“Trying to understand white privilege and power is kind of like trying to explain water to a fish…You don’t see it because everybody has it; it’s just there, part of the fabric of society.”
“But I have to consider that nobody has ever called 9-1-1 because I was sitting in a Starbucks, and when I get stopped by the police, I don’t feel my life is in danger,” said Judy Alexander, who grew up in a white suburb of Detroit.
She was speaking on the topic of white privilege at the first Tendaji Talk at the Flint Michigan Public Library. “Nobody cares if I’m barbequing in a park. Or if my children go to a pool in an apartment complex, nobody’s going to try to put them out because they don’t belong. All of those examples of things that don’t happen to me are the product of me walking around in my white skin,” Alexander said.
I had a rather provocative conversation this morning with a dear friend who is for real enough that we can do that without war breaking out. Our friendship is based on a foundation of pushing each other to do more and be more; some days it’s a nudge, and other days, it’s like cold water in my face.
I keep her close because she holds herself more accountable to living social justice than anyone I know—note the distinction between living something and learning about it.
I watch her and am inspired in ways that make me stretch. We understand in the doing. I show her the way in other ways, including the fact that I am a mother of grown children while she’s still growing hers. It is in the being and the doing that we discovered long ago that our hearts are very, very old friends.
“I see your heart,” she said. “I know who you are. This isn’t about trying to be racist; it’s about our choices and our circles and our neighborhoods.”
We hashed out issues that exist in the world, and we each shared our hypotheses about why. What we discovered is that while we do not necessarily approach things from the same place, we both look to make our difference in our daily lives. We walk differently, but we’re headed in the same direction.
I love that our friendship tolerates different points of view, yet nobody leaves with bruises.
One of the questions she asked me continues to play over and over in my brain, like a mantra during meditation, or a broken record skipping. “How many black friends do you have? How many Asian friends do you have?”
She was one of three white students in her high school in Louisiana. I think there were three black students in my graduating class from my public school in a teeny tiny suburb of Philadelphia. She’s yin, and I’m yang. Incidentally, we’re both yoga teachers. Our life experiences couldn’t be more different, yet we are like-minded in that service is a huge priority.
The answer to her question would sound altogether different if my kids were still in school, but my current existence is pretty vanilla. It’s not out of malice or bigotry, but simply where I am in my life, or so I told myself.
I remember asking her for support on a large event in the community sponsored by a yoga studio where I was teaching at the time. Her answer was that the event wasn’t multicultural enough for her to be willing to invest her time and energy in it. Wow, tell us what you really feel!
I gave her the logical answer. It was a free event and everyone was invited. How could we control who showed interest?
To which she responded, “Where are they advertising? Where are flyers going up? What websites are posting about it to make their audience aware of the event? Almost immediately, I could see where she was going. All she had to do was ask a few questions and the answers sat in my lap like a heavy cinder block. The bias was both unintentional and subtle.
The problem wasn’t what I was doing—it was what I wasn’t doing.
The obstacle to inclusiveness was every bit economic as it was cultural; the organizers of this event were overlooking a huge potential for diversity and that may have been hiding in lower income residents and POC. She asked if we were hanging flyers up in the workroom at Publix. How about the bus stations, local churches? Her objection was lying in people’s wallets, or what wasn’t lying there.
I hadn’t heard the unspoken cultural bias—and then the silence became deafening. I could see nothing but it, like an elephant standing in the middle of the room.
How can I plant seeds and nurture them to help make this event grow in all the right places? The information for the event was being sent out on the yoga student’s website. The yoga community is often characterized as being far from diverse, and I think that is fair. This is a stereotype that meets the hype, in my personal experience.
The studio wasn’t excluding anyone, but maybe the intention needs to be to attract more kinds of people, in order to offer a diverse community to students. What did I need to do as a teacher at this studio to include? How could I actually make all kinds of people aware of this free event and facilitate their participation? Would organizing transportation be helpful? Should I look at local public high schools? What if I invited kids to bring their parents? This might make it feel like a true community.
I think about where I sent my kids to school. What clubs did they participate in? What sports did they play? I wondered how much my choices influenced them. How did my decisions contribute to what they were doing in their lives? How wide was the focus of their exposure to the real world as they grew into themselves.
I love the community high school they attended. It is true that it pulled from a rather affluent neighborhood. It was the magnet school we could apply to. Our public school had numbers that intimidated us; I was concerned my son would have felt like a minority. In retrospect, that might have been the greatest lesson in life I could have given him.
