I’ve been lied to. And, I am still living that lie.
This is not so much a revelation as it is a reckoning.
I’ve been aware of my privilege for most of my life and have written about it from time to time. But, I’ve also quietly accepted and lived its self-reinforcing loop that allows me to forget about it.
I can forget I’m White.
Surely, this is the defining result of white privilege.
On the other hand, when my Black friends walk into a room - into a restaurant, a classroom, an interview, just to buy something at a store - their skin color walks in first. It is their first noted attribute - which happens to come with a flood of systemic, racial bias.
I’ve had this experience - of my skin color walking in first - only as exceptional events where I, as the White guy, was in the minority. These moments of situational minority status have been important, often humbling, and revelatory experiences.
But by default and generally speaking, when I walk into most rooms, the system tells me and everyone else that I am normal. I am neutral. I am right. I am accepted.
My education has only reinforced and ensured that this lived experience becomes a narrative that presents as a greater historical, cultural truth.
I was not taught history. I was taught White history.
I was not taught art. I was taught White art.
I was not taught literature. I was taught White literature. (until a transformative African American Lit class in college).
I was not taught what it means to be an American citizen. I was taught what it means to be a White American citizen.
Lies of omission are still lies. In fact, they are arguably more insidious in that it is difficult to address something that feels absent.
The White American narrative - this lie of intentional omission related to the contributions of pretty much every other culture except in a paragraph here, a chapter there, or a poster that goes up during a special day or week or month - innately instills white supremacy. This is a fact.
If the greatest artists and the greatest writers and the greatest scientists and the greatest theologians and the greatest political figures in our historical narrative are all White, then White supremacy is implicit in the narrative.
And, of course, this means all of my Black friends have also been lied to. Whereas I’ve lived a forgettable lie of privilege, they’ve endured a relentless and ever-present lie of their second-class citizenship - lived currently, and reinforced through a historical and cultural narrative they’ve also been educated on.
The more I read, the more I am aware of and disturbed and angered by the patterns of history. Not just the meta narratives, but the micro narratives. Just last night I was reading about a police shooting in 1964 of an unarmed black man and the subsequent protests of police brutality that ensued.
I am still stricken with grief that John Lewis died amidst the same turmoil he began fighting against 60 years ago. The same lies.
I increasingly understand how White people have leaned on the oppressed to redeem our souls and have taken too little responsibility of our own to do the work ourselves. (Read: Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own) We’ve in turn celebrated racial progress that we have also systemically - both actively and through privileged inaction - resisted. And, we have called this progress our own.
We have perverted and co-opted the narrative of progress to reinforce our own comfort and privilege and to relieve our consciences whenever discomfort creeps in.
This is a White problem. And, until it is recognized as such, we will build and rebuild and live - actively and passively - the lies of our own privilege and force our Black friends to live its inverse.
So, today as I try to work on myself first and understand how that relates to the larger world, I am left with this one reflection: If our country is going to live up to its premise and promise that all men are created equal, if racial justice is to become a reality, our white privilege must feel as urgent a lie to White Americans as oppression and injustice feel to Black Americans.
To overcome our lies, the burden of truth must be collectively borne.