My Struggles, in Black and White

Regina Brett, Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 20, 2008

{snip}

Over the years I’ve made honest attempts to understand. I went to two forums on race this year but left the first one angry.

We sat in a big circle at a local college talking about “white privilege.”

{snip}

After I shared my story, a black woman pointed out how much harder that same life would have been had my parents been black.

Her comment bothered me, but she was right.

Rarely am I conscious of my whiteness. I never claim my race as my identity. I see myself as a woman, not a white woman.

I grew up on “The Little Rascals” and thought it was cool that Spanky, Alfalfa and Darla had friends like Buckwheat, Stymie and Farina. I didn’t have any black friends to explain some of the racial overtones.

I grew up in a white world. There was only one black family in my grade school and none in any of my classes for eight years.

I’ve never been barred from joining a country club, renting an apartment or getting a job because of my skin color. I’ve never been pulled over by police because I’m white.

I don’t feel guilty being white. My ancestors had nothing to do with slavery. My poor Irish and Slovak grandparents hadn’t yet arrived in this country.

But a four-week forum at the Cleveland Ecumenical Institute for Religious Studies opened my eyes to my own skin. Beth Robenalt, a diversity specialist and a friend of mine, ran the classes. If she had handed out grades, I would have flunked.

I discovered I’m in racial awareness kindergarten. Maybe even pre-K. {snip}

{snip}

While I don’t see myself as racist, I’ve benefited from racism by default—through education, justice, political and health care systems that for decades have favored white people.

The class challenged me to challenge those systems, to walk the other way on the conveyor belt of life. Too often I let the conveyor carry me along. I’ve been oblivious to the black people struggling to get on or pointing out when we white folks are heading the wrong way.

To be honest, I want to live in a colorblind world. I want race to simply not matter anymore.

But as one black woman in class pointed out, “If you don’t see that I’m black, you don’t see me.”

{snip}

But she sees me as a white person. Can I see myself that way? What would it mean if I did?

{snip}

I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be white.

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