It’s racial makeup was African American 62.8 percent, Hispanic 14.7 percent, white 13.7 percent. At the time, I think we were looking for a more proportional student body. Yet the public school we ended up attending was skewed in the other direction, but as uncomfortable as it makes me to admit it, that felt more comfortable at the time.
When did comfort lead to personal growth?
We enrolled at the magnet school my son was accepted at, which was about a 15-minute drive from home. The Advanced Placement participation rate was 71 percent. The total minority student enrollment was 43 percent, and 26 percent of students were economically disadvantaged. I googled “economically disadvantaged” and nothing came up. It’s a rather vague term that I don’t fully understand.
I took every opportunity to expand their horizon.
How much of that was I doing in my own life? That’s a question worth asking.
Where does a white middle-class woman go to meet black women? All of my activities were geared toward living my life; now I was trying to think about how others live, and where they do their living. The color and economic aspect started to blur a bit.
In what ways might I have been providing the example that would teach my children what I wanted them to know? Whether or not the behavior was intentional, the outcome remained the same. They were getting exposed to the world more out of the home than in the home. And that is when I realized that becoming culturally diverse had to be based in action. Choices have to be made outside of the neat and tidy existence of our comfort zone.
I love the way my children think and who they’ve attracted into their lives. But if I look at school pictures, particularly from grade school, their young education was far from diverse. Many of the activities were service-oriented, offering supplies to those less fortunate in the community. We did an angel tree at Christmas for the migrant farm workers and spent time in the Caring Kitchen, which was an outreach program to feed those who were struggling or those who relied on meals to survive. The messages taught were amazing, but the clast pictures said something different. It wasn’t a living, breathing example in their everyday lives.
High school was a vast improvement in exposure to what the world is really like and who lives in it, in terms of disabilities, diversity, opportunities to meet people, and families that are different; my children befriended “the haves” and the “have-nots.”
It was not entirely balanced but a significant upgrade in terms of the environment they spent most of their time. We wanted that to be a large piece of their education. In some ways, it was the most important thing they learned. Calculus and chemistry didn’t make the impact that students with disabilities did or children of other cultures.
Watching children come to school early so they could eat breakfast was a novel concept. Most of their friends had that meal at their own kitchen table, after sleeping in their own bed, under their own roof. The take-home message was that anyone in my world who thinks they don’t have cultural bias, might need to take a look in the mirror and schedule a wake-up call.
My son has an incredibly diverse friend group. It came organically out of his participation in college life. I am grateful for the exposure to real people of all kinds and for his willingness to expose himself to opportunities that included them. My daughter was more insulated in her sorority, and that’s another conversation for another day. Sororities, in general, tend to attract more of the same. While I credit my sorority with providing a social environment that allowed me to thrive, some do not.
I adore the friends she made in college. They are good to their core, but they are more similar than different. Her friend group, while not intentionally excluding, was based in her comfort zone.
During our conversation, my friend asked me if I go out and look to meet people who are different than I am. Do I support restaurants that invite and welcome diversity? Where am I hanging that I don’t have the opportunity to make BIPOC friends? That is when I started asking myself the tough questions.
Do I support small businesses that include and seek a mix of customers? Do I choose to practice yoga in an environment that includes and represents? Would I drive a little further to be a part of a more diverse community on the mat? Is my neighborhood representative of what I think? Do I show them how to recognize who and what everyone brings to the table? Do I allow them to see what every person in this world carries every day on their back? Do I encourage them to invite diversity into their heart? Am I living the example or just doing the right things? What are the right things?
I don’t begin to fully understand my role in changing the world, though I wake every day with the intention of doing just that. I’ll continue to cast my net, and I may flounder, but I will stay the course. I have close friends who are truly activists. I have read the books and taken courses but I have a long way to go before calling myself an activist.
We are living in a time when there are a multitude of opportunities to make different choices, embrace new ideologies, and shed skins that may have gotten too tight. People are taking a look at things differently.
I am not conscious of looking at someone and judging; however, I know that experiences in my life have shaped the way I think when I see someone. Life events contribute to my perspective and create the filter through which I see the world.
My yoga class has a message woven throughout that speaks of love and social justice, and it is one way I can make an impact.
Perhaps the first step in my walk is to be responsible for creating an environment that allows for conversation. The more we participate in discussions, the more frequent they will become. I have made myself vulnerable by sharing so honestly. It has created some backlash, and that was not my intention. This was meant to be a look back over the time since my children were little, to reflect on decisions I made and perhaps how I’d make them today.
I have grown, and I am far from an example. But I want to be doing the work that makes the world feel more fair to the people who have inherited injustice.
I will continue to look inward in order to see how I can make my difference in the outward.