my hosts told me. If I paid what was asked, it would be an insult.
So, although I hate bargaining, I went at it with a will. Soon I became aware of laughter. All around the market, people were gesturing and pointing at us with great merriment. There we were, four very white-faced people, head and shoulders taller than anyone who lived there, and one of them was arguing, probably in pidgin Swahili, with the vendor about the price of a piece of cloth.
Sometimes I am gifted with the ability to step outside myself and see what I look like to others. This was one of those times and there was nothing I could do but join in the laughter. Then the vendor woman started laughing, too, and she said, as clearly as could be, “OK,” and gave me the fabric for the price I was insisting on.
You knew I was going somewhere with this, didn’t you? OK, here it is.
I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be black in a white society since my daughter thought that May was the word for black woman, and even more since I found out what it was like to be white in a black society. The difference, of course, is that I was white in Tanzania for a few weeks. People are black in America for their whole lives, and I’ll never ever really know what that means.
But I’ve known for years that perfectly excellent black men in a white residential area can be pulled over and frisked, and worse, for the crime of DWB – driving while black.
And before he became a high school football star, my foster son, who was black, was followed home from school one day by a police cruiser. He heard the officer on the radio to the station reporting that he was “following a black man to see where he was going.” If you live with black people for a while, you learn that they blush and get pale, just as whites do. The poor kid had almost no blood left in his face by the time he got home.
And we had an incident here in Massachusetts not long ago where a black university professor was, for a while, charged with breaking and entering – when the key to his own front door jammed and he was trying to force the door open.
These things don’t happen to white people, who are generally free to go about without being hassled by police. That’s one piece of white privilege almost any white person can recognize. But there’s more, so much more it’s enough to make you sick.
There’s an article by Tim Wise, entitled “Imagine if the Tea Party Was Black,” that my older daughter, the one who was counting Mays on the bus more than 50 years ago, sent me today. I’d heard of one of Wise’s books, Between Barack and a Hard Place, but I don’t think I’d ever heard his name. I’m going to be watching and reading his stuff now; he’s surely America’s foremost authority on white privilege.
Here’s the beginning of “Imagine...” I hope you’ll read it all, and tell others about it.
Let’s play a game, shall we? The name of the game is called “Imagine.” The way it’s played is simple: we’ll envision recent happenings in the news, but then change them up a bit. Instead of envisioning white people as the main actors in the scenes we’ll conjure – the ones who are driving the action – we’ll envision black folks or other people of color instead. The object of the game is to imagine the public reaction to the events or incidents, if the main actors were of color, rather than white. Whoever gains the most insight into the workings of race in America, at the end of the game, wins.
So let’s begin.
Imagine that hundreds of black protesters were to descend upon Washington DC and Northern Virginia, just a few miles from the Capitol and White House, armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns, and ammunition. And imagine that some of these protesters —the black protesters — spoke of the need for political revolution, and possibly even armed conflict in the event that laws they didn’t like were enforced by the government? Would these protester — these black protesters with guns — be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic? What if they were Arab-Americans? Because, after all, that’s what happened recently when white gun enthusiasts descended upon the nation’s capital, arms in hand, and verbally announced their readiness to make war on the country’s political leaders if the need arose.
Imagine that white members of Congress, while walking to work, were surrounded by thousands of angry black people, one of whom proceeded to spit on one of those congressmen for not voting the way the black demonstrators desired. Would the protesters be seen as merely patriotic Americans voicing their opinions, or as an angry, potentially violent, and even insurrectionary mob? After all, this is what white Tea Party protesters did recently in Washington.
Imagine that a rap artist were to say, in reference to a white president: “He’s a piece of shit and I told him to suck on my machine gun.” Because that’s what rocker Ted Nugent said recently about President Obama….
Go on now. Read the rest. We may have to change the world one person at a time, but that’s no excuse to give up. Let’s get going